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Kansas Geological Survey, Open-file Report 2006-11

Kansas Geology as Landscape Art: Interpretation of Geology from Artistic Works

Daniel F. Merriam, John R. Charlton, and William, W. Hambleton

KGS Open File Report 2006-11

And what anatomy is to the figure painter,
such is geology to a landscape artist
Miss Lizzie J. Williams, 1872


Many regional artists have portrayed the geology of Kansas faithfully and with realism. Since the turn of the 20th Century, these artists have painted and drawn most of the countryside in the state. Their work and that of skillful and artistic geologists are compared and contrasted. Eight prominent regional artists, Louis Copt, J. Steuart Curry, Raymond Eastwood, Phil Epp, J.R. Hamil, Stan Herd, Birger Sandzén, and Robert Sudlow are used to demonstrate how to interpret geology in their landscapes.

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The Canvas and Palette

We have explored the art created by geologists working in Kansas in a previous paper (Merriam, Hambleton, and Charlton, 2005). It seemed appropriate then to follow that up with a study of artists who depicted the geology of the Kansas in their landscapes. It is easy to interpret geology from art work in areas where the geology is well exposed and prominently displayed, but more challenging where it is more subdued and may be hidden by vegetation such as in Kansas.

Geologists have the ability to represent the geology they see in the field on drawing paper or canvas--an inherit ability and one that was used extensively in the classical (pre-computer) period in geology. Note the superior artistic work of the gifted amateur, R.C. Moore in his work in Kansas (Merriam, 2006). Artists, on the other hand, tend to see a scene from the composition, light, and perspective, which includes the geology. We explore how well Kansas geology is represented by artistic works of several indigenous Kansas artists.

Landscapes in the central part of the United States require special considerations. Whereas artists, such as Frederick Church, Thomas Moran, and Albert Bierstadt, painted the grandeur and spectacular scenery of mountains and waterfalls in the American West in glorious technicolor (Davidson, 1974; Hambleton, 1998), artists in the central interior of the continent are presented with only subdued topography and meandering rivers in drab earth colors--quite a contrast. A certain amount of imagination and visualization is required to represent these landscapes on canvas or paper, but the successful artist had and has the qualities necessary to do it. These and other artists were influenced, at least, to some extent by the writings of John Ruskin, the British philosopher and aesthetician, who demanded truth in art and scientific accuracy.

Evaluated here are native or adopted sons of the state: Louis Copt, J. Steuart Curry, Raymond Eastwood, Philip Epp, J.R. Hamil, Stan Herd, Birger Sandzén, and Robert Sudlow, all noted regional Kansas artists (Fig. 2). Although these eight Regionalists worked with landscapes in other parts of the country and subjects other than landscapes, we have concentrated on their contributions to Kansas.

Table 1. Eight Kansas Native or Adopted Sons Regional artists.

Louis Copt (1949- , Emporia)
J. Steuart Curry (1897-1946, Dunavent)
Raymond Eastwood (1898-1987, Bridgeport, Conn.)
Philip Epp (1946- , Newton)
J.R. Hamil 1936- , Hastings, Nebraska)
Stan Herd (1950- , near Protection)
Birger Sandzén (1871-1954, Blidsberg, Sweden)
Robert Sudlow (1920- , Holton)

We look at this group of artists and their landscapes to note and comment on the geology shown in these scenes as interpreted by us. In most instances, the geology is steadfastly depicted, although possibly not realized by the artist. These Regionalists painted their landscapes, as the Hudson River School, with authenticity, conviction, and realism. Recognizing the dreadful impact of the forces of nature, they also were aware of the changes wrought by these forces and portrayed them as well. Landscape artists were and are appreciative of the might of nature and often depicted this force that sculptured the landscape in their art. Nature's forces of water and wind such as tornados, thunder storms, fire, floods, and dust storms were subjects. These subjects were favorites of the Regionalists, who painted in the great outdoors in the Midwest where weather and its results are generally the most important daily topic.

