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SUMMER / FALL 2019      © 2021 812 Magazine

Painting the light

Our woods and valleys have charmed landscape painters past and present.

Artist Ken Bucklew in front of one of the many Owen County, Indiana scenes he has painted. /Photo by Michael Williams

On a foggy autumn morning, you stand atop a Brown County hill, a bare canvas resting on your easel. In the distance, a soft purple haze tints the Indiana sky, and vivid yellow leaves coat the sycamores. 

To capture this scene, you must paint quickly. The longer you paint outdoors, the greater the shift in natural light.

“Midwestern lighting is unique in that the air is really moist most of the time,” says Rachel Berenson Perry, author of Paint and Canvas: A Life of T.C. Steele. “There’s a lot in the atmosphere here that makes things bluer or more purple, especially on a foggy day.” 

That light and the landscape it illuminates lured many artists, such as T.C. Steele, J. Ottis Adams and William Forsyth, to the hills of Southern Indiana. Known as the Hoosier Group, they sought a simple life where they could focus on their artwork.

“After the late 1800s, artists were no longer stuck painting portraits inside a studio. They painted outdoors in a much looser and more colorful style,” says Lyn Letsinger-Miller, author of The Artists of Brown County. “It was called ‘painting the light,’ as opposed to ‘painting the subject.’”

Today’s artists of Southern Indiana paint many of the same landscapes as the artists of the Hoosier Group. However, not everything looks as it once did.

“Historical artists had these big, long views of Southern Indiana. Everything was clear-cut and you could just look out at all directions,” Letsinger-Miller says. “But the forest is all grown up now, and our towns are more built up, too.”

812 explores the past and present of Southern Indiana landscape painting in the work of T.C. Steele and two contemporary artists. Through words and photography, we offer a fresh look at the enigmatic light that has drawn landscape artists here for over a century. 

T.C. Steele, 1847-1926

Owen County
Where to see his work: T.C. Steele State Historic Site, Indiana State Museum, Brown County Art Gallery
Favorite places to paint: Brown County, Brookville

Often cited as the pioneer of Indiana landscape paintings, Steele captured the natural beauty of Indiana landscapes by experimenting with light, colorful palettes and broken brushwork.

“His timing was noteworthy,” Perry says. “He painted Southern Indiana impressionistic landscapes in the early 1900s, which there wasn’t a market for just yet. He also didn’t have the most prominent name in places like New York, but still made a living off his artwork.”

After studying art in Munich for five years, Steele eventually returned to Indianapolis in 1885. In the 1890s, he started traveling around Southern Indiana. He wanted to paint what he knew best: the scenic landscapes of rural Indiana.

“Steele was an Owen County native, but later fell in love with Brown County,” Letsinger-Miller says. “He didn’t want civilization or the trappings of a city or town. He was looking for a primitive environment to paint in, one that would give him more exposure to nature.”

Steele liked to illustrate the natural light of Southern Indiana in all seasons, but mostly during the warmer months of summer and autumn. Although he made a living by painting portraits in his studio, he preferred painting landscapes outdoors. He often wandered around his Brown County home and studio, called the House of the Singing Winds, to paint the surroundings that comforted and inspired him.

More than 50 of Steele’s impressionist paintings are displayed at his home, now part of the T.C. Steele State Historic Site, between Nashville and Bloomington.

“Steele opened Hoosiers’ eyes to the subtle beauty of Southern Indiana,” Perry says. “We don’t have dramatic landscape features, like mountains and oceans, but Steele’s landscapes made people realize our hills and woods are beautiful on their own. We get to see views that no longer exist.” 

Chris Newlund, 66
Where to see her work: Brown County Art Gallery, Brown County Art Guild, Gallery II in Indianapolis
Favorite place to paint: Brown County 

As a child, Chris Newlund was a nomad. 

Her father worked in the military, and the family lived in Japan, Germany and Korea. On vacations, they visited art museums in Amsterdam, Paris, London and Rome.

The impressionist paintings she saw there were her favorites.

