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Who we are and where we come from: Fargo-Moorhead’s art masters

by John Showalter | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Arts | February 21st, 2018

Annie Stein painting of her family farm in the flood of 1897 -  HCSCCIn my tenure at the High Plains Reader, I have devoted a lot of column inches to promoting the local music scene of the Red River Valley. However, I would be doing an injustice if I didn’t also bring your attention to another important facet of Fargo-Moorhead’s artistic culture: the visual arts.

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Markus Krueger, the programming director at the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, located in the Hjemkomst Center, about the upcoming “Red River Masters” exhibit, which pays tribute to the great painters and other visual artists of the Red River Valley’s history.

The exhibit, which was curated by Krueger, is the result of a collaboration between the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County (HCS) and the Rourke Art Gallery and Museum. Krueger also acknowledged the efforts of Jonathan Rutter at Rourke and his coworkers, archivist Mark Piehl and collections manager Lisa Vidaa, in helping him put the exhibition together.

Krueger described the Fargo-Moorhead regional art scene as “vibrant, unique, healthy, and young.” The current fine art scene here, as he put it, began in the 1960s with two factors: the formation of Jim O’Rourke’s galleries and the “strengthening” of both the Concordia Art Department under Cy Running and the MSUM Art Department under Richard Szeitz.

Of course, it would be foolish to suggest that Fargo-Moorhead had no artistic culture prior to the 1960s.

“Artists came along with the sodbusters,” said Krueger. “The art scene of the late 1800s was different than it is today, and just as fascinating.” That is why the exhibit will display the output of nine local artists who flourished from the end of the 1800s until the 1970s.

Krueger provided a rundown of the nine artists in the exhibit: Annie Stein, Erik Ahlberg, Orabel Thortvedt, Cy Running, Jim O’Rourke, Orland Rourke, Fred Helmeke, Charles Beck, and Richard Szeitz.

Annie Stein was the daughter of one of the oldest pioneer families in the Red River Valley and a real Renaissance woman. She employed almost every artistic medium available to women at the time, from painting, embroidery, lace-making, poetry, gardening, and even semi-professional photography.

Erik Ahlberg is almost unknown, but Krueger wants to change that. He was a working-class painter and decorator. “You never hear of decorators, but they are the unsung originators of the art scenes of the West.”

Orabel Thortvedt was a painter, sculptor, and local historian. “She’s a fascinating woman and one of my favorite people in local history,” said Krueger.

Cy Running was a great artist as well as a great art teacher, who was instrumental in laying down the framework of Fargo-Moorhead’s current art scene.

Jim O’Rourke sometimes paid his workers in art and lived in the gallery with his cats. He gave us the Rourke Gallery and Museum and the Plains Art Museum.

Orland Rourke is Jim’s brother and mixed media artist who teaches at Fargo Schools and Concordia.

Fred Helmeke is a Georgetown farmer who took up painting when he retired in the 1950s. Eventually his work received enough attention that it was promoted by Jim O’Rourke.

Charles Beck, who recently passed away while Krueger was writing the “Red River Masters” exhibit, was a woodcut artist and student of Cy Running.

Richard Szeitz is the man who created MSUM’s Art Department in the 1960s, bringing in art professors like Tim Ray, Phil Mousseau, and Dale Amundson. Originally a Hungarian monk who fled Europe when the Soviets started imprisoning his friends, he became an art professor and has produced several incredible works of his own.

The artwork in the exhibit runs the gamut from paintings, prints, and mixed media to graphic design. Running, Helmeke, Rourke, O’Rourke, Beck, and Szeitz have all had their artwork displayed at local galleries previously and have received a lot of recognition from the local community.

However, Stein and Thortvedt have been largely overlooked after their lifetimes and the Historical Society is hoping to raise their profile.

“This history, this art, it is about us," said Markus Krueger, “who we are and where we come from.”


Red River Masters: The Birth of the F-M Art Scene

Mon-Sat 9am-5pm; Sunday noon-5pm (closes March 4) 

Hjemkomst Center, 202 1st Ave N, Moorhead

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