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Terry Woster: Redlin’s paintings tugged at your emotions

The late Gov. Bill Janklow seldom talked in public about an appreciation for the arts, but when he did, he often singled out Terry Redlin of Watertown.
Redlin, who died on Sunday in a Watertown care center, painted the kinds of scenes and memories that struck a chord with people in the Midwest, including Janklow, a Flandreau kid who grew up to serve four terms as governor. During his inaugural address for the start of his last term in 1999, Janklow spoke of the privilege of having lived for more than 59 years and added, “As I say, I grew up in Norman Rockwell’s America, and I grew up in Terry Redlin’s South Dakota.”

Few in the audience in the Capitol rotunda that day had to ask what he meant. Anyone with a few decades of life behind them understood both Rockwell’s America and Redlin’s South Dakota.

Rockwell’s paintings — a nervous boy visiting the small-town doctor, a working man standing to exercise free speech at a town meeting, a family gathered for a Thanksgiving meal or a barbershop packed with chatting, magazine-reading customers — captured scenes from an American life several generations recall with deep affection.

Redlin’s paintings — a flock of geese flying low over a snow-covered field of corn stalks, a couple of youngsters fishing from shore with cane poles, a group of men chatting as a grain truck empties its load late on a harvest evening, or children standing in a country-school yard as the country’s flag is raised at the break of day — depict real South Dakota scenes from what many of us, Bill Janklow included, I’m sure, remember as a simple if not always easy time. Redlin’s paintings tug at emotions deep inside every one of us who came of age in a small town or on a farm out on the prairie.

We know the places and the moments Terry Redlin captured on canvas. Those places and moments are us. He recognized them, collected them, preserved them and presented them to us as a reminder of the good things in our world. Many online sources call him a wildlife artist, and he certainly was. But Redlin’s work needs no “wildlife” qualifier. He was, simply put, an artist — one who sees things the rest of us miss and creates images so we, too, can see what he saw. No wonder he earned the honor in the 1990s of America’s most popular artist in a survey by “U.S. Art’’ magazine.

I met Redlin just once, at an art event of some sort, in Pierre, I think. He spoke first, saying he was pleased to meet me. I always appreciated that initiative, because I was in awe just being around him. I was struggling to find words to say how pleased I was to meet him. Incredibly well-known by then, he acted as if I were doing him a favor by pausing to greet him, instead of the other way around.

Redlin contributed generously to wildlife groups and environmental causes, and the Redlin Art Center which bears his name is located in Watertown. More than 3 million people have visited the center since it opened in 1997, according to The Associated Press.

The South Dakota Hall of Fame inducted Redlin in 2001. If you look at the Hall’s site, you’ll find a short biography in which Redlin says his life has been a wonderful experience. “I can’t think of what I would change if I had it to do all over again.”

One of the things I admired most about Redlin had nothing to do with his paintings or his art center. I very much respected the fact that, even as his fame grew, he remained committed to his hometown and his home state. The musician Prince, who died a few days ago, never lost his connection to his hometown of Minneapolis. The artist Redlin, dead at 78, never lost his connection to his home place, either.

There is much to admire in that.