The Paint is Mixed

Landscape art came of age in America in the 19th century with the likes of Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Church, Thomas Cole, Jasper Cropsey, Asher Durand, Sanford Gifford, Martin Heade, David Johnson, John Kensett, Thomas Moran, Worthington Whittredge, and others (Hambleton, 1998). Most of these artists were self taught with little formal education; most read widely and traveled and studied abroad from time to time; most were devote believers and had an appreciation for the lay of the land ( geology); all were extremely talented and prolific. Several had made trips with land survey parties and seen and painted the wonders of the American West. Thus, landscape art in the New World was recognized and accepted by the turn of the 20th, which is were we begin our story.

The 20th Century artists were much of the same ilk as those of the 19th Century, but better educated, perhaps more widely traveled, and just as prolific. They had some advantages that were not available to the earlier artists. Some, such as Sandzén, Hamil, and Copt, were acquainted with geologists and thus aware of the geological foundation they were depicting.

The Paint is Applied

There are numerous Kansas artists who are deserving, but we have selected eight who we believe are representative of our thesis. Their styles are diverse, but their subject is the same--Kansas landscapes.

Birger Sandzén (1871-1954), an impressionist, came from Sweden to Kansas as a young man to teach at Bethany College in Lindsborg; he was instrumental in the founding of the Prairie Print Makers. Sandzén's lithographs, woodcuts, and watercolors are striking, but his oils are overwhelming at first sight--bright and bold; on closer look, the oils are dabbed on in heavy short strokes. This style when viewed at a distance gives a 3D perspective to the painting. He concentrated his work on the Smoky Hills near Lindsborg depicting the Cretaceous Dakota Sandstone and farther west in Kansas in the Cretaceous Niobrara chalk beds. His realistic paintings of the rocks in the Smoky Hills undoubtedly is the result of his association with a fellow countryman and close friend, Fritiof Fryxell, professor of geology at Augustana College (Lindquist, 1993). A museum at Bethany College in Lindsborg features some of Sandzén's puissant renditions. He is known as the American Van Gogh although he did not recognize this designation.

John Steuart Curry (1897-1946), arguably Kansas' most famous native son artist and painter of rural genre, was well versed in Kansas' lore and probably is best known for his John Brown mural in the State Capitol in Topeka. He one of the triumvirate of regional painters of contemporary America which included Curry (Kansas), Grant Wood (Iowa), and Thomas Hart Benton (Missouri). Curry gave a hint of the terrible destructive potentials of a Kansas tornado in his rendition of Tornado Over Kansas, 1929 (Fig. 1). His The Line Storm, 1935, also gives the viewer the impression of the awful powerful approaching storm (Fig. 2). Equally impressive is his Kansas River Flood (1929) which shows an animal-filled island sanctuary in the swirling flood waters. Being born in Kansas where the acts of nature are so obvious, he had an appreciation for their destructive work (Schmeckebier, 1943). Dust storms were prevalent in Kansas in the 1930s and Alexandre Hogue's (1898-1994) Dust Bowl, 1933 is used as one of the graphic examples (Fig. 3). Dust storms also were the subject of other artists including Curry and Adolf Dehn (1895-1968).

Figure 1. Tornado Over Kansas, by J. Steuart Curry (1929) (oil)

Painting of farm family hurrying to tornado shelter as storm approaches.

Figure 2. The Line Storm by J. Steuart Curry (1935) (oil)

Painting of thunder storm approaching farm; dark blue clouds with lightening; on hill is a wagon carrying a load of hay.

Figure 3. Dust Bowl, by Alexandre Hogue (1933) (oil)

Painting of sand dunes surroundung broken barb wire fence; sky is dark black and red from sandstorm; sun shines above the dark cloud.

Raymond Eastwood (1898-1987) a long-time faculty member at the University of Kansas was a talented artist and a able teacher. His landscapes were simple subject-wise, but long on details and composition. His specialty was modern landscapes, which are smooth with fine lines showing the detail. Many of his best works were of realistic sand dunes along the sea coast in Cape Cod. These paintings and his portrayal of the wide open spaces of the American West were particularly well received.

