Plains Folk

Strength from the Soil


It was not a matter of clinical depression, but I will say that the closure last year of the NDSU Archives, including the collections of the Institute for Regional Studies, left a gap in my life. The closure was to allow for a complete relocation of the archives to a facility long known as the Knox Building, because it once was the old Knox Lumber Yard.


The university now calls this the West Building. I think the nominal intent was to be dull and noncommittal: “West Building,” it would have been thought, connotes only a direction.


Not so, in my mind. I prefer to think the name is referent to Thoreau, who said in 1862, “Eastward I go only by force, but west I go free.”


So, the day the archives reopened in the West Building, I went free into the spacious new reading room. One of the first things I noticed, since we’re talking about going west, was an oil painting hung by the reference desk. The painter is J.A. Kirkpatrick, and the title is Strength from the Soil.


How appropriate, I thought, for the historical center of a land grant university—Strength from the Soil. So who was this chap Kirkpatrick?


The North Dakota Council on the Arts provides a good biographical sketch. James Alfred Kirkpatrick, often known just as Kirk, was a native of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, who grew up in Beach, North Dakota. He trained as a commercial artist, served in the Great War, and then settled in Jamestown, where he established the Kirkpatrick Sign Company.


Oil painting was his heartfelt avocation, however, and so in his spare time, Kirk filled thousands of canvases, mostly with western scenes. Although his paintings have a sort of cartoonish feeling to them, Kirkpatrick was preoccupied with material detail—cowboy gear and so on. His subjects were deeply mythic: the passing of the Old West, the building of the new.


Which brings us back to Strength from the Soil, Kirk’s mythic homage to the establishment of agriculture on the prairies. Foregrounded on the canvas is a fetching pair of figures: a woman carrying a basket, her bonnet, shawl, and skirt blowing in the wind; and a little girl carrying a bouquet of pasqueflowers, some of which are strewn on the ground, alongside a shrub of buckbrush.


Coming toward the two female figures is a plowman turning furrows with a team of two horses; his team looks a little light for the job, but there are furrows on the ground. Another fellow off to the side is getting ready to plant some spuds.


Behind the plowman is a wraith-like figure whom I take to be an Indian. He wears a black hat with dark hair protruding around his ears, and he holds something aloft in his hand, which I can’t quite make out—Is it a piece of beadwork? My sense of the painting’s message is that he is being left behind by history.


Likewise, in the dim background are a couple of horseback cowboys firing guns into the air, and I think they are fading into the past, too. The strength of the soil is in the plowman, the planter, and especially the female figures, who are colorful and brightly lit.


Kirkpatrick’s many western paintings are found in homes, businesses, museums, and auction houses. Next time I pass through Jamestown I’m going to stop into the Walz Pharmacy, which has several Kirk canvases.


Meanwhile, congratulations to NDSU Archives on your successful move into new headquarters. West I go free.


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