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AMY KIRK: Women in the wind

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opinion Mitchell, 57301
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

Anyone who calls himself or herself a South Dakotan is familiar with artist Harvey Dunn -- a born and raised South Dakotan from Manchester -- but I wonder if anyone else has noticed the theme in his paintings depicting South Dakota pioneer life on the prairie: the wind.

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His pioneer life scenes are based on his childhood memories of living in a sod house, and it's obvious that South Dakota's constant prairie wind was a big part of those memories. He depicts our state, its landscapes, pioneering heritage and prairie wind speed with great accuracy.

I was a youngster the first time I was introduced to Harvey Dunn's artwork. It was "The Prairie is My Garden," and I used to look at the big print hanging on the wall above the stairs leading to the basement of my grandparents' farmhouse in Lyman County. Including the illustration at my grandparents' farm, South Dakota's prairie winds prevail in several of Dunn's prairie life paintings: "Just a Few Drops of Rain," "School Day's End," "After School," "Woman at the Pump," "Something for Supper," "Jedediah Smith in the Badlands" and a personal Dunn favorite, "Fixing Fence."

I've always been particularly drawn to his paintings depicting pioneer women and children, and it's these particular characters that I notice the wind theme the most. He captured the level of windiness in their hair and dresses so much that a South Dakotan can almost hear it blowing and feel it pushing while observing.

In "Fixing Fence," Dunn illustrates a husband and wife putting a fence wire back onto a post, and the wind is blowing the woman's hair upward behind her. There are two cows in the background, and the cow closest behind the couple was probably the one that was out, and the reason they're fixing fence. I imagine the woman getting hollered at while fixing supper to come help her husband get the errant cow(s) back in, then getting sucked into helping fix the fence, and most likely the strong winds was a preface to a big rain shower coming.

One of my favorite Dunn details pertaining to South Dakota's renowned wind is the dog pictured in the "Woman at the Pump" painting, and its image make me laugh. Perched on its haunches close behind the woman, the dog is looking out at the vast prairie view ahead, and its ears are laid back with a sort of aerodynamic appearance to them, indicating the wind speed that day. Dunn points out South Dakota's strong wind in the long, bent-over, almost flat grasses surrounding the pump and the woman's knees outlined through her skirt. Another good South Dakota wind indicator is the squinting of the dog's eyes from the wind in its face, similar to the horse's face in "Jedediah Smith in the Badlands."

In many of Dunn's South Dakota prairie life paintings, the grasses are always leaning in the same direction and the clouds overhead match that feeling as if they're moving fast. Even in Dunn's snow-covered winter scene of "School Day's End," he accurately depicts a common reaction of hunched-up South Dakotans walking head-on into winter wind, and the billowing of the girl's dress illustrates South Dakota's typical wind.

Harvey Dunn's artwork makes me feel proud to be a South Dakotan and a woman but the one discrepancy in his illustrations of South Dakota women is that wind is never blowing their hair into their face while working.

-- Amy Kirk and her husband raise their two kids on a fourth-generation cow/calf operation near Pringle. She blogs at ranchwifeslant.areavoices.com.

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