Robert Sudlow (1920- ) was born in Holton, Kansas, and after a stint of four years as a pilot in the US Navy during WWII joined the faculty at the University of Kansas (Wichita Art Museum, 1993). His paintings, many in the Osage Cuesta country in the eastern part of the state and of the Flint Hills in east-central Kansas, have a distinctive 'soft' style in earth-tones of brownish and reddish (Fig. 4). Many of his paintings are wide and narrow mimicking the countryside and depict the diminished topography over which is a threatening sky. The subdued topography of the Osage Cuesta country makes for difficulty in seeing and understanding the underpinnings of the Pennsylvanian rock sequence which forms this interesting physiography province. Many of his landscapes are of the country in the vicinity of Lawrence and just at the edge of or south of the glaciated region.

Figure 4. Snowfield South of Stull (Osage Cuestas), by Robert Sudlow (1986) (oil)

Painting of gentle grass-covered hills in winter; leaveless shrubs at edge of fields; tan grasses with snow in spots.

J.R. Hamil (1936- ) is a native Nebraskan from Hastings and former illustrator for Hallmark Cards who understands geology and his watercolors show this understanding. His work also shows the exploitation of mineral resources (Hamil, 1984). His appreciation of the geology is noted in a statement by his wife "Kansas is a geologist's paradise," (Sharon Hamil, Return to Kansas, 1984). His work gives the impression of wide-open spaces; the colors are bright and vivid. Attention to detail of the lay of the land underscores his appreciation of the geology (Fig. 5). He has shown most of the physiographic areas of Kansas with his watercolors. Places and people of this state are not overlooked in his work either. Included in his work are most of the physiographic areas of Kansas including the Red Hills and the glaciated region.

Figure 5. Konza Prairie National Area (Flint Hills), by J.R. Hamil (watercolor)

Painting of gentle, green hills on central Kansas; jeep on road crossing painting; a few trees in low point between two hills; all grassland in painting with very little sky.

Phil Epp (1946-) is known for his panoramic landscapes--wide open space with a low horizon and a big, bright sky and impressive billowy, thunderhead clouds (Fig. 6).

Figure 6. Flint Hills Mustang (High Plains), by Philip Epp (oil)

Painting of tall white thunderhead in intense blue sky; small piece of earth at bottom with horses (in outline) on horizon.

Louis Copt (1949-) has a bold and faithful approach to his oils and watercolors. His Flint Hills portrayals are most impressive. His depiction of the annual burning of the Flint Hills as fire scenes to preserve their uniqueness are well known and appreciated (Fig. 7). He was the resident artist on a river trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1991 with a party of geologists (Baars and Buchanan, 1991). His river scenes, such as the deceptively quiet Kaw (Kansas) River, are particularly serene and beautiful.

Figure 7. Fenceline Fire, by Louis Copt (2006) (oil)

Painting of evening on flint hills; grassfire at crest of hill in background; fire around fenceline in forground.

Stan Herd (1950-) is a different type of artist creating his work in the field as what he terms as crop art (Herd, 1994). He constructs many of his earthworks on the High Plains where they can be seen best from the air. The design or figure is made by color differences of crops in the field, with plowed lines, or designs with colored rock. He likens his approach to methods used in the fine-arts printing process with similarities with intaglio techniques (Herd, 1994, p. 25). He uses the rock to create designs, such as the 'quilt' on the Kansas (Kaw) River levee in Lawrence for Independence Day in 1988 (Fig. 8). Most of his art work will only be preserved by pictures as eventually they disappear as the landscape changes.

Figure 8. Stan Herd's Kansas (Kaw) River Levee Below Bowersock Dam in Lawrence (1988).

Photo of mural on levee in Lawrence; colored stones showing flowers in a quilt pattern.

Lay of the Land

The forces of nature are aptly rendered by several of the artists who appreciate their destructive force. The Line Storm by Curry (Fig. 2), Tornado Over Kansas by Curry (Fig. 1), Dust Bowl by Hogue (Fig. 3), Fenceline Fire by Copt (Fig. 7), Sanctuary (1927 Kaw River flood) by Curry (Fig. 9), and Kansas River by Copt (Fig. 10). Each of these forces, wind and water, can be destructive to the landscape forming the features we see now.

