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Cool Things - Prairie Print Makers Prints

Corn Pulling by Clare Leighton (1952)

The Prairie Print Makers produced some of the nation's best-respected fine art prints, including these three examples.

"Prints are intimate things and are meant to be handled and examined at close range, as is a rare book, a choice gem or a bit of old lace."

Coy Avon Seward was a native Kansan and a well-known artist not only in his home state but also across the country. He penned these words in 1929 for the Community Arts and Crafts Monthly journal. Over a series of three articles, Seward detailed the reasons for collecting, selecting, and caring for fine art prints. These articles may have been the seedlings for the organization known as the Prairie Print Makers.

Seward helped found the Prairie Print Makers in 1930. He had been serving as secretary-treasurer of a Wichita-based arts organization when ten of its members journeyed to Lindsborg, Kansas, to meet with artist Birger Sandzén. The result of their meeting in Sandzén's studio in December 1930 was the Prairie Print Makers, a group dedicated "To further the interest of both artists and laymen in printmaking and collecting."

Like Seward, Birger Sandzén was well-known in Kansas art circles. Born in Sweden, he had immigrated to Lindsborg in 1874 with other Swedes to assist in instructional work at Bethany College. Trained as a painter in Europe, Sandzén took up printmaking about 1916 at the encouragement of art dealer Carl Smalley of McPherson. Also during this time, Sandzén and Smalley were two of the twelve founding directors of the Kansas Federation of Art. The KFA's activities would be instrumental in promoting and building the popularity of the Prairie Print Makers.

Lone Pine by C. A. Seward (1934)

Kansas Federation of Art

The original Kansas Federation of Art had been organized years earlier but had quickly faltered. In 1932 it was revived by Seward, Paul Weigel and John Helm, Jr. (the latter two were faculty at Kansas State University). They refocused the organization's mission "to making high quality, low cost traveling exhibitions of art available to Kansas's groups, institutions, and organizations funded by membership dues for the organization." Toward that end, and with Seward as director, the KFA circulated art exhibits to schools and organizations for reasonable fees ranging from $2.50 to $25.00.

Helm, an invited member of the Prairie Print Makers in 1931, replaced Seward as KFA director in 1935. Helm had arrived in Kansas from New York in 1924 to become an instructor of architecture at Kansas State University. Trained in interior design, he took up watercolor painting in 1926 and probably began active printmaking shortly thereafter. Known for his tireless promotion of Kansas art and culture, Helm played an instrumental role in the revival of the periodical Kansas Magazine in 1933. Its purpose was "to bring together under one cover the work of people who are Kansans and who express Kansas as it is and not as it is seen from the rear platform of a limited train."

It was through these two venues the Prairie Print Makers found their Kansas base and their rise in popularity began. PPM reserved one of its four traveling exhibitions for the KFA. Kansas Magazine, with a circulation varying from 1,000 to 3,000, regularly featured articles about PPM artists and their prints until the late 1940s, and sporadically thereafter till 1968.

Special Edition Prints

Because of these efforts, PPM grew to over 90 active (artist) members and over 150 associate members. To belong to the organization an active member paid yearly dues of $1.00. Associate members paid an annual fee of $5.00 entitling them to receive one special edition print each year. Active members submitted prints to be considered for the special edition. If his or her print was selected, the active member received $150.00. This print was typically a limited edition of 200, and the means of reproducing it was destroyed following the run. PPM handled the details and associated expenses of printing and distribution. Between 1931 and 1966, 34 annual gift prints were issued.

Gloxinias by Elizabeth Saltonstall (1950)

The Prairie Print Makers survived the Great Depression, one of history's hardest economic times. It prospered in the years following World War II. But changing aesthetic tastes, the death and relocation of prominent members, and the decline in the popularity of print-making all eventually contributed to the organization's demise. The artistic legacy of this native Kansas group, however, is still enjoyed and collected across the nation.

The prints featured on this page were made by active members of the Prairie Print Makers. The Kansas Museum of History owns a complete set of gift prints issued by the PPM, plus several originals of active members' work.

Entry: Cool Things - Prairie Print Makers Prints

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: July 2005

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.