UND art & design professionals work hard to breathe life back into ‘lost, found and rescued’ masterpieces


Amy Halvorson

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UND art & design professionals work hard to breathe life back into ‘lost, found and rescued’ masterpieces

It was just a regular Friday afternoon for University of North Dakota Art & Design facilities technician Wesley Rabey, that is until he received a call from a man wondering if he could stop by and drop off some art he had in his possession.

"I didn't know what to make of it, but I knew it was something I needed to pay attention to," said Rabey.

After receiving directions to UND, the man on the phone drove to UND's Hughes Fine Arts Center with a folded cardboard box that was duct taped together. He introduced himself as Wallace Gylten from Northwood, N.D.

Included in the box were about 100 pieces of art, ranging from original prints to drawings and paintings from the 17th-20th centuries. Some were signed and dated, while the age of others could be assessed based on materials and style. Several of the pieces were specifically dated back to 1847 for some unknown reason.

Gylten had removed the artwork from an abandoned security building in downtown Grand Forks shortly before it was burned during the 1997 flood and fire. Since then, he had stored the art in an outbuilding on his property.

"This stuff is like treasure to us because we don't have that many items of the types included in this collection; it will be very valuable for students to study," said Arthur Jones, art & design department chairman and director of UND Art Collections.

"I had no idea how valuable it was," said Gylten.

One of the works was recognized as an original John James Audubon print. The collection also contains works by other notable artists, several of which were women, yet many are anonymous.

Educational purpose

Identifying the background of art is like solving a puzzle for the professors and students of the art & design department. They have to look for little clues (in one case, it was found in the coat of arms of the Medici family) or other signs to help place the artwork in history and figure out where they came from.

"These become interesting issues to discuss with students," said Jones.

Gylten considered donating the art to UND after reading an article in the Grand Forks Herald about "Lost, Found, and Rescued," an exhibition that is still under way in the UND Art Collections Gallery at the Empire Arts Center, 415 DeMers Avenue., in downtown Grand Forks. The article, titled "Missing Art," showcased the efforts at UND to restore art and give it an educational purpose. The exhibit will run until Dec. 11; Tuesday and Thursday, noon - 5 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m. - 3 p.m.

"We have been trying to re-build our collection so that it can be of greater value for students in their education," Jones said. "Over the years at UND, many art pieces have gone missing or suffered neglect."

Filling the gaps

Due to recent restoration efforts, the University's art collections now span from Ancient Egypt to the 21st century. Many of the works have been acquired since 2007.

"In order to generate public and student support, we try to acquire famous artists and fill in the gaps in art history," Jones said. "The University has never before had a comprehensive collection like this one."

The purchasing of artwork for the UND Art Collections is funded entirely by the Myers Foundation, a private source. Col. Eugene E. Myers was a UND alumnus who left a large endowment to be distributed equally between UND, Columbia University, Northwestern University and West Virginia University for the acquisition and preservation of art, as well as several other specifically restricted purposes.

Through this endowment, UND has been able to purchase original pieces by famous artists ? such as Picasso and Rembrandt ? which provide students with the privilege to hold such revered works in their hands, Jones said.

"It's a way of connecting the artwork with the students," said Nathan Rees, assistant professor of art history and coordinator of exhibitions for UND Art Collections.

The students are able to utilize these newly acquired artworks as fresh sources for research.

"We try to look for ways to put art to use for student learning," said Rees.

Rees teaches a museum studies class in which the students curate shows using art from UND Art Collections. New acquisitions of art help fill in some of the chronological gaps.

"I had no idea how to do any of this (curating an exhibition)," said Glen Henry, an art & design student from Dunseith, N.D. "It was an enlightening experience."

Expanding limits

Some of the newly acquired art from Northwood will be exhibited during the spring in an upcoming show at the Empire Arts Center featuring the 19th century French artist, Honoré Daumier. None of the new acquisitions from Northwood are by Daumier, but there are several satirical prints from approximately the same time period. They will help the viewing audience better understand the era in which Daumier was working.

"We didn't have anything in our collection like these prints, and now we do," said Jones.

Thanks to Gylten and the hidden treasures that he's provided, UND is able to expand the limits of its art collections. Preserving art and making it available for generations of students to enjoy and learn from is the primary focus of UND Art Collections.

Amy Halvorson University & Public Affairs student writer

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