A Review of
Portraits of the Prairie:
The Land that Inspired Willa Cather.
Hardback: University of Nebraska Press, 2011.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Reviewed by Ruth Huizenga Everhart.
See an excerpt of this book here… (PDF)
Willa Cather famously said: “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” It’s this ability to step back and see an ordinary thing with different eyes that is captured so beautifully in this unusual coffee table book. The author, Richard Schilling, has paired quotations from Willa Cather with his own original art, primarily done in watercolor, all of it focused on the Nebraska prairie.
Willa Cather, who is known for her fiction writing, spent a single year on the prairie when she was nine. At the time she disliked the rolling flat lands, but later realized how tussling with the land had shaped her. Cather’s relationship to the land is not sentimental. Rather, the solitude and rawness of the prairie sandpapered her prose to its pristine qualities.
A century later, Richard Schilling drew inspiration for his watercolors from similar landscapes. He conceived the idea of setting his own work opposite quotations from Cather’s work. At times he sought out a particular setting, and at other times simply tried to capture the mood, light, time of day, or season, of a particular scene.
In terms of format, there is plenty of white space on the quotation pages which face each piece of art, done in full color.
I happened to receive the book when I was on the way to a family reunion, and brought it with me. I noticed that a number of relatives picked it up and paged through it, enjoying it for different reasons. My 11 year old niece flipped quickly, noting scenes that reminded her of her northern California home. My 83 year old mother, who has read many of Cather’s novels, would not turn a page until she had pondered the quotation. My 21 year old daughter reminisced about her “Oregon trail” phase. When I paged through it alone, I thought longingly about the years I lived in central Illinois surrounded by fields of growing corn, so different from my current urban environment. This book would make an especially lovely gift for someone who appreciates Cather’s fiction, or loves watercolors, or is restored by the sight of a prairie.
Ruth Huizenga Everhart is a Presbyterian minister and writer,
blogging at “Work in Progress” ( www.rutheverhart.com/blog ).