Art Department believes in value of a dream

John C. Thorns Jr. has spent more than two decades waiting, somewhat impatiently, he admits, to learn the value of a friend's art collection.

Thorns was chair of Fort Hays State University's Art Department in 1983 when Leora Belle Stroup donated her collection of Asian scrolls, some dating as far back as 1615, to the university.

"Leora came to me and said, 'I'd like to give you these scrolls,'" Thorns said. "They were a tremendous gift. We felt privileged to be given such a gift, but weren't in a position to establish the value of the collection. It's always been a dream of mine to establish the scrolls' value."

That dream is becoming a reality with the help of Linda J. Fleming, who recently received her master's degree in international studies from Oklahoma State University. While working on her graduate thesis on Asian art, Fleming studied just a few of the nearly 40 scrolls.

She conducted her research from a set of photographs taken during a campus visit in January 2005. With the help of the staff of the Kampo Museum in Kyoto, Japan, she translated the inscriptions on the works and interpreted the meaning of each piece.

Fleming received a Graduate Research Excellence Award from OSU in May.

A recent visit to FHSU allowed Fleming the opportunity to see all the scrolls in the collection for the first time.
"During Linda's visit, we made an extensive visual record for continued study with the help of a professional photographer, Leon Staab," said Leland Powers, current chair of the Art Department. "Because it's logistically unwise to take them to other locations for study, it is necessary to have clear, accurate images of each piece."

Fleming estimates that most of the scrolls -- rich pictoral and calligraphic images painted on rice paper and mounted on silk in a traditional Chinese manner -- date between 1615 and 1868, placing them in the Edo period of Japan.

They include images of landscapes, coastal views, flora and fauna of the East, and traditional Asian figures, including Samurai.

"The scrolls are mostly Japanese, there are a few Chinese and one is Korean, we believe," said Fleming. "One of the wonderful things about this collection is that it's very eclectic. It's very diverse with lots of artists' perspectives."

The visit also was an opportunity for Fleming to learn more about the woman behind the scrolls from someone who knew her well, Thorns.

"Leora was very vivacious, well-educated and well-traveled," he said.

Stroup was born in 1901 in Windham, Ohio. During the next 84 years, she blazed her own trail around the world. She was a pilot and a member of the Civil Air Patrol and owned her own plane. She served as an Army nurse for five years and was instrumental in starting the first air evacuation school at Bowman Field, Louisville, Ky. She was the world's first air evacuation instructor and wrote the curriculum for the program. Stroup single-handedly started the nursing school at Fort Hays State University, which is accredited by the National League for Nursing because of her efforts. She was known world-wide as an expert on nursing and nursing education.

In her spare time, Stroup enjoyed photography, boating, playing the piano and organ, scrapbooking, and hosting parties for her students and colleagues.

She also amassed an extensive art collection, picking up pieces from all over the world. In addition to the scrolls, Stroup collected kimonos, tea sets, bells, vases, dolls, and glass birds and animals -- especially little elephants.
In 1981, four years before her death, Stroup Hall, home of FHSU's Nursing Department, was named and dedicated in honor of the former dean of the College of Nursing, the woman who taught every lecture and practice work class for her first students in two rooms, using orange crates for bedside tables.

Fleming hopes that someday, the world will hear the story of Leora Belle Stroup.

"My personal goal is to research the rest of the scrolls, create a catalogue and to maybe even exhibit them again," she said. "I hope that someday a novel will be written about Stroup's life, maybe even a movie.

"Whether I conduct more research within a doctorate program or not, I'll continue to research the scrolls with the goal to make a catalogue. That book would be a tangible resource for Fort Hays State University and other students," Fleming said.

Powers is deeply appreciative of Fleming's dedication to the project and the quality of her work.

"Some of the pieces are equivalent to those in significant collections on display in large art museums," he said. "Having Linda's knowledge and dedication is valuable. We need to establish attribution of pieces. She takes the time and makes the commitment necessary to conduct quality research."

Thorns may have to wait a few more years before he knows precisely what the collection is worth, but right now he knows the value of Fleming and her dedication.
"You are an answer to a prayer," he told her.

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