Art historian’s Thursday lecture highlights the working hero loved by society

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Lara Kuykendall, associate professor at Ball State University, presented "Heroes for Hard Times: American Art during the 1930s and 1940s" Thursday evening at the Beach Museum of Art. Kuykendall focused on artist portrayals of heroes such as veterans and African American folk hero John Henry. (Bailey Britton | Collegian Media Group)

With the recent release of such big ticket superhero films such as “Avengers: Endgame” and “Justice League” everyone could be asking themselves a question.

Why do we love heroes so much?

For one answer to that question, Lara Kuykendall, associate professor of art history at Ball State University, visited Kansas State University’s Beach Museum of Art to offer a look into American art during the 1930s and 1940s. Her talk focused on how artists used heroes to shape the art of the time.

With three art history degrees, including a doctorate in American art history from the University of Kansas, Kuykendall has extensive knowledge of art and how heroes have shaped our history.

This presentation aligned with the Beach Museum’s current exhibit “Celebrating Heroes: American Mural Studies of the 1930s and 1940s from the Steven and Susan Hirsch Collection.”

Kuykendall said prominent artists of the 1930s like Norman Rockwell, Palmer Hayden, Philip Evergood and others used everyday people as heroic figures, shaping what we see in today’s current heroes.

“We are still grappling with these issues today, they are obviously real American issues,” Kuykendall said. “I hope this conversation will open up a dialogue about what it means to be a hero in America.”

Heroes portrayed include legendary steel workers, like the story of John Henry in Palmer Hayden’s works, as well as Norman Rockwell and J. Howard Miller’s depictions of the strong wartime working woman Rosie the Riveter. Kuykendall said the artists of the time often presented real American people as heroes and why that is important to viewers.

Kuykendall said people “demand and fear strong leaders.” Heroes in art are often the key to “understanding social and political climate in which [the artists] worked.”

As the times have changed, heroes continue to be culturally relevant, said Barbara Gatewood, professor emeritus of apparel, textiles and interior design.

Contrary to the art presented in Kuykendall’s lecture, “many superheroes today appeal to children rather than adults,” Gatewood said.

So why have heroes, from 1940’s Rosie the Riveter to today’s Captain America, stayed so relevant through time?

“We look for heroes that will stand strong against unkind power,” said Christy Crenshaw, former K-State faculty member. And that, according to Crenshaw, has yet to change.

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