The Love of a Teacher: Ada B. Caldwell and Harvey Dunn

Apr 20, 2021

The Prairie is My Garden
Credit Harvey Dunn

Let me describe this rather mediocre painting. The big tree at the heart of things is a bit too perfect; the winds maul trees out here on the edge of the Great Plains. Hers seems too Joyce Kilmer. The roof tops in the background make clear the artist was out near a farm somewhere, but the outline of that house--see it, beneath the branches of the tree?--doesn't look much like a Siouxland homestead. Seriously, Corinthian columns out front? Hills like that line the Missouri River, but eastern South Dakota, the place where the artist, Ada B. Caldwell, spent most of her life, doesn’t look much like the scene she caught in this sweet, but ordinary oil painting.

No matter. There’s a love story here—think of it that way because it was, not in a conventional sense--I mean, I don't think there was any hanky-panky between teacher and student. He was rough-hewn kid, fresh off the farm, at college only because the place was land-grant, full of offerings for young men looking to learn something about the farms they'd come from. Back then it was named the South Dakota Agricultural College.

This particular farm kid was at Brookings because of his mother, who loved him and probably wasn't all that much different from the woman that graces her son’s most beloved painting, a beautiful thing named The Prairie is My Garden.

The mom in her prairie garden will never make the cover of Vogue, but she's perfectly beautiful in a prairie way.

You must have seen it. It’s all over.

Her girls love her, and she loves them, takes them along when she decides to grace her place up a bit with cone flowers. The Prairie is My Garden, by Harvey Dunn, is quintessential Great Plains stuff; and she, or so the docents at the Art Museum claim, is "the Mona Lisa of South Dakota."

That determination on her face is a facet of a work ethic that's intense and formidable. The frame buildings behind her suggest the hardscrabble days of homesteading may be behind her, their place "improved" to homestead standards. But things are not Edenic. Creating a life around the weather on the all-too viscous plains is never comfortably behind you. Mom needs to be wary.

Is this tall woman Dunn's mother? In spirit certainly. His mother was tough enough to get his I-shall-not-be-moved father to allow son Harvey to go the agriculture school. His mother sat with him as a child, the two of them sketching together by lamp light. His mother determined her boy--no longer a boy, but a man--needed to get away from the demands of farm work and see, even if only for a year, that other people lived unimaginably other lives. It was his mother who believed in flowers and saw the prairie as a garden.

Then again, this Mona Lisa may also be Ada B. Caldwell, the woman who did that very plain oil you’ll have to see sometime. Prof. Caldwell taught art at the agricultural college, the only teacher who paid much attention to the strapping farm kid from a town called Manchester, a town a tornado finally blew away a couple decades ago. She saw what he could do on a canvas for what it was--talent. Sheer, raw talent.

She's the one who sent him off to Chicago’s Art Institute, the school she attended herself, who recognized the kid’s talent and wouldn’t let him stop filling canvases. It was her second year of teaching. She just knew he was good.

Ada B. Caldwell + Harvey Dunn?--it is a love story. She made it clear that what he was feeling in his heart wasn't illusion or fantasy. She helped him understand he'd likely never be happy just going back to the farm. She allowed him to love what he already did, to follow what he loved in directions he'd never imagined.

She did nothing more or less than notice what was embedded in this broad-shouldered farm boy who could do wonders with a brush. It was, talent, and Harvey Dunn had it. She let it grow, nurtured it, and sent it on its way to gardens just as wondrous as his Mona Lisa's.

It is a love story. It's a school room love story, a wonderful school room love story.