Mammoth Plein Air Easel
Another sunflower season has come and gone and this one was amazing. Our neighbor, Farmer Ted, grows about sixty acres of sunflowers for a birdseed crop every year. The sunflower is the official symbol of the state of Kansas. Western Kansas has enormous fields of them. Around here, though, they are not common as a crop.
We have painted them for nearly a decade, often quite alone. Over the years, there has been increasing television and social media coverage of Ted’s fields. This year it was estimated around twenty thousand cars showed up over one weekend to see them! This intense public interest closed roads and highway exits near us. Ted’s sunflower fields are exceptionally beautiful because they roll up and over hills lined by trees—looking very much like sunflower fields in Provence, France. We took our plein air easels and our oil painting class to paint for a day in a secluded corner. Getting back out again later against the flood of cars took some time.
Recently, when driving across Kansas from teaching a workshop in Wyoming, we approached the sunflower fields near the town of Goodland. We decided to pull off the highway in what is known as “The Sunflower Capital of Kansas.” In 2000, Goodland hired an artist to create a giant van Gogh sunflower painting on a a giant plein air easel. The Canadian artist, Cameron Cross, was commissioned to create the enormous construction that would attract attention to the town from nearby Interstate 70. Mr. Cross has been building these giant easels and van Gogh paintings for some years. His goal is to recreate all seven of van Gogh’s sunflower themes, placed in various locations around the world. The Goodland project is number three. Van Gogh’s Three Sunflowers in a Vase reproduction measures seven meters by ten meters (approximately twenty-three by thirty-three feet). It is mounted on a steel easel that is eighty-two feet tall. As you might imagine, this is one of the tallest objects around in a landscape renowned for its flatness. It is visible for miles.
We enjoyed stopping for a few minutes to stretch and look at the sculpture, which is impressively large up close. It was with mixed and conflicting feelings that we appraised it. On one hand, we suppose that this appropriation of van Gogh’s work might have some educational benefit. It does draw attention to his art in an odd way. And, it does affirm that it is acceptable for a little western town to use public funds to support a large art project that can return benefits to the town through public exposure and goodwill.
But, on the other hand, we’re not so sure van Gogh would have put his stamp of approval on it.
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