A quarter for the Sunflower State
It's natural to think of Kansas when we see sunflowers. And when we see a herd of buffalo, it's not surprising that these words in our state song may come to mind, "Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam."
So the state's quarter, which was launched Friday by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius at the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson, is symbolic of, and appropriate for, our state.
It shows a majestic buffalo and three blooming sunflowers.
There are other images of Kansas that come easily to mind.
For instance, in the Tonganoxie area, it's rolling hills covered with trees. In Lawrence it's Frasier Hall's hilltop profile visible from miles away, in Topeka it's the state capitol, and in central and western Kansas, it's wheat. Miles and miles of fields of wheat, burnished to gold as it rustles in the wind in late May and early June.
Having grown up in Tonganoxie, it was a shock to me, as an adult, to move to a small town in central Kansas. For one thing, I was used to the more urban lifestyle. And for another, the land was flat -- you could see for miles in any direction. Although that area of the state offers wide-open vistas and breathtaking sunsets, I tended to reject the notion that I could ever feel connected to the prairie. It was flat. I missed the hills and trees of northeastern Kansas. I was homesick.
But a couple of years of golden wheat crops -- of oceans of wheat waving in the wind -- began to show me how beautiful even the simplest landscape could be.
And then I saw a John Steuart Curry lithograph hanging in the local library. It showed a farmer in a wheat field with two small children. In the farmer's right hand are three stalks of wheat. With his left hand he cradles the hand of a boy who is barely taller than the wheat, and to the man's right a young girl braces herself against the wind, her hair swept over her head by a strong gust, that -- as any Kansan worth his salt would know -- likely was blowing from the south.
It was an image that spoke volumes on what Kansas is all about: The stubborn and valiant effort to make a life and a living on the prairie. The agricultural foundation on which Kansas was built. The flat earth stretching to the horizon, and of course, the ever-present wind.
Though by the time the Kansas quarter design contest was announced two years ago, I had moved back to Tonganoxie, it was with a greater understanding of Kansas.
The single image, to me, that symbolized our state was John Steuart Curry's lithograph, "Our Good Earth."
So I found a copy on the Internet and submitted Curry's drawing as the design for the state quarter.
Curry, who grew up and is buried in Jefferson County, was a Regionalist artist, and is associated with other artists of his era, including Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood. Today in Kansas, Curry is probably best known for his murals in the Kansas capitol, including the famous painting of abolitionist John Brown.
However, in the 1930s as he was painting the murals, his art suffered public criticism. Someone pointed out that the tail of a pig curled in the wrong direction. There was so much controversy that Curry never did sign his murals. He returned to the University of Wisconsin, where he had earlier taught, to serve as the artist-in-residence.
In the late 1930s or early 1940s, and likely when he was living in Wisconsin, Curry sketched "Our Good Earth."
The drawing, which Curry later painted in color and which today is owned by the University of Wisconsin, was used for a U.S. Department of Treasury propaganda poster during World War II with the caption, "Our Good Earth -- Keep It Ours."
Back to the state quarter.
Because of the way Curry's lithograph had made me feel connected to the state, I thought it would be an appropriate image for the state quarter. After researching Curry, I realized it likely had been drawn when he was in Wisconsin. But I felt, all that same, that the drawing symbolized Kansas.
So too, must've the people on the state's coin selection committee.
Of more than 1,500 designs, the one I submitted, of Curry's "Our Good Earth," landed in the top five.
In a poll by the Lawrence Journal-World, it took first place.
However that was before the Wisconsin flap ultimately threw the Curry design out of the running.
In the Lawrence Journal-World, State Sen. Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita, and vice chairwoman of the coin committee was quoted as saying, "If that painting was depicting Wisconsin, I don't think it would be appropriate for the Kansas coin."
And so the design was tossed out and, the top four designs selected by the coin committee -- not the top five as originally announced -- were presented to Kansas high school students for the final, and deciding, vote on what would be the official Kansas quarter.
Because the design I submitted was officially acknowledged as being in the top 25 designs, I was invited to a celebratory breakfast prior to Friday's official public launching of the state quarter.
I attended the event, making the most of the trip by including a visit with my in-laws, who live in central Kansas. In fact, my father-in-law, who is a big fan of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, attended the breakfast and launch with me.
I am disappointed that Curry's lithograph of the farmer in the wheat field -- which to me symbolize the state I love -- wasn't chosen for the quarter.
But the design that was chosen -- the buffalo and the three sunflowers -- speaks of Kansas.
And that, after all, is what it's all about.