Weather The Storm at Muskegon Museum of Art
Written by John Kissane. Photo: "Tornada Over Kansas" by John Steuart Curry. Photo courtesy of Muskegon Museum of Art

uskegon Museum of Art’s John Steuart Curry Weathering The Storm brings together the work of an important and accomplished American regional painter, one whose work was iconic enough to appear in a Hollywood film and honest enough that it led to a backlash so severe, it’s believed, as to have caused his early death.

Curry was born in Kansas on November 14, 1897, 32 years after the end of the Civil War. The country was still largely rural. His parents, both college educated, hung prints by Rubens and Doré on the walls and encouraged their son’s artistic inclinations; he painted the animals around him and began taking lessons at twelve.

Throughout his sadly abbreviated life, Curry would use painting as a way to capture the world. Paintings such as Baptism In Kansas, which depicts a crowd watching as an old preacher prepares to dunk underwater a young woman (clasped hands, virginal white dress), were clear-eyed and unsentimental. They also presented a view into Kansas life that those outside the state embraced and those within it sometimes recoiled at: what are they going to think of us?

If, as it seems, Curry wasn’t a firebrand, he nevertheless couldn’t help telling the truth: never a recipe for a stress-free life. In the 1930s, he made several works on the subject of lynching, the absolute zero of American life. As in all his best work, he married courage with technique, neither exaggerating nor forgiving.

Not all his subjects were so fraught; or, anyway, not all the disasters he depicted were man-made. Tornado Over Kansas presents a farmer, his wife, and their children heading toward steps leading to a cellar as a tornado approaches, carrying their animals with them (and dragging them, as the case may be). It’s a famous painting. It’s hard, seeing it, not to think of Dorothy Gale, although The Wizard of Oz film wouldn’t come out for another decade.There’s real motion and anxiety to the painting; unsurprisingly, when Steven Spielberg produced the film Twister, his representatives approached the Muskegon Museum of Art, where the piece permanently resides, asking to borrow it (the museum declined, although a print is said to be briefly visible in the finished film).

“People know the artwork but not the artist,” said Kristina Broughton, director of marketing at the museum. “He was one of the top American regional painters of the late 1920s, up there with Grant Wood, who did American Gothic.”

“His work takes you back in time a bit. Even the way we handle natural disasters has changed. But this was the world he grew up in.”

It was sometimes a sad world, and a sad life, too. Perhaps looking for material–iit did result in some paintings—he ran off to the circus. While there, his wife died. The Tragic Prelude, a mural created for Kansas’s Capitol Building, was rejected as too dangerous in its exploration of racial animosities; the work he considered his greatest was left unfinished, and the state legislature passed a motion guaranteeing never to commission his work again. A native-born Kansan son, he ached for the approval of the rural men and woman he shared a state with, but they rejected him. He died at 48 of a heart attack, perhaps precipitated by stress.

What remains is his work. Weathering The Storm gathers sketches, preliminary drawings, and those paintings, perhaps eight in all, that can be said to be masterpieces. Along with a large timeline charting the course of his life, they explain what isn’t yet as well-known as it should be: this man painted truth others would shut their eyes to avoid seeing.

Muskegon Museum of Art 
296 W. Webster Ave., Muskegon

Oliver Jeffers: 15 Years of Picturing Books, Through May 26

John Steuart Curry: Weathering the Storm, Through Sept. 2