There are over 250 museums in Nebraska, and they all tell a slightly different story about our history. In Lincoln, 12 museums collaborated to tell that story together – using art, sculpture, quilts, and even owl skulls. This story is part of a series "When Things Speak" featuring curators and their stories about objects they chose for the Things Speak exhibit at the Sheldon Museum of Art.
Elizabeth Dolan is well known for the huge mural she painted in the Law Library at the Nebraska State Capitol, titled “The Spirit of the Prairie." The mural features a pioneer woman overlooking vast grasslands. Karen Wagner, the Capitol’s archivist, has a rough draft of Dolan’s mural, called a maquette, that shows Dolan playing with the theme of the prairie woman before and after painting the Statehouse mural.
At top, Elizabeth Dolan's maquette and, at bottom, Dolan's mural at the Nebraska State Capitol's Law Library. (Images courtesy of the Nebraska Capitol Collections.)
The thing I really love about this maquette is that it came to us totally by chance.
The artist who had the studio next to Elizabeth Dolan’s at the time of her death happened to come by as there were women in her studio cleaning up. And he found the maquette laying on the trash pile. And he saved it.
He knew what the maquette was, he preserved it, his daughters knew what it was. Later, we were contacted by his daughters. They said, “We have this, do you want it?”
And we were very excited to take this in! We went and we visited with them, we interviewed them about what they remembered, and they had this great handwritten documentation from their father, Herman Rumpeltes. it was sitting in his studio their whole life. He added a frame at some point but other than that, he did very little to it. It’s great.
The Things Speak Exhibit at the Sheldon Museum of Art is a collaborative exhibit featuring storied objects from 12 museums in Lincoln. Things Speak is open until February 8. After February 8, all objects in the exhibit will return to their home collections. (Photo courtesy Sheldon Museum of Art.)
Learn more about the Nebraska Capitol Collections.
Elizabeth Dolan contacted the Capitol Commission and wanted to make a gift to the people of the state of Nebraska. She offered to do this mural in exchange for her costs. So the state paid for the paints and the supplies that she needed to create the mural, and they provided scaffolding for her to work on. But the mural itself was free. She donated it.
You can look at the maquette, and it really is a maquette — a model, a mockup — of what she worked on and you can see that she worked with it past our mural, that she cut out pieces and rearranged them and repainted it and reworked it. She continued to work with the idea of this prairie mother-theme past the "Spirit of the Prairie" mural, and she certainly produced other prairie woman-themed paintings. There's one at the Museum of Nebraska Art.
In the mural that her skirt is billowing out to the right and that there was a boy and a dog down to her left. And in the maquette, this is actually craft paper that’s mounted on a masonite product, and you can see where the craft paper has been torn away and she’s painted directly on the masonite to reshape the skirt. And then down here on the left you can see a silhouette where there was once a boy and a dog. And she took the boy out and then moved the dog to the right side of the painting.
This composition is not the same as our mural. Nor is it the same as the piece at the Museum of Nebraska Art. She obviously reworked this, at least once but my speculation is more than once, and repainted it and replayed with the idea until she really got what she was looking for.
I would love to find the piece that has the layout of our current maquette, but I’ve never been able to find evidence that there was one. I just keep thinking if she reworked it this way, she must have had a plan.