Hal Higdon

Art - Dale Nichols

The East Bound FreightThe East Bound Freight

By Hal Higdon

Growing up on the south side of Chicago, I'm not sure when I first became aware of the large oil painting that hung over a sofa in the living room of my parent's apartment. It was part of the furniture, like my mother's rocking chair, or the table my father used for his cigarettes and ale.

The painting was "The East Bound Freight" by Dale Nichols. (See above.) It showed a farmer, pitchfork in hand, standing beside his barn on a wintry day watching a train passing in the distance. As you gazed at the painting and fields covered with snow, you could almost feel the cold penetrate your bones.

I still own that painting (shown above and in detail below), although it is badly damaged. Presently, I am having it restored so I can donate it to Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, the school from which I graduated in 1953. Carleton currently is constructing a new art museum. Curator Laurel Bradley has agreed to welcome "The East Bound Freight" into the Carleton collection. Bradley also offered the names of several restorers in the Chicago area. I eventually selected Faye Wrubel, Paintings Conservator at the Art Institute of Chicago, who has a studio west of the Loop. Wrubel has agreed to restore "The East Bound Freight" to near how it looked when my father first acquired the painting from his friend Dale Nichols around 1938. "Ninety-five percent," she promises.

An American Regionalist

Detail of damageDale Nichols was born 1904 in David City, Nebraska. He moved to Chicago in the 1920s, working as an illustrator, but also practicing what might be described as Fine Art. As an artist, Nichols fits into the school of Regional American Landscape artists, whose more famous practitioners included Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. "These artists," according to a biography of Wood on Artcult.com, "represented rural life in the U.S. in the tradition of European masters." Many of Nichols' paintings reproduced on greeting cards, and even playing cards, featured red barns.

An article in the September 18, 1939 issue of Time included this reference to Nichols: "Subjects he prefers are the prairie landscapes of his youth, usually snowed under. These famed smooth snow effects Artist Nichols gets by laying on his oils in a thin film with watercolor brushes."

One painting by Nichols titled "John Comes Home for Christmas" was used on a post card by the U.S. Postal Service as recently as 1995. A Web site describing the card says (somewhat ungrammatically): "A leader in the American Regionalist movement of the 1930s, Nichols' paintings depict rural scenes in a realistic fashion, defining objects with clean-edged precision." Three paintings by Nichols are listed in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney has four of his large oil paintings, along with four lithographs and four sketches. Wrubel said she thought the Union League Club in Chicago had two Nichols paintings. Union League curator Marianne Richter denied that was true, but said the Dayton Art Institute, where she previously worked, had one Nichols in its collection. One recent listing of five paintings by Dale Nichols sold on auction on Artfact.com shows prices between $6,725 and $33,460.

In addition to "The East Bound Freight," my own collection of Dale Nichols art includes another large painting (see below), a snowy landscape titled "The Trail to the Valley," minus any red barn. I also own several prints and watercolors. One gouache painting shows a horseman wearing a red cape, given to my wife Rose and I as a wedding present in 1958. Alas, by that date, Regionalist painting had become unfashionable, causing even Grant Wood to change his style and use a different name for some of his late art. Abstract Expressionism was the style favored by instructors Alfred Hyslop and Dean Warnholtz when I attended Carleton. Dale Nichols also abandoned the Regionalist style, moving to the Southwest and Central America, becoming influenced by the art he encountered there. One item in the collection of the Museum of Nebraska Art is a metagraph (a rubbing of Mayan ruins on fabric) done while he was living in Guatamala. In 1968, Nichols wrote a letter from Guatemala to his friend and fellow Chicago illustrator Elmer Jacobs. In the letter, now in the collection of the Chicago Historical Society, Nichols comments, "I am, at long last, making a living in fine art. This, from an artist whose paintings a decade after his death in 1995 now sells in the tens of thousands. Most valuable are the wintry landscape paintings he produced during the Depression. What fame Dale Nichols still possesses is because of red barns.

Hig's Artist
Hig

My father knew Dale Nichols--and Elmer Jacobs. He employed both as artists for the magazine he edited, the Phoenix Flame. My father's name was Harry J. Higdon, better known as "Hig." Although I go by the name of "Hal," the birth name used on my passport and other documents is Harry J. Higdon, Jr. Hig worked as advertising director for the Phoenix Metal Cap Company on the west side of Chicago, his main duty to produce for customers a monthly magazine called the Phoenix Flame. The Flame was a "house organ," and it won numerous awards because of its design featuring the illustrations of Nichols and Jacobs.

Nichols painted "The East-Bound Freight" in 1938 and either sold it or gave it to my father soon after that. Any artist who had a regular paying job as an illustrator during the Depression certainly would have been grateful to his benefactor. Nichols continued drawing covers and inside illustrations for the Flame into the 1940s until, possibly, his fame became too great for my father's little magazine. My father then employed Jacobs as an illustrator, although Nichols would resume working for my father in the late 1950s. When I married and my parents moved from our South Side apartment to one on the Near North Side, my father either commissioned or was given another large painting by Nichols. The artist continued working with Hig until my father died in 1962, the Phoenix Flame dying with him.

Soon after my father's death, my mother moved into a smaller apartment, their collection of Dale Nichols art coming into my possession. In 1964, my wife and I moved from Chicago to Long Beach, Indiana, an hour's drive around the bottom of Lake Michigan. We proudly hung "The East-Bound Freight" in our living room with its view of the lake. Alas, for that decision. Some years later, a storm swept across the lake, pummeling our house with sheets of rain. A massive leak developed in the roof over the living room, drenching the painting.

Faye WrubelAs curator Bradley or restorer Wrubel could tell you, moisture can be the death of an oil painting, shrinking the canvas, forming blisters in the paint, eventually causing the paint to peel. Helpless to stem the deterioration, I stored the painting in the attic, where it remained forgotten for too many years. At one point, I contacted the Art Institute of Chicago asking if it could provide some guidance to having the painting restored. I hoped maybe the Art Institute might acquire "The East Bound Freight" for its collection. The Institute never bothered to reply. (To the best of my knowledge, the Art Institute possesses no art by Dale Nichols.) A few years ago when squirrels invaded our attic, I discovered acorns crammed in the space between the back of the canvas and the frame! I felt guilty about allowing the painting to remain unrestored, unseen.

The day when "The East Bound Freight" can receive what actually may be its first public showing since 1938 is near at hand. My wife and I became friends with Laurel Bradley while attending an Alumni Adventure featuring Art & Jazz in Chicago sponsored by Carleton College in the spring of 2004. Not too coincidentally, I learned the College had plans for a new art museum and realized that the Dale Nichols painting might become an important addition to the College's art collection. Coincidentally, Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon recently acquired a gift of 120 illustrations by Elmer Jacobs and is planning an exhibit for the school year of 2006-2007.

Is it too much for me to hope that Carleton, or some other art museum, might some day plan an exhibit featuring the work of Dale Nichols, centered around "The East Bound Freight?" Although Dale Nichols painted his Midwest landscapes from his memories growing up in rural Nebraska, that freight train he painted certainly was headed toward Minnesota. It soon may get there.

The Trail to the Valley

Copyright © 2005 by Hal Higdon. All rights reserved.