Carrying the Mission Forward: Birger Sandzén Students Collect Art for Schools

Swedish-American Birger Sandzén’s “art for all” campaign was motivated by a desire to make Kansas communities places where every person encountered art in public spaces and hung art in their homes. He worked with other artists to bring original art into schools, colleges, and libraries. To that end, he organized numerous public exhibitions and co-established several arts organizations.

Sandzén’s example inspired many of his Bethany College students to emulate his methods while serving as art teachers in Kansas. Anna Keener taught at Kansas City, Kansas, High School in 1921-24 and immediately began a program of artist talks, starting with her teacher. Sue Jean Hill Covacevich, a native of Wellington who spent the 1930s in Mexico, worked with the city’s school superintendent to establish a district art collection.

Bethany graduate Carl William Peterson taught in the Salina schools, where he carried on the exhibition and collecting tradition before being hired by Sandzén’s daughter, Margaret Sandzén Greenough (1909-1993), as co-director of Lindsborg’s Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery in 1963.

Jacobson was among Birger Sandzén’s first students at Bethany College. He followed his mentor’s example as head of the art department at the University of Oklahoma (OU), organizing traveling exhibitions and collecting artworks for what eventually became the school’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.  

Jacobson submitted this painting of Montana’s rugged terrain to the Association of Oklahoma Artists’ Second Annual State Exhibition assembled at OU in 1917, and then sent it on the road with the third annual Exhibition of Paintings by Artists of the Southwest organized by Sandzén and Carl Smalley of McPherson. The work was purchased from the Southwest Exhibition when it came to Lindsborg High School in late 1918.  

After hanging on high school walls for more than 100 years, Jacobson’s oil on canvas is a prime candidate for conservation. The surface needs cleaning and small puncture wounds require repair. 

Oscar Brousse Jacobson
Born 1882, Kalmar County, Sweden
Died 1966, Norman, Oklahoma

In the Bitterroot Mountains, 1917
Oil on canvas

23 x 32 in.

Smoky Valley Public Schools USD 400, Lindsborg

Anna Elizabeth Keener
Born 1895, Flagler, Colorado
Died 1982, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Barn on the Hill, 1922
Woodcut (nailcut)

16 x 11 in.

Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery, Lindsborg, gift of Michael and Tsenre Deveraux & the Estate of Anna E. Keener, 2019.29

Keener was a student of Birger Sandzén at Bethany College in 1913-18. She assisted her instructor with art classes and his Smoky Hill Art Club as part of her studies. Sandzén encouraged her to submit paintings to the McPherson schools’ annual exhibitions.  

1921 Keener returned to Kansas after a stint in the Navy in Michigan and a teaching job in Arizona to become the fine arts instructor at Kansas City, Kansas, High School. She often took her students to visit Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI) exhibitions. Her “nailcut” print, Barn on the Hill, was selected for the KCAI’s 1922 Midwest Artists’ Exhibition. Sandzén developed the unusual blockprint technique in 1917, pounding square carpentry nails into wood to create landscape scenes in a pointillist manner. 

Birger Sandzén
Born 1871, Blidsberg, Sweden
Died 1954, Lindsborg, Kansas

The Canyon Wall (Cliff Wall), 1922
Oil on canvas

36 x 48 in.

Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools, USD 500

In January 1922 Sandzén sent The Canyon Wall and ten lithographs to the Kansas City Art Institute’s juried Exhibition of Work by the Artists, Sculptors, Designers, Musicians and Writers of Missouri and Kansas. The painting was sold to Kansas City, Kansas, High School about a month after the exhibition closed. Some years later, the graduating class of 1938 commissioned another oil painting from Sandzén, Among the Hills. Both works would hang above twin fireplaces in the new Wyandotte High School; the original 1899 high school was destroyed by fire in 1934.  

The purchase of this depiction of the Colorado Rocky Mountains came about while Anna Keener was teaching at the high school. During a 1922 lecture at the school, Sandzén encouraged the audience of 300 to begin an art collection. The students raised money for The Canyon Wall for far less than the price listed in the KCAI exhibition catalogue. Two portraits by Taos artist Walter Ufer were quickly added to the school’s collection, along with various prints. The Ufer paintings and other works are believed to have been destroyed in the 1934 fire.  

It is important to note that Keener taught in an all-white school. Beginning in 1905, the KCK school district was segregated through secondary school. There is no evidence that KCK’s high school for Black students, Sumner, had a similar arts program. 

Sue Jean Covacevich
Born 1905, Wellington, Kansas
Died 1998, Winfield, Kansas

Chalchiuhtlicue, Goddess of Water, ca. 1937
Linoleum cut

6 x 5 3/4 in.

Winfield Public Schools, USD 465 Foundation

The relationship between Birger Sandzén and former student Sue Jean Covacevich was lively and sustained. Covacevich studied with the Bethany College art professor in 1925-27. She used her contacts with him to develop exhibitions that included his art and other regional artists’ work for the Winfield schools. He and daughter Margaret Greenough visited Covacevich in 1936 in Mexico, where she lived for a decade.  

While in Mexico, Covacevich rendered this depiction of the Aztec goddess of water. The artist shows Chalchiuhtlicue wearing an elaborate headdress that denotes her status as a noble woman. Her distinctive skirt flows like a river. It carries a baby, referring to the connection between water and fertility. 

Birger Sandzén and Sue Jean Covacevich in Lindsborg in 1940. From a photo album given to the Sandzén family by the artist. Sandzén Archives, Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery, Lindsborg

Birger Sandzén
Born 1871, Blidsberg, Sweden
Died 1954, Lindsborg, Kansas

Glimpse of Taxco, 1935

16 x 20 in.

Winfield Public Schools, USD 465 Foundation

Sandzén dedicated this view of Taxco, Mexico, to Evan E. Evans, who was superintendent of Winfield schools from 1931 to 1952. Evans formed a relationship with Sandzén through Sue Jean Covacevich when she was an elementary art instructor in Winfield. Covacevich and Evans, with the assistance of Sandzén, invited an impressive roster of regional artists to participate in school exhibitions.  

The superintendent’s passion for the visual arts was nurtured at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he studied with sculptor Lorado Taft. Evans would facilitate the acquisition of Taft’s sculpture Lincoln the Lawyer as a gift from the Winfield High School senior class of 1926. Taft came to Winfield and spoke to students the next year.  

In 1936, in the middle of the Great Depression, Evans was able to create an art gallery in Winfield’s high school. When the space opened to the public, he told the crowd, “We have a theory we can do more for the children than just give them readin’, ritin’, and ‘rithmetic. We are working on the belief that we might be able to give the boys and girls some new doors to open.” 

Image inscription: “With warm regards to Evan E. Evans 1936” 

Brochure for “Official Opening of the Fourth Annual Exhibition of Oils by Kansas Artists,” Winfield High School Art Gallery, 1949

Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery archives, Lindsborg

Norma Bassett Hall
Born 1888, Halsey, Oregon
Died 1957, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Cottage in Skye, 1941-42

7 x 9 1/2 in.

Winfield Public Schools, USD 465 Foundation

Dave Stirling
Born 1887, Corydon, Iowa
Died 1971, Longmont, Colorado

Alpenglow, ca. 1935
Oil on canvas

36 x 30 in. (frame)

Winfield Public Schools, USD 465 Foundation

Carl William Peterson
Born 1919, Fremont, Kansas
Died 2009, Lindsborg, Kansas

The Old Mill, 1993
Watercolor on paper

24 x 28 in.

Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery, Lindsborg, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Emory J. Carlson in memory of Miss Ester Levin and the Levin Family

As a youth Peterson was encouraged in his artmaking by high school art teacher Elise Penner, who had studied with Birger Sandzén. “Carl Pete” followed her path, earning a bachelor’s degree from Bethany College in 1942.  

Peterson remained close to Sandzén, joining his Prairie Water Color Painters group and participating in Bethany College art exhibitions. The younger artist taught art in Osborne, Kansas, where he regularly submitted students’ work to Bethany’s Midwest Art Contest. He then came to Salina High School (now Salina Central High School), where his art students enjoyed mounting exhibitions and field trips to museums.  

After moving to Lindsborg to co-direct the Sandzén Memorial Gallery, Peterson became known for his renderings of local scenes such as this view of the flour mill on the banks of the Smoky Hill River. He kept a studio downtown and often had Soderstrom Elementary classes visit for watercolor demonstrations.

Grant Wood
Born 1891, Anamosa, Iowa
Died 1942, Iowa City, Iowa

December Afternoon, 1941

8 15/16 x 11 15/16 in.

Associated American Artists, publisher

Salina Public Schools, USD 305

Thomas Hart Benton
Born 1889, Neosho, Missouri
Died 1975, Kansas City, Missouri

Slow Train through Arkansas, 1941

10 x 12 3/4 in.

Associated American Artists, publisher

Salina Public Schools, USD 305

Carl Peterson oversaw the purchase of prints by Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton for Salina High School’s art collection. Peterson likely first became acquainted with these leaders of American Regionalism, a movement associated with depictions of rural life, in Birger Sandzén’s art history classes. Sandzén met Benton and Wood in the mid-1930s while jurying exhibitions in Kansas City. He invited both artists to send work to the McPherson High School and Bethany College annuals when Peterson was attending Bethany and assisting his teacher with the exhibitions.  

The lithographs were published by New York’s Associated American Artists, which sold hand-pulled prints via mail-order catalog for $5, making them more affordable for schools.