Wes Sod and American Regionalism

“Little Falls from the South,” drawing by Wes Sod, undated. Donated to the Morrison County Historical Society by the estate of Beverly Pantzke Johnson. MCHS Collections #2013.26.1.

In the 1930s and early 1940s, when Wes Sod was growing up in Little Falls, Minnesota, a movement in American art known as Regionalism was flourishing. American Regionalism evolved out of a patriotic desire to create a genuinely American art through the use of American subject matter and the rejection of innovative artistic styles, especially those of the European avant-garde. Developed at a time when the country was looking increasingly inward as it dealt with the Great Depression and the aftermath of World War I, American Regionalism encompassed artists such as Grant Wood, Andrew Wyeth, and Edward Hopper, artists who sought to create realistic depictions of American life that would record and glorify the American scene, particularly rural and small town America. The movement influenced many developing artists, including Wesley Iver Sod (1926-2008). Drawing inspiration from the local landscape and the history of the region, many of Wes Sod’s works, such as the undated drawing “Little Falls From The South”, captured the essence of the Regionalist movement and helped to establish his reputation as an accomplished and well-loved local artist.

Wesley Iver Sod was born on March 18, 1926, in St. Paul, Minnesota, to Iver and Ester Maude (Engstrom) Sod. Wes’s father was a career military man, serving in both World War I and World War II and holding the rank of lieutenant colonel with the National Guard at Camp Ripley until he retired. When Wes was four, the family moved to Little Falls after his father was assigned to help with the new training site at Camp Ripley, which is located about eight miles north of Little Falls. Both Wes and his brother, Russell, also served in the military. Wes joined the army after graduating from high school in 1944, serving in Europe during World War II, and Russ had a long and distinguished career in the navy. When Wes returned home at the end of the war he enrolled in the Minneapolis School of Art, attending from 1946 to 1949, when he had to return home to take care of his mother. After Ester died in 1952, Wes moved in with his youngest brother, Lester, and his family and stayed with them for twenty-eight years. In 1983, Wes married Colleen M. Doucette of Little Falls. Four years later the couple moved to California. Wes and Colleen later settled in Colorado where Wes died on May 7, 2008.

Wes Sod was a prolific artist, creating works of art throughout his career that ranged from personal greeting cards with cheery landscapes or humorous self-portraits to original paintings of military life to framed prints featuring scenes from the local landscape and history of the region. Though he worked in a variety of mediums, including oil, acrylic and watercolor, Wes preferred pencil and charcoal over color believing that drawing was more intimate than painting and that it revealed more about the artist. (Simonett, Doris. “Little Falls artists display ‘realistic’ theme in works.” Little Falls Daily Transcript 9 November 1977.) One of the many commissions Wes received came from local art patron, Laura Jane Musser, who asked him to create several pieces related to the life of Charles A. Lindbergh, the famous aviator. Among the works were intricate black and white illustrations from the writings of Charles and his wife, Anne, and an oil painting of the Spirit of St. Louis flying the Atlantic for display at the Charles A. Lindbergh Historic Site. In 1979, the Morrison County Historical Society (MCHS), with funding from the Minnesota State Arts Board, commissioned a series of drawings that were intended to identify and record significant sites in Morrison County. According to Jan Warner, executive director of MCHS, Wes traveled the county looking for scenes that were unique and would capture the history of the area (West, Tom. “Wes Sod created art that county residents continue to treasure.” Morrison County Record 3 July 2008.) Among the twelve scenes that were the final result of the project were the MacDougall Homestead Barn, St. Stanislaus Church of Sobieski, the Motley Castle House, and the Camp Ripley Gates.

Detail of

Detail of “Little Falls from the South,” drawing by Wes Sod, undated. MCHS Collections #2013.26.1.

Another significant local site that was often depicted by Wes was his hometown, which is shown in the undated drawing “Little Falls From The South”. The drawing was recently donated to the Morrison County Historical Society by the estate of Beverly Pantzke Johnston. This striking view of the county seat of Morrison County is an easily identifiable landscape that includes many landmarks, such as the now demolished Hennepin Paper Mill, the Little Falls airport, the Morrison County Government Center clock tower, the steeple of St. Mary’s Church, the Little Falls water tower and Oakland Cemetery. Many of the landmarks are highlighted with areas of bright white that seem to glow in the background, glorifying the city and giving it an almost monumental or sacred aspect. A genuinely Midwestern scene, the sea of billowing grass and crumbling barbed wire fence are reminders of the region’s largely rural heritage. Reflecting the desire for distinctly American themes that was an integral part of American Regionalism, Sod’s landscapes show his belief in his community and the strength and vibrancy to be found in small town rural life.

Morrison County artist Wes Sod’s art truly celebrates what is uniquely American, following one of the basic tenets of American Regionalism. Though sometimes somber in tone and color, his works typically do not convey a sense of unease but rather of people and communities that have weathered many storms and withstood the test of time. While Regionalism’s popularity began to ebb in the late 1940s, following the end of World War II, its influence continued and can still be felt today. A realist modern American art movement, American Regionalism emphasized that artists paint what they know best. According to Wes, “(e)very artist must find his own place…and I feel that mine is in this type of reproduction, rather than in the modern areas of abstract art and expressionism.” (“Wesley Sod Works With Pencil: Display of Artist’s Work in City Library” Little Falls Daily Transcript 14 November 1960.)

By Ann Marie Johnson

Copyright 2013, Morrison County Historical Society

This article first appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, Volume 26, Number 2, 2013.

 

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