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Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011 03:59 pm

Celebrating history through the arts

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A painting of the Sugar Creek brige by Springfield artist Sheri Ramsey is entered in the Sangamon County Historical Society’s visual arts competiton.
COURTESY SHERI RAMSEY

A new event at the Old State Capitol on Sept. 10 follows an old tradition – showcasing artists and art in the building. It’s a practice that dates back to the 1800s.

The event, “Celebrating Sangamon County History Through the Arts,” is sponsored by the Sangamon County Historical Society (SCHS) and will feature a visual arts competition, exhibition and demonstrations, as well as performing artists. Much of the art reflects a Sangamon County historical theme.

The SCHS got the idea from the Peoria Historical Society which has held an annual historical art competition for more than 40 years. “The art and history combination sounded interesting,” says Nancy Chapin, SCHS president. So far, 50 artists are participating in the Springfield event.

They include local and regional artists like Springfieldian William Crook, Jr., known for his drawings and paintings of local historic sites, and Decatur sculptor John McClarey, known for his sculptures of Lincoln. They, along with stained glassmaker Steve Brooks, watercolorist Jan Sorenson, pastelist George King, and others will be demonstrating their talents inside the Old State Capitol that afternoon. (Participants will also be selling their artwork.)

Other artists will be performing works related to history. Among these are: Old State Capitol Chorale, local songwriter and musician Tom Irwin, Springfield poets Job Conger and Dennis Camp, Springfield International Dancers, and Prairieland Dulcimer Strings. Conger will enact poet Vachel Lindsay’s work and Irwin will perform songs he wrote about an old diary found on his family farm near Bradfordton.

The diary was written between August 1893 and February 1894 by a teenager named Harry Glen Ludlum whose family owned the farm before the Irwins bought it. “I found the diary in the pie tin,” Irwin says. It chronicles Ludlum’s daily life and adventures.

Irwin was hooked by the boy’s stories and prose. “I wrote a song using the first passage: ‘Today is hot and dry, dust lies thick upon the road,’” he says. Ludlum chronicled his experiences taking coronet lessons in Springfield, going to a barn dance and watching his family deal with the aftermath of his grandmother’s death and subsequent sale of the family farm, among other long-ago events.

So far Irwin has written and recorded 13 songs based on the diary’s passages. “I could probably write 13 more,” he says. He will perform several at the Sept. 10 event.

Music and art have been a part of the Old State Capitol since at least 1848, according to OSC site manager Justin Blandford. On July 21 of that year, the Illinois State Register promoted the week-long exhibition of a painting in the Senate chamber. It described the piece as a “Splendid National Painting of the Fall of Col. John J. Hardin, at the Battle of Buena Vista, Executed by S. C. Fogus, of St. Louis… This great painting embodies most striking likenesses of Col. John J. Hardin and Gen. Taylor, and contains Seventeen Human Figures of the size of Life, together with Seven Horses, and one piece of Captain Bragg’s Artillery.” Admission was 25 cents; half price for children.

When Abraham Lincoln was a candidate for president in the summer of 1860, at least one artist painted his portrait and displayed it at the OSC. The July 16, 1860, Journal described the painting: “There is now on exhibition in the affice [sic] of the Secretary of State, an oil painting of Mr. Lincoln, cabinet size, which for accuracy of delineation far exceeds any portrait of him that we have seen. It is the work of Mr. J. C. Wolfe, an artist who has but recently taken up his residence among us.”

After Lincoln was elected president in November of that year, many more artists hurried to Springfield to capture his likeness for a public eager to see their new president. Blandford says Lincoln often posed for them in the Old State Capitol’s Governor’s Office, which Lincoln borrowed as his temporary office.

The OSC was a showplace for musicians as well, according to Blandford. Many musical performances were held there in the 1800s. Back then, the building functioned as a de facto community center, so a variety of activities were held there, from lectures to meetings to arts events.

Even today the building showcases a variety of art, such as James William Berry’s portraits of Lafayette and Washington in the Senate and House, respectively.

Sangamon County History Through the Arts will be held on Saturday, Sept. 10, from noon to four inside the OSC. It is free. For more information, visit the Sangamon County Historical Society’s website: www.sancohis.org.

Contact Tara McClellan McAndrew at tmcand22@aol.com.

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