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Art historian to discuss well-known Newton sculpture from the WPA era

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – An iconic piece of public art in Newton is the topic of the first program connected to the special exhibit currently on display on the Bethel College campus at Kauffman Museum.

Art historian Reinhild K. Janzen, of Whitewater and Lawrence, will speak Oct. 13 at 3:30 p.m. on “Art Born of the Great Depression: Newton’s ‘Mennonite Settler’ and Roosevelt’s New Deal.” The Sunday-Afternoon-at-the-Museum program is free and open to the public.

Janzen is an art historian and professor emeritus of art history at Washburn University, Topeka. Her lecture is part of “Art that Worked: WPA Art in Newton 1935-1943,” which opened at Kauffman Museum earlier this month and remains on display through Jan. 5, 2014.

Janzen’s decade-long involvement with the “Mennonite Settler” – a 17-foot sculpture carved from native limestone that stands in Athletic Park in Newton – began in 1992 when she became one of 25,000 volunteers across the United States who surveyed public art in each county of every state.

Janzen, working under the auspices of the national Save Outdoor Sculpture (SOS) initiative, was responsible for Harvey County. Her work led to the formation of the SOS Newton Committee, with a goal of raising funds toward professional restoration of the “Mennonite Settler.”

These efforts resulted in the “Mennonite Settler’s” 1998 nomination to both the Kansas and National Register of Historic Places, stemming from the sculpture’s association with the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Local residents Keith Sprunger, John Gaeddert, Raymond Olais and Kathryn Gaeddert were also part of this work.

The sculpture was officially rededicated in 2000, upon completion of the complicated restoration work by the Russell-Marti conservation team. A year later, a stone with explanatory text was added to the “Mennonite Settler.”

Janzen believes “it must have been in the stars” for her to have this lengthy encounter with the “Mennonite Settler” – the only known monument to a Mennonite farmer in the United States – since she was born the same year the sculpture began its life in Newton, and later married into a Mennonite farming family from just a few miles northeast of Athletic Park.

In 1940, artist Max Nixon’s budget from the WPA for creating the monument was $500.  Sixty years later, restoration costs exceeded $36,000.

Why would the City of Newton allocate such a sum toward assuring the “Mennonite Settler’s” longevity? Why did many private area citizens contribute funds and labor for the cause of saving art? What is the significance of this sculpture, in terms of its history, in the context of public art created with government funding under Roosevelt’s administration? How might we look at it as a work of art?

Janzen will address these and other questions in her illustrated talk Oct. 13.

There will be two more special programs based on “Art that Worked” on Sunday afternoons over the next several months.

On Nov. 17, Berneil Rupp Mueller, North Newton, will lead a readers’ theater presentation titled “Federal Theatre Project: A Grand Experiment,” and Jan. 5, 2014, the exhibit’s closing day, John Thiesen, archivist at the Mennonite Library and Archives at Bethel College, and Rachel Epp Buller, Bethel assistant professor of art, will conduct a gallery walk. All events begin at 3:30 p.m. in the museum and are free and open to everyone.

Regular Kauffman Museum hours are 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, and 1:30-4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The museum is closed Mondays and major holidays. Admission to “Art that Worked: WPA Art in Newton 1935-1943” as well as the permanent exhibits “Of Land and People,” “Mirror of the Martyrs” and “Mennonite Immigrant Furniture” is $4 for adults, $2 for children ages 6-16, and free to Kauffman Museum members and children under 6. For more information, call the museum at 316-283-1612 or visit its website,, or Facebook page .

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