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<em>Peace Oath</em>, ca. 1967, wood engraving, private collection
Peace Oath, ca. 1967, wood engraving, private collection

Rockwell Kent's enduring art, legacy

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An exhibition of one of America's most famous 20th century artists, and an Adirondack farmer, is on display through mid-December at St. Lawrence University. Rockwell Kent: The Once Most Popular American Artist is a display of more than 75 works in a variety of media, including some recent acquisitions by the university, in the Brush Art Gallery and at the Owen D. Young Library Special Collections.

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Todd Moe
Morning Host and Producer

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Kent's prominence as an artist, author, adventurer and socio-political activist made him a media phenomenon.  In the 1920's he purchased a dairy farm, and named it Asgaard near Ausable Forks in the Eastern Adirondacks.   It was a working farm, and his home, until his death in 1971.  

Cover (detail) for <em>Rockwellkentiana: Few Words and Many Pictures</em>, 1933, private collection
Cover (detail) for Rockwellkentiana: Few Words and Many Pictures, 1933, private collection
In this first of a two-part series of conversations, Todd Moe toured the Brush Art Gallery recently with guest curator Scott Ferris, of Boonville.  Next week, we'll visit the display of books, prints and ephemera in the library's Special Collections.  

Ferris is the author of numerous books about Rockwell Kent's life and work.  He's been a Kent specialist for nearly 40 years.  Ferris says the exhibit, "encompasses everything you ever wanted to know about Rockwell Kent that was already in front of your face," in reference to Kent's multi-faceted career.

While some artists are referred to as the "most popular" after just a little fame, Ferris believes Kent truly merits the accolade. “Whether you like Kent or not, you see Kent out there, you hear him out there, you read him, and so how can you escape him?”

Untitled (drawing for Vanguard), n.d., ink on paper, SLU 2012.10
Untitled (drawing for Vanguard), n.d., ink on paper, SLU 2012.10
Kent did many things other than paint; he delved into politics, and travelled to many remote places. He produced architectural renderings, books and articles, illustrations, and commercial art including advertising and other ephemera.  His busy and eclectic life garnered a lot of publicity.

Ferris’ connection to Kent’s work started in 1978 when he was a SUNY Plattsburgh student. He was placed in charge of cataloguing the collection of work donated by Sally Kent Gorton (the artist’s widow) to the college. After meeting her a year later, Ferris helped to manage the Rockwell Kent legacies for two years.

<em>The Smith Act</em>, 1951, lithograph, SLU 2012.11
The Smith Act, 1951, lithograph, SLU 2012.11
The exhibit has a wide range of Kent’s work. Ferris said it’s message is “don’t tell me you don’t know Rockwell Kent.” His work can be found everywhere: from illustrations for books such as Moby Dick and The Canterbury Tales, to commercial items such as drapes and champagne bottle labels, to his political artwork and writing from the late 1940s. Ferris believes that everyone has seen Kent’s work at some point. “He was so prolific. He did so much work. One of his friends referred to him as a corporation.”

Ferris thinks interest in Kent will never die out. Much of his legacy is still being released in new printings. Passing on Kent’s work to the next generation is always on Ferris’s mind. He believes this exhibit is a unique opportunity for students to learn about Kent in all the variety of his works. While Ferris likes a lot of Kent’s work for various reasons, he doesn’t have a single favorite. He did mention one piece, a label made to celebrate the Arkansas Centennial in 1936. “End Peonage,” it proclaims. The work is only a couple inches square, but shows tremendous artistic ability and exemplifies Kent’s values for civil and human rights.

Ferris says Kent’s message to people would be, “Get up out of bed, get to work, no matter what that work is, take care of yourself and then help your neighbor.”

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