Figure 9. Sanctuary (1927 Kaw River Flood), by J. Steuart Curry (1935) (oil)

Painting of farm animals (pigs, horse, donkey, cows) huddling on a small hill surrounded by flood waters; tree and shed in water in background; skunks moving up log onto island.

Figure 10. Kansas River, by Louis Copt (2005) (oil)

Painting of Kansas River in winter; snow covers surrounding fields; river is dark blue and black; trees and shubs are brown and orange; sun in low in cloudy sky.

The physiographic regions of Kansas are varied and fascinating (Fig. 11; Schoewe, 1949). None are spectacular, but each contain features of geologic and scenic interest. Subtle changing are always taking place although they may be imperceptible in a lifetime (Charlton and Merriam, 2003). All of the regions have their natural beauty. The following are thumbnail descriptions of the provinces.

Figure 11. Physiographic map of Kansas.

Physiographic map of Kansas.

Starting in northeastern Kansas, there is the Glaciated Region. This is an area of low rolling hills much like the country depicted by Grant Wood in Iowa, which is also covered by glacial material. In this glaciated country where the glaciers had been but now are long gone, erratics are present. Erratics are exotic boulders from elsewhere brought to Kansas from the north during the ice age (Fig. 12). The Sioux Quartzite from South Dakota is the most abundant rock of these erratics and is resistant to weathering and erosion so will last for thousands of years just as they were left by the glaciers. The glacial material carried by the ice was dumped as the glaciers melted creating a chaotic terrain.

Figure 12. Glacial Erratics (Left by Glacier in Northeastern Kansas), by J.R. Hamil (watercolor)

Painting of tree in spring/summer; two large boulders in foreground; tall grasses around rocks; hawk in gray-blue sky.

To the south of the Glaciated Region are the Osage Cuestas, another area of low relief (Figs. 4 and 13). This region is more orderly and organized than the Glaciated Region. The more resistant beds of slightly westward-dipping thin Pennsylvanian aged limestones hold up prominent east-facing escarpments, such as the Oread Escarpment in Lawrence, as a series of pages in a book. This arrangement of harder beds (limestones) separated by softer beds (shales) give a series of steps that become younger and younger to the west. The cuesta country is drained by the Kansas (Kaw) River where some of the crop art is shown (Fig. 8).

Figure 13. Robert Sudlow's Rendition of North View Winter (Osage Cuestas) (1983) (oil)

Painting of snowy valley; farm and brown trees in center of painting; gentle hill in background.

To the east and south of the Osage Cuestas lies the Cherokee Plain, a flat monotonous, but interesting, area of Pennsylvanian soft shale with minable coal overlying the hard Mississippian carbonates, which forms the western edge of the Ozark Plateau. The Mississippian limestones host the TriState Lead and Zinc deposits.

The Flint Hills are the sentimental favorite of the artists of all the geomorphic provinces in Kansas (Fig. 14). They evoke the most emotion to a host of artists (and others) whether it be by their painting, watercolor, or photograph (Lambert, 2004). In addition to Epp's low horizon and big sky (Fig. 6), Keith Jacobshagen, another Kansas artist living in Nebraska, gives similar renditions in his work. The Flint Hills are home to the Tallgrass Prairie, the last of the unplowed, undisturbed native prairie in the state (Fig. 5; Merriam, 2001). Originally, the area had served as home to the roaming herds of buffalo, deer, antelope, and yes, even bear. The state song, Home on the Range, reflects this history. Now, the Flint Hills are covered with cattle as they are fattened on the nutritious grasses for eastern markets. The wide open spaces of the Flint Hills are composed of a series of well-ordered alternating hard limestones contain flint or chert and softer shales, all of Permian age. From the air this arrangement gives a pattern of rings around the hills as lines on a topographic map. The openness of the Flint Hills and the clear blue sky gives one the sense of peacefulness broken only by frequent storms.

Figure 14. Prairie Falcon (Flint Hills), by Robert Sudlow (1986) (oil)

Painting of snowy valley; farm and brown trees in center of painting; gentle hill in background.

