NEWS for North Dakotans
Agriculture Communication, North Dakota State University
7 Morrill Hall, Fargo, ND 58105-5665
March 11, 1999
Plains Folk: Artfully Rendering the Memories of Main
Tom Isern, Professor of History
North Dakota State University
©1998 Plains Folk
"I used to tramp through there when I was going to country school," says Hilton "Bud" Sollid. "These things leave an imprint. I remember all the buildings, the people."
He's talking about the town of Simcoe, N.D. Grandson of Norwegian homesteaders, Bud was born (1920) and grew up on a farm about a mile southwest of Simcoe. The school was just north of town. He and his brothers walked up Main Street on the way to school, picking up town kids as they went.
"We all walked in a bunch to school," he says.
No businesses operate in Simcoe today. Nearly all the buildings have been moved away, except the depot, which was torn down. The elevator opens seasonally to receive grain. There are services every other week in the Lutheran church. A lot of prairie towns have gap-toothed main streets. Simcoe's is just about toothless.
Except in the mind and the art of Bud Sollid. Because of him, I have seen Simcoe the way he saw it as a schoolboy.
He lets me in the back door of the Sons of Norway hall (converted from a general store in 1918) which is cold but well kept. The meeting room has a good hardwood floor. Wooden folding chairs line the walls.
"We used to have some wing-ding dances here in the 1930s. Twice a month the place would be packed," Bud remembers.
Bud does remember. And on the stage at the end of the hall, the material expression of his memory is arranged on plywood atop sawhorses. He has built a model of the town as he recalls it from the 1920s and 1930s. The buildings are of 1/4-inch plywood. Their walls are painted with thick paint smeared in rows to look like horizontal siding. The roofs are shingled with little rectangles of sandpaper.
The model town is anchored by its two elevatorsthe Farmer's Elevator and the Osborn McMillan. The Equity Hall is just across the Great Northern tracks north of the Farmer's Elevator, and across Main west of the hall is the depot. Lined up north from the depot on the west side of Main are all the town's businesses, with the Sons of Norway pegging the north end. On the east side of Main is just a gas station. That side is low ground, with a slough adjoining. Catty-corner northeast from the Sons of Norway is the church, next to which is Bud's grandfather's blacksmith shop. Residences encircle the business area.
This is "memory art"the term that has come to be applied to the work of folk artists who recreate the past as they experienced it, in documentary fashion. And the model town is not all. Bedecking the walls of the hall are scenes of Simcoe that Bud has painted, along with some scenes of Norway as he has imagined them.
Here's something interesting about the painting style. There is one painting of a farm scene that shows sophisticated technique in the form of schooled realism. This is not memory art. The scenes from memory, on the other hand, all assume the sort of naive painting style that is characteristic of so many memory artists. People are stylized. Distance, scale and proportion are simplified or discarded. It is to say disciplined realism is inadequate to express memory truly.
This is beautiful work, powerful work, moving work. It tells us much more than photographs could. Photographseven in the days of glass plates could be dispassionate, clinical. They only register light. Paintings like these register heat and motion.
There, in that painting of the tall merry-go-round in the schoolyard, see those three boys in overalls at lower right? The one on the left end, that's Bud.
Outside again I ask him, "What's that room-sized chamber of concrete in the vacant lot on the west side of Main?"
He says it's the bank vault, left there when the bank was torn down. Back in the 1920s that concrete vault foiled a bank robbery, as the robbers despaired of cracking it. The bank closed anyway in 1928.
Source: Tom Isern (701) 231-8339
Editor: Dean Hulse (701) 231-6136