“I was a creative child. I’ve always liked the lively, visible, broken brush strokes of the French impressionists,” Chris says.

She later married and started a family. They lived in Chicago, where Chris worked as a photographer and had her own studio. After her children grew, she and her husband moved to Southern Indiana in 2002.  

Once there, Chris quit photography and began painting with oil. As a member of the Indiana Plein Air Painters Association, she has won awards for her work in statewide shows, including Indiana Heritage Arts and the Hoosier Salon. Her artwork can also be found in corporate and private collections throughout Indiana and the United States, and in Brown County and Indianapolis galleries. 

Looking back on her earlier works, Chris sees her progression as an artist. 

“Every time you put a brush stroke down, you have decisions to make, like warm or cool colors, hard or soft edge, intensity or grayness and lightness or darkness,” Chris says. “You have to make those decisions carefully. Before I learned from workshops, I used to slap paint around.”

Chris has an indoor studio at home but usually paints outside, depending on the season. Her favorite areas include Brown County, New Harmony, West Baden, French Lick and Madison. While outdoors, she paints rapidly in anticipation of the change in lighting. 

“It’s wonderful if you can actually get out to paint in the winter, because the sun is so low in the sky and you have a lot of long shadows,” Chris says. “Early morning is when the light is just right. The trees bring out the mists and the hollows. The land here also holds the moisture and gives some really nice atmospheric effects when the sun comes up.”

Chris considers herself a country person. She loves living close to the woods because the trees, wildflowers and hills surround her everywhere she goes.

“I always look for beauty when I’m painting, especially out in nature,” Chris says. “I can’t help it.”

Chris paints Nashville and Brown County:

Ken Bucklew, 59
Oil, pencil
Where to see his work: Ken Bucklew Studio & Gallery, Brown County Art Gallery
Favorite place to paint: Owen County

Ken Bucklew might drive past the same spot 20 times and never notice it. Maybe it was overcast, or the wrong time of day.

“But when you see it after a rain, 5:30 in the afternoon, strong side light and mist coming up, it looks spectacular,” Ken says.

That scene may well be the basis for his next painting, which he’ll create at his home in Spencer, just across the street from McCormick’s Creek State Park. It’s the perfect location, he says, as all the colors and trees of Southern Indiana are right there in front of him.

“I’m inspired just looking out my window. I’m inspired just by the things I see every day, right here,” Ken says. “I tell people I’ve got 10 lifetimes' worth of stuff to do within 10 minutes of the house. And I really do.”

Ken took an interest in art at an early age. In his youth he was, in his own words, a “rainy-day doodler,” but by the time he was in high school, he was selling his first artwork. Even before that, his home of Owen County had already found an important place in his heart. 

“I knew every tree by the time I was in the second grade,” Ken says.

In the summer of 1975, he was preparing to study commercial art at Ivy Tech in Columbus, hoping to turn his passion into a true career. A diving accident in Minnesota that summer put those plans on hold.

Ken was left with a broken neck, and in the immediate aftermath was totally paralyzed. His spine was permanently damaged, but he started physical therapy to regain what movement he could. Drawing was an early focus.

“While I was in the hospital, I had an occupational therapist who would actually tape a brush to my hand and get me to doodle,” Ken says.

Ken drew on newsprint in the hospital to practice. Unknown to him, his mother held on to the drawings. A few years ago, his sister returned them to him.

Today, Ken has control of his arms and shoulders, but has limited feeling and dexterity in his fingers. Lightly gripping the brush is the most his hands can do. He’s developed his own method of painting, which relies on the movement of his upper arm and allows him a remarkable level of control and detail, a trademark of his work.

His work is sought after by clients looking for art that captures the feel of the region. 

“My stuff looks like the grandparent’s farm they used to visit, or when they used to go to IU and come over to the parks. My stuff looks like real, traditional, true Southern Indiana,” he says.

“I’m just like one of those Hoosier Group guys, just came along a hundred years later,” Ken says. “I just love Southern Indiana. This is where my heart is.”

Ken captures scenes in Owen County: