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Way of life lives on in Krans' work

BISHOP HILL -- With colorful strokes of his brush, Olaf Krans froze in time the stoic faces of those who helped settle this Swedish communal colony 150 years ago.

Mr. Krans, who would become one of the United States' most recognized folk artists, also captured the colonists side by side at work, in scenes of planting and harvesting fields and sinking pilings for a bridge.

Today, Cheryl Dowell considers herself lucky because, when she goes to work, she is surrounded by about 90 of Mr. Krans' paintings. They remind her of the hard work and frugal lives of her ancestors, who were among the first Bishop Hill settlers.

Dispatch/Argus Photo By Lydia Sage

Cheryl Dowell, curator of Bishop Hill State Historic Site Museum, looks at one of the paintings by folk artist Olaf Krans, a Swedish immigrant who moved to the colony shortly after it was founded. Mr. Krans chronicled life in Bishop Hill in dozens of works he painted in the later years of his life.

Ms. Dowell's job as curator of the Bishop Hill State Historic Site Museum gives her the chance to tell people about the rich history of this once-thriving Swedish colony.

Her job would be more difficult if it were not for Mr. Krans' paintings. ``He left us such a rich history,'' she said. ``It's just amazing, the gift that he gave to us.''

While he painted many of his 70 portraits of Bishop Hill settlers from early photographs, his scenes of the colony buildings, homes and work were oaubted from memory, she said.

``The work scenes are very important because they show us just how colonists worked together,'' she said.

Mr. Krans was about 12 when he and his family journeyed from Sweden to the colony. As a youngster, he worked as an ox boy, helping lead the oxen that were so important in many facets of everyday life.

As an adult, Mr. Krans became a house and sign painter. Later in life, he took up an artist's brush and left the community a living legacy of its early days, Ms. Dowell said.

Mr. Krans preserved what likely is the best representation of life in the communal society, founded in 1846 by spiritual leader Erik Jansson. ``How he had the ability to paint the pictures he did from memory is fascinating,'' Ms. Dowell said.

One painting, titled ``Butcher Boys on a Bender,'' was on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., about 20 years ago, she said.

The painting shows Mr. Krans' humorous side, which also can be detected in the ``twinkle'' in his eyes in a 1908 self-portrait he painted at age 70, eight years before his death, she said.

Ms. Dowell said all but seven of the 70 settlers' portraits depict ``Swedish eyes'' with pale blue irises ringed in black. ``That's the way Olaf saw them,'' she said, noting the other seven people were painted with brown eyes.

``Descendants come and look up their people quite often,'' she said, adding that some are taken aback by the starkness of the portraits.

``I just tell them that most of the paintings were made from photographs, and back then photography was such a new thing. Sometimes people would have to sit for hours for a photograph.''

Although most of Mr. Krans' collection was painted in the late 1800s and early 1900s, he did not gain widespread recognition until the mid-1960s, she said. ``People started appreciating folk art and the historical significance of the paintings about 30 years ago.''

She said former Gov. Jim Thompson helped secure state funds for the museum, which opened in 1989.

``We think it may be one of the only museums in the country to feature strictly the work of one artist. We think he is the only artist having his own museum,'' she said.

Most of the paintings were stored in the Bishop Hill Colony Church until the state stepped in to build the museum, she said.

``It was fortunate that the paintings were still in such good shape. People can remember children playing around the paintings for years,'' said Ms. Dowell, who also serves as assistant site manager for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which owns and oversees the museum and several historic Bishop Hill buildings.

Some of the paintings have been loaned to Sweden, and King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden walked through the museum when they visited Bishop Hill in 1996, during the village's 150th-birthday celebration.

The museum is open every day except major holidays.

``It might be one of Bishop Hill's best-kept secrets,'' Ms. Dowell said. ``We would like to share it with everyone.''

-- By Lydia Sage (January 22, 1998)

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