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Posts Tagged ‘South Dakota’

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Blachnik’s watercolor designs – Top left: Mt. Rushmore Visitor’s Center; Top right: USD Fine Arts building; Bottom left: ID Weeks Library; Bottom right: mid-century modernist house design. 

When you’re walking through USD’s buildings, whether you’re trying to get to class on time or deciding if getting that bagel is worth being late – and let’s face it, sometimes it is – do you ever think about how this campus used to exist only in the minds of skilled artists? Although American culture places high value on STEM fields over the arts, the world of architecture offers a unique look into a field that needs both mathematics and art in order to be successful.

One thing I learned about architecture is that the field needs more than calculated blueprint squares to convince a building investor. A good interior plan will demonstrate a strong sense of size, space, and functionality, but it falls short in one area: what is this building actually going to look like?

Enter architectural illustrator and artist Robert Blachnik. Although many today use technology to help bring their visions to life, many buildings that we still use frequently (hello ID Weeks Library!) first became actualized through hands-on art techniques that Blachnik and many other designers used: hand-drawn illustration and watercolor painting.

Blachnik’s story begins like many other American stories. Born in 1922, he was raised in a small town called Tyndall, South Dakota. Even though he was a second-generation American, Blachnik did not speak English until he was old enough to attend school because his family wanted to keep their Bohemian language and culture alive. Blachnik was smart, too. Eventually, he received a scholarship to attend Harvard’s architectural design program and studied under world-famous German architect Walter Gropius. If you don’t know who he is, he’s the trailblazer for the mid-century modernist style of architecture prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s. After studying under the architectural genius and obtaining his master’s degree, Blachnik was ready create his own space in the world by creating spaces for everyday people.

Blachnik illustrated buildings that we are familiar with on campus, including the ID Weeks Library and the Fine Arts building. Blachnik also designed other buildings around Southeastern South Dakota: apartments, other college campus buildings, public schools, hospitals, religious buildings, office buildings, and shopping centers – even the visitor’s center at Mt. Rushmore – all these first came to life through his hand-drawn illustrations and watercolors.

The Archives and Special Collections at USD is thrilled to have nearly all of Blachnik’s photographic renderings. His collection is almost 3.5 feet long and is filled with photographs of his beautiful watercolors. If you attend USD, you will likely find an artistic vision that materialized into a structure you now see every day. If you’re a local South Dakotan, you’re bound to see several buildings you will recognize. We may not always think of something like our own campus or town as art when we’re going through our daily routines, but looking at Blachnik’s photographs reminds us of the simple beauty that surrounds us every day, in the buildings that are markers of who we are.

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When I took the graduate class in historiography in Fall 2016 as a requirement of the Master’s degree program in USD’s history department, I was very excited when my professor Dr. Molly Rozum announced that the class would be working directly with historical materials in the USD archives. My class had the responsibility of doing the preliminary organization and processing of the Krueger-Kruse collection, the personal correspondence and papers of Carrie and Herman Krueger, written at the end of the 19th century – the Krueger family donated the collection to the care of the USD archivists. I had some experience with archiving as an undergraduate, having taken an archiving class at Augustana, so I was looking forward to the chance to dig into historical documents again with the Krueger-Kruse collection.

The sense of connection with the past was palpable as I propped open the lid of the acid-free box and gently lifted out the letters from their folders, the correspondence still neatly tucked into envelopes postmarked with dates from more than a century before. The contents of the box I worked on mainly consisted of letters from relatives and friends to the future Carrie Krueger, then Carrie Kruse, during her time as a young unmarried woman working as a teacher in a schoolhouse in rural Illinois. The authors of the letters, usually Carrie’s brother and sisters or her sister in law Emma, were frequent correspondents, often writing several times a month to fill Carrie in on the news back home.

The letters contained some unexpected items as well, slipped in between the musty folds of letter paper – in one I found a small brown twig Carrie’s brother sent her as a souvenir of his mother in law’s attempts as an amateur naturalist during a family stroll in the countryside. I found myself chuckling at Fred’s account to Carrie in the accompanying letter, describing his good humored impatience with “Ma’s” interest in collecting odds and ends on their walk. In another I discovered several fronds of dried fern leaves pressed between the musty folds of letter paper, so delicate they threatened to disintegrate with the lightest touch. The little scrap of paper with a child’s drawing of a little girl in nineteenth century clothing was probably my favorite find though, tucked in with a letter detailing news of the family Christmas.

What I remember best about my experience archiving the collection though was the emotional connection I felt with Carrie and her relatives when reading her letters. Having worked as a teacher’s aid in a preschool in the past, I sympathised when Carrie’s relatives tried to offer consolation for her stories of the sometimes bumpy process of starting her job as a schoolteacher. And I could not help but be drawn in to the series of letters between Carrie and Emma in which they discussed Carrie’s then secret feelings for her future husband Herman, and enthusiastically discussed Carrie and Herman’s planned summer meeting at the Chicago World’s Fair, where Carrie felt she would finally decide if Herman was Mr. Right. It seems obvious that people of all times have always gone through the everyday things of life like the anxiety of starting a new job, or the excitement, sometimes thrilling but sometimes exasperating, of a budding relationship. However, reading all about it in the spidery handwriting of a nineteenth century woman, different from me and yet in many ways the same, was a poignant reminder that everyone can relate to the struggles of young adulthood, even people from over a century ago.

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