Art And Soul

Mead Cultural Education Center Director Crystal Nelson stands with two of the paintings that are set to be displayed as part of a permanent exhibit of artwork that once lined the walls at the Yankton State Hospital. (Rob Nielsen/P&D)

The Mead Cultural Education Center is giving the general public its first glimpse at some of the artwork that was once meant to help patients in deep crisis.

This Saturday, more than 25 pieces of art that had hung throughout the Yankton State Hospital — today, the Human Services Center (HSC) — campus will go on display to the public at the Mead Cultural Education Center.

Mead Cultural Education Center director Crystal Nelson told the Press & Dakotan that the artwork was part of Dr. Leonard C. Mead’s attempts to bring a sense of normalcy to the hospital.

“This is artwork that was originally purchased for the walls, the halls, the wards and the buildings here at the Yankton State Hospital,” Nelson said. “This would’ve been when Dr. Mead was here as superintendent, so we’re talking early 1900s. He had wanted to purchase the artwork to make the large wards feel a little more like home.”

She said Mead had a particular interest in filling the buildings of the Yankton State Hospital with watercolor paintings.

“The soft tones with it and everything was something he felt would bring solitude and comfort to the patients,” she said. “That was his goal — not only to make the wards feel warmer but to also give them an opportunity to transport out of their mind for a little while into something else that might be a little more comfortable.”

Nelson said the more than 300 pieces of artwork were acquired for the state hospital campus through Dr. Mead’s own collection of paintings, fundraising efforts and patients raising money through needlework and embroidery.

With major changes coming to the HSC property in the latter half of the 20th century, the artwork found itself increasingly stored away.

“As the buildings were vacated, the artwork, over time, would slowly get stored in smaller offices or it would go to storage rooms someplace in the maintenance building or something like that,” she said.

Nelson said that, in the 1980s, John A. Day — who served as the dean of Fine Arts at the University of South Dakota (USD) from 1980-2004 — worked with the hospital and the state of South Dakota to acquire the remaining artwork and bring it to the USD Art Department.

Though the collection had shrunk some, with various paintings being removed for undocumented reasons over the years, Day recovered more than 200 pieces that had been in the hospital.

“When John took the collection, he made an assessment,” Nelson said. “He took the pieces that were a higher value or nicer quality and kept those as what he called the ‘permanent collection.’ The lesser valued ones, he sold at an auction to help pay for the restoration of the nicer pieces.”

Many of the restored pieces are on display at Old Main on the USD campus, while other restored pieces will make up part of the museum’s collection

She added that it was Day himself who first helped pitch the idea of bringing the paintings back to the HSC campus as plans came together for the Mead Building.

“I initially had talked to John Day when this project started,” she said. “He came to me and said, ‘Hey, by the way, we have the artwork at USD and I would love to see it come back.’ This has been 10 years in the making, so for us, it was quite an emotional move on Friday when they finally returned the pieces.”

While many of the pieces will be displayed in two designated rooms, Nelson said two pieces that had previously hung in the Mead Building will be returned to their original settings.

Searching For Dr. Mead

Day’s “permanent collection” came to around 75 works of art.

Nelson described the fates of the other paintings as “part of the big mystery” — a mystery that both the USD Art Department and museum officials would like to solve.

“We would really like to put together a pamphlet of information that shows which pieces of art you can see on public display,” Nelson said. “As part of that, we would like to do a documentation project and encourage people that, if they have pieces either they bought from that auction or passed down in families — we really don’t care how the people acquired the other pieces — we just want to find them. We just want to know which ones are still around.”

She added that the museum isn’t looking to force people to give up any artwork they’ve acquired.

“Maybe they don’t care if they have it anymore and want to return it to the collection — we’d be so excited — but really, we want to just document all of them so we can find all of them,” she said. “We don’t have any intention of asking or forcing or guilting anybody into returning the pieces if they have it. We just want to know which ones are accounted for and which ones aren’t.”

The paintings can be identified with a small brass number on the bottom of the frame with a description of the painting and could potentially be checked against an inventory that was done of the paintings on the campus in 1937.

There is, however, one painting the museum would absolutely love to have as part of its permanent collection.

“There is one that the Historical Society is eager to see returned,” she said. “That is the painting of Dr. Leonard C. Mead that was done by Yankton’s own Louis Janousek. It’s listed under the 1937 inventory that Louis Janousek had painted Dr. Mead. We kind of have a placeholder over the staircase right in the center for that painting, if we can ever find it.”

More than Artwork

Nelson said that it’s exciting to have the artwork back where it had helped so many.

“Having it back here is bringing it home and bringing it back to where it’s originally supposed to be,” she said. “It’s not just artwork — although the artwork is beautiful —it meant more when it was originally acquired because it was for the patients. It was a time at the hospital before medication was available, so having the artwork on the walls gave the facility more of a comfort feeling.”

She added that this is only the beginning of the Mead Cultural Education Center’s recognition of HSC’s past.

“This is the first phase of the HSC exhibit,” she said. “It’s called, ‘Yankton State Hospital: Minds, Methods and Medicine.’ We hope to get that exhibit opened by the end of the year.”

Follow @RobNielsenPandD on Twitter.

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