FHSU Art Department commemorates centennial with a book

Some occasions deserve to be marked in an extraordinary way, and when the 100th anniversary of Fort Hays State University rolled around, the Art Department decided to do just that.

The recently published 100 Years, 1902-2002: Department of Art -- Fort Hays State University chronicles the department's voyage from meager beginnings to its current standing as a force to be reckoned with.

"The written record has been made possible through the efforts of Grace Witt," said John C. Thorns Jr., former chair of the department. "Her insight, research ability and attention to detail have produced a record of 100 years of the visual arts on the plains of western Kansas."

Grace P. Witt, retired FHSU professor of English, penned the book at the behest of Thorns to coincide with the university's Centennial celebration.

"Without him (Thorns) and his records, parts of it would have been impossible to write," said Witt.

Witt interviewed members of the art faculty to obtain details about the department, biographical information and anecdotes from their time spent at FHSU. For those whom she could not reach, the information came from their former colleagues or the department newsletters.

"The project would never have been completed without her personal interest," said Thorns. "Such dedication has turned a dream into a historical record."

The book's 177 pages are divided into several categories: the first 50 years, the last 50 years, former faculty, current faculty, an epilogue, FHSU exhibitions, the annual high school art show, friends of the visual arts and two appendices written by Thorns.

The book provides great insight into the growth and development of the Art Department and its facilities over the last century and delves deeply into the lives of its faculty.

Although the lack of documentation of the department's first years causes them to be somewhat mysterious, the book fills in as many of the blanks as possible. Details of the early years were carefully pieced together from two sources: a catalog that began in 1902 and the yearbook, which began in 1914.

Although the book contains no artwork, per se, it does include a few pages of photographs of art department faculty and facilities -- past and present. In addition, much attention is paid to describing the permanent collections and exhibitions housed by FHSU.

The epilogue addresses the dangers of working with certain art materials and chemicals sans protection, citing several artists from the department who have, sadly, succumbed to cancer from handling these toxic materials.

One such case was that of Skip Harwick, former professor of art who developed lung cancer, thought to have been caused by inhaling the fumes from the resin he used for the substance he created called artificial marble, made from secret artificial ingredients. After he became ill he admitted that he had used no precautions to protect himself.

Fortunately, these tragedies have inspired many changes in departmental policies and procedures. One helpful factor was the November 1986 Health Hazards Conference, sponsored by and held at FHSU. The speaker, Monona Rossoll, then president of the Center for Occupational Hazards and director of the Arts Hazards Information Center, worked as a research chemist, ceramics teacher, art conservator and actress -- a unique combination of interests that led her to be an advocate of artists for health hazards.

"My obsession with art hazards began the day I went to the Art Department from chemistry (at the University of Wisconsin)," said Rossoll. "I found artists working with the same materials (as chemists) but with no ventilated hoods, no danger warnings, no chemical splash goggles. All the precautions we had been taught in chemistry were unknown to them."

Other integral parts of the book are the sections dedicated to the faculty. The biographies take an interesting look into the lives of these artists, as well as allowing them to share fond memories of their time spent at FHSU.

"The joy in this entire process came in interviewing these artists," said Witt. "They are a remarkable group of people."

Leland Powers, current chair of the Department of Art, recalled his introduction to the department. Originally a business major, Powers enrolled in an introduction to art class that ended up changing his major and his life.

"It consumed me. In fact, I believe I quit going to other classes for a while," said Powers.

Darrell McGinnis, retired professor of art, shed light on the success of the Art Department.

"We always had fun disagreeing. It was very invigorating," said McGinnis. "Skip Harwick was a wonderful person to disagree with. I still miss him a lot, and that atmosphere in which you could disagree without becoming angry. The department was strengthened by that diversity, as long as it didn't divide, which it never did."

"The Art Department generally agreed on our basic mission even though we all had a different way of getting there," said McGinnis. "All of it meshed together, and I think our students respected the fact that we were all trying for the same goal."

Other intriguing stories range from current Professor Mick Jilg's mistaken enrollment in art courses, after wandering into the wrong part of Davis Hall, to Kathleen Kuchar, retired professor, passing up more money elsewhere to teach at FHSU, believing that environment was more important than money.

In spite of the department's rather fundamental beginnings 100 years ago, offering only one class, it has grown exponentially, now offering a multitude of degrees and attracting students from all over the globe.

"The fact is that the department's influence has gone beyond the borders of Kansas and is known nationally and internationally," said Thorns.

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