The Red Hills, one of the least known areas, form a terrain that is different from the rest of Kansas (Fig. 15). This colorful area is faithfully rendered by Jim Hamil (Fig. 16). The redbeds of the upper Permian outcrop in this area and the countryside is reddish everywhere you look. These shades of red give the area a beauty all of its own and for those willing to spend time there and look, will find beauty at every vista. Because of its remoteness, however, it is part of the state less populated and less frequently visited than those accessed by major highways and containing major urban areas.

Figure 15. Spring Shower (Red Hills), by J. Steuart Curry (oil) (1931)

Painting of grassy hills and red questas; road with red ruts from foreground to background; farm in valley; isolated rainshower in background.

Figure 16. Redbeds Near Medicine Lodge, by J.R. Hamil (watercolor)

Painting of grassy hills and red questas; no signs of people.

West of the Flint Hills and north of the Red Hills lie the Smoky Hills, an area of low lying, rounded hills formed in the Cretaceous bedrock covered with grass with tree-lined rivers and streams (Figs. 17 and 18). The Cretaceous sandstone and adjacent units form the bedrock to give a dusky appearance. They present a darker image than the Flint Hills to the east and have the aurora of being smoky, thus the name. They were noted as such by the early explorers in the region (Merriam, 1984). In the western part of the area especially in Gove County, there are chalk remnants forming spectacular outliers. The Cobra Rock, Sphinx, Monument Rocks (Fig. 19) and Castle Rock (Fig. 20) are the best known.

Figure 17. Creek at Moonrise (Chalk Beds), portrayed by Birger Sandzén (1921) (oil)

Painting of creek with steep bank at curve; trees and bushes on sides of stream.

Figure 18. Wild Horse Creek (Chalk Beds), by Birger Sandzén (1921) (oil)

Painting of creek with trees and bushes on bank; steep golden hillside in background; colorful pastel sky.

Figure 19. Monument Rocks in Gove County (Chalk Beds), by J.R. Hamil (watercolor)

Painting of tall isolated towers of chalk; blue-gray cloudy sky is large part of painting.

Figure 20. Castle Rock (Chalk Beds), by Birger Sandzén (lithograph)

Lithograph of three towers of Castle Rock; black linework on brown paper.

Between the Smoky Hills and the Red Hills are the Great Bend Lowlands and the Wellington Area. These areas are flat areas in the drainage basins of major rivers with local sand hills, and offer a subtle scenic beauty, although interesting geologically, are not a subject featured by local artists.

In western Kansas the High Plains are a spectacular feature by their apparent nothingness; the saying "you can see forever" is appropriate for the area. The High Plains are formed by the Tertiary Ogallala and associated beds that are the transported remnants of the erosion of the Rocky Mountains to the west. The eroded material was carried east by streams and deposited over a wide area as an apron covering the older Mesozoic and Paleozoic beds. Flat, monotonous, vast, and open are just a few adjectives that are used to describe the region. Flatness of the High Plains and this description are self-evident in the watercolor of windmills by Jim Hamil (Fig. 21). These beacons of the plains dot the countryside and break the loneliness.

Figure 21. The Windmills (High Plains), by J.R. Hamil (watercolor)

Painting of windmill at dusk in flat landscape; sky gray and dark with small patch of open sky (gold) near horizon; windmill is next to water tank.

The Plains extend from Canada on the north to Texas on the south and form a large amount of the interior of North America and is used to grow wheat and raise cattle (Fig. 22). Because of the paucity of rainfall, this is the area that was labeled the "Great American Desert" by the early explorers and the name stuck for the next half century. Thus, depicting them in art presents a special challenge; the sky and weather are the dominant features. Several artists are up to the challenge and do so with authority and skill.

Figure 22. The High Plains, by Thomas Hart Benton (oil) ( 1958)

Painting of cowboy herding cattle along a dirt road; windmill inbetween road in forgreound and small pair of hills in far back; dark blue sky with two large clouds.

The exploitation of mineral resources in the Kansas and their mark on the landscape is a subject of interest also. The state is a major producer of petroleum and has been for a century. Drillrigs and pumpjacks are a common sight (Fig. 23). Coal is or has been mined on the surface and underground and evidence for this activity is abundant locally (Fig. 26).

Figure 23. McCoy #1 (Drillrig Near Garden City), by J.R. Hamil (watercolor)

Painting of drill rig next to small pond; mixed sky with bright light.

Figure 24. Wooden Towers (Coal Mine, Southeastern Kansas), by J.R. Hamil (watercolor)

Painting of shed up on pylons; steep stairway to rear of shed; coal chute in front; looks to be dusk or a rainy gray day.

The Framed Finished Product

Kansas is known by the unknowing as flat, featureless, and bleak--the Land of Oz. That lasting impression, however, is generally left by the High Plains, and usually is represented by a lone windmill and lots of sky or a road disappearing in the distance lined with telephone poles and a fence on each side. Or, the state is represented by the terrible powerful forces of nature--tornadoes, line storms, floods, fire, or the wind. However, as we have shown here, nothing could be farther from the truth. Kansas is an area in the Heartland rich in scenery as formed by the foundation of rocks; you may have to look for it to appreciate it, but it is there. The truth is in the landscapes as seen by the artist!


We would like to thank Louis Copt for guidance on our interpretation of the art and artists. Janice Sorensen, as usual, help find and obtain pertinent literature and Patricia Acker deftly printed and collated the illustrations for the presentation.


Baars, D.L., and Buchanan, R.C., 1991, The Canyon revisited, a rephotography of the Grand Canyon, 1923/1991: Univ. Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 168 p.

Bretz, L, 1987, Landscapes in Kansas, paintings by Robert Sudlow: Univ. Press Kansas, Lawrence, unpaginated.

Charlton, J., and Merriam, D.F., 2003, Ever changing landscape: recent topographic landmark erosion in Kansas: Kansas Acad. Science, v. 106, no. 1/2, p. 29-39.

Davidson, A.A., 1974, The American natural landscape, in The story of American painting: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publ., New York, 168 p.

Greenough, C.P., 3rd, 1957, The graphic work of Birger Sandzén: The Birger Sandzen Mem. Found., Lindsborg, Kansas, unpaginated.

Hambleton, W.W., 1998, Geology and landscape art: unpubl. manuscript.

Hamil, S, Return to Kansas, watercolors by J.R., Hamil: Southwind Press, Kansas City(?), 105 p.

Heller, N., and Williams, J., 1976, The Regionalists: Watson- Guptill Publ., New York, 208 p.

Herd, S., 1994, Crop art and other earthworks: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publ., New York, 64 p.

Lambert, D., ed., 2004, Homage to the Flint Hills, a gathering of art inspired by the Tallgrass Prairie of Kansas: Mainline Printing, Topeka, Kansas, unpaginated.

Lindquist, E., 1993, Birger Sandzén: an illustrated biography: Univ. Press Kansas, Lawrence, 148 p.

Merriam, D.F., 1984, Notes on some early geological investigations in Kansas: Earth Sciences History, v. 3, no. 2, p. 96-102.

Merriam, D.F., 2001, Geology of the Tall Grass Nature Preserve, Chase County, Kansas: Kansas Geol. Survey Map 99, chart.

Merriam, D.F., Hambleton, W.W., and Charlton, J.R., 2005, Kansas artistic geologists and illustrators: Kansas Geol. Survey, Open-file Rept. 2005-33, 18 p. [Available online]

Schmeckebier, L.E., 1943, John Steuart Curry's pageant of America: American Artists Group, New York, 363 p.

Schoewe, W.H., 1949, The geography of Kansas, part 2--physical geography: Kansas. Acad. Sci., Trans., v. 52, no. 3, p. 261- 333.

Spencer, H.D., 1885, Birger Sandzén: a retrospective: Wichita Art Museum, Wichita, Kansas, 40 p.

Wichita Art Museum, 1993, Passing seasons, paintings by Robert Sudlow: Wichita Art Museum, Wichita, 24 p.

Williams, L.J., 1872, What is good for an artist, and what an artist is good for: Kansas Acad. Science Trans., v. I, p. 54-61.

Photo of sunset over slow river.

Kansas Geological Survey, Geology
Updated June 1, 2006
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