Spring Called Artist
by Joanne Nesbit
A great many Hoosiers abandon the cold Midwest winter for warmer climes in the South. This is not a new practice, but one that even the earliest artists in Brown County found enjoyable, if not necessary. But Spring among the County’s hills called to them, and they came back.
Ohio native and Brown County painter Dale Bessire (1892–1974) was just one of the many who traveled southward not just for the pleasant temperatures but for the beauty he could transfer to his canvas. Besides, this artist/farmer/businessman found that an Indiana winter, when there was little work to do in his orchard, offered him the ideal time to paint. And why not do it in a warmer place. Bessire is quoted as saying, “My work in the orchard gives me several months of the year to paint and also provides a change of occupation, which I believe is essential with most people to do their best creative work.”
But Bessire never gave up on capturing the beauty of Brown County. In fact, he felt his ventures into southern coastal towns enhanced his appreciation of the County’s natural aspects and his ability to get those onto canvas. In 1930 he told a reporter, “I do this partly to keep my viewpoint somewhat freshened for Brown County, which holds, of course, the greatest inspiration for me and partly because I enjoy painting boats and water-front subjects and the colorful and somewhat architectural material found in other cities like Charleston and New Orleans. Yet when I return from these places, I invariably find Brown County even more appealing than when I left it due, I think, to the pure natural beauty of the place, comparatively untouched by the hand of man.”
Having begun his art studies in Indianapolis, in 1914 Bessire walked to Nashville from that city and bought a 35-acre apple orchard just north of the town where he built his studio/home. After a late freeze killed his apples, Bessire filled the bleak summer by painting and made up his mind to make a sketch every day. “No matter what the weather,” he said, “no matter how I feel or how uninspiring the subject, I resolve to paint every day.” That was the start of his work as an artist. By the end of that summer, there was quite a collection of sketches, which he promptly burned.
Bessire’s reputation as an artist ranged far from the county line. He exhibited in the first “Hoosier Salon” held in Chicago in 1924 and had works accepted into that exhibition each year thereafter, occasionally walking away with one or more of the coveted prizes.
There is evidence that Bessire did spend some time at home during a Brown County winter. In that same year as the first “Hoosier Salon” Bessire had a number of paintings on exhibit in Columbus, Indiana. Evidence of a Midwest winter was seen in the titles of some of these works such as “Lingering Winter” and a study of Nashville as seen on a snow-drifted day.
One Brown Countian wrote of Bessire and his painting, “If a frost reduces the size of the fruit crop, he merely increases his acreage of canvas and trusts to the tourists’ demand to absorb the crop. On the other hand, if he finds himself with a big crop of apples, he must, of necessity, reduce his time with the brush.”
Regardless of where he spent his winters, where he vacationed, where he decided to paint outside Brown County, Dale Bessire always returned. “After painting for a short time elsewhere,” he once said, “I feel that I have succeeded, at best, in making only a charming and casual acquaintance. Whereas fifteen years of close contact with Brown County has made it an old friend.”