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From the Archives: Cowboy-turned Scholar Discovers Kinship with 19th Century Expedition Explorer

September 17, 2011 3 comments

 

 

NOTE: My apologies to those who read this post when I first put it up, as it was filled with typos. I failed to proof the copy and it made for a very rough read. It won’t happen again.

With this post I am starting a periodic series featuring favorite stories of mine from deep in my archives. The story below is from 1990 and profiles a charming man, Paul Schach, who has since passed. I got to know Schach just a bit when I worked as public relations director at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha. My friend, then Joslyn western history curator Joseph Porter introduced me to Schach, who was engrossed in a multi-year translation project of a vast set of journals or diaries that German explorer Prince Maximilian of Wied kept of a historic expedition he made of North America. The 1832-34 expedition also had a fine artist along, Karl Bodmer, who made sketches and watercolor paintings of the vanishing West. The Maximilain diary and the Bodmer artworks are in the Joslyn’s permanent collections and I was struck both by how uniquely suited Schach was for the project and by how deeply connected he felt to Maximilian.

Also on this blog is a story I did a few years later about an artist who drew inspiration from the life and work of Karl Bodmer. That piece is titled, “Naturalist-Artist John Lokke – In Pursuit of the Timber Rattlesnake and in the Footsteps of Karl Bodmer.”


From the Archives: Cowboy-turned Scholar Discovers Kinship with 19th Century Expedition Explorer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Orignally published in Omaha Metro Update (now Metro Magazine)

In his 52 years as a language scholar retired University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Paul Schach has seldom strayed far from his German heritage and rough-and-tumble roots. It’s only fitting that Schach, who loves a good yarn, has lived a storybook life – from cowboying along the Arkansas River to doing top-secret intelligence work during World War II to forging a distinguished academic career.

Until his 1986 returement Schach held the Charles J. Mach professorship of Germanic languages at UNL, where he taught 35 years. The noted philogist has traveled widely to record and study ethnic languages and literary traditions native to Northern Europe. He’s published his work in scores of articles and eight books.

Schach’s work has taken hiim to Denmark, Sweden, Iceland and Germany. A companion on some of his overseas trips was his late wife, Ruth, who was also a colleague. She typed and proofed all his work during their 48-year marriage. In 1956-57 the couple and their three daughters lived in Germany, