Most artists used paint and canvas to capture life in Brown County in the early 1900s.

Photographer Frank Hohenberger used a camera and film to record the changes that were just around the corner.

While working in Indianapolis, Hohenberger saw photo negatives of Brown County and was intrigued. In 1917, he stepped off a train in Helmsburg and walked seven miles to Nashville.

He knew he had to capture the life of Brown County residents who were living “dirt poor survival,” according to the video “Frank Hohenberger and the Brown County Artists,” produced by the Brown County Art Gallery.

But he was far from the only artist who saw the county’s beauty, in all its forms.

Impressionist painter T.C. Steele and his wife Selma settled in Brown County in 1907. They bought 200 acres in the western part of the county and built their home, “The House of the Singing Winds.”

Steele’s studio was built in 1916, about 10 years before his death. Selma Steele molded acres’ worth of land into gardens, giving the painter inspiration for landscapes that would gather praise from the art community and prompt others to follow him.

“Brown County was the place. Because he went there, a whole generation of younger artists followed,” said Lyn Letsinger Miller, the president of the Brown County Art Gallery Foundation. “He was the rock star.”

On Indiana’s 200th birthday, Hohenberger and Steele have been recognized by the Indianapolis Museum of Art as being among the most influential artists in state history.

The “19 Stars of Indiana Art” exhibit, on display through Jan. 8, looks at how Hoosier painters, sculptors, fashion designers, metal workers and other artists have shaped not just the state, but the world at large.

One artist was chosen to represent each of the 19 stars on the Indiana flag.

“Obviously, we knew 2016 was an important date for Indiana, and we were committed to do something to recognize it,” said Annette Schlagenhauff, the museum’s curator of special projects.

“When we had our centennial in 1916, a big push was looking at pioneers — coverage wagons and moving further west. So I started thinking about this idea of pioneers and innovators in art.

“These artists do say something about what the Hoosier spirit is.”

Visions of beauty

“Steele is probably the most famous of all of the Indiana early artists by far,” Miller said, citing his career, connections with prestigious families that helped him get an education and the fact he came to rural Indiana to practice his art instead of going to larger cities, like Chicago.

The Brown County Art Gallery has three Steele paintings for sale and on display this month: “Black River Valley,” “Summer’s Splendor” and “Selma at the Fire.”

The sale price for “Black River Valley”: $115,000.

“For us to have landed this painting is huge,” Miller said.

The painting had been in the Fletcher family for 130 years before the gallery received it.

The Fletchers were one of the many Indianapolis families who had helped to pay to send Steele to Munich, Germany to paint and study in 1880. When Steele returned in 1885, he painted works for the families as payback.

In 1887, Allen Fletcher invited Steele out to his home in Vermont. There, Steele painted 15 paintings. The family kept 10 and Steele took five back with him to Indiana, and one of those was “Black River Valley.”

Until that time, Steele had painted primarily portraits.

“He realized, ‘I have to paint the American landscape and I have to paint it as it looks and get its atmosphere and its color.’ When he went back to Indiana, that became his mission,” Miller said.

With his camera, Hohenberger “captured a way of life in a very different way from the artists,” Miller said.

“Theirs was a romantic and beautiful; his was real.”

Hohenberger could sense that Brown County was going to change with the influx of new artists, and he wanted to be there.

“He told the truth about it. The photographs are so compelling and so important because they document this impressive art colony,” Miller said.

“My photographs were not always lovely, but they sure were interesting,” said actor Jeff Kuehl, portraying Hohenberger in the film about the artists.

“They painted the people working in the gardens, feeding their animals, caring for their children. Their images were soft and lovely. I photographed the people as they lived.”

Hohenberger also reported on crime, fires and gossip in his column, “Down in the Hills O’ Brown County,” which ran in the Indianapolis Star for more than 30 years.

He stayed in Brown County until his death in 1963 at Fayette Memorial Hospital in Connersville, according to the Indiana University Lilly Library.

A celebration

The Indianapolis Museum of Art collection features some of the most well-known Hoosiers in the art world, including Robert Indiana, creator of the iconic “LOVE” sculpture.

Also included are some more obscure names.

William Merritt Chase spent his youth in Nineveh before his family moved to Indianapolis. He would grow to become a world-renowned master artist in New York City, dedicating his time to not only capturing life in 19th century America but teaching a new generation of painters, including Georgia O’Keeffe and Rockwell Kent.

Wilhelmina Seegmiller, head of art instruction for Indianapolis Public Schools in the early 20th century, is pointed out as an international education leader for her desire to make art accessible to everyone.

“You might recognize some, but you’ll learn something about some people you’ve never heard of,” Schlagenhauff said. “This is a way of broadening the lens.”

The exhibit is broken into five categories. Visitors can learn about artistic pioneers and innovators such as fashion designer Halston, as well as entrepreneurial artists like the Overbeck Sisters — ceramics artists from Cambridge City.

Nature lovers such as pre-industrial painter George Winter, teachers such as Chase and visionary kinetic sculptor George Rickey are also featured.

Visitors can play with an interactive map of Indiana and a video gallery that further reveals and digs into the artists’ legacies.

The museum has also launched an interactive scavenger hunt through its 152-acre campus in conjunction with the exhibit. People are encouraged to discover artwork, natural elements and other exhibits with special Indiana ties, Schlagenhauff said.

Daily Journal reporter Ryan Trares contributed to this story.

Author photo
Suzannah Couch grew up in Brown County, reading the Brown County Democrat. A 2013 Franklin College graduate, she covers business, cops/courts, education and arts/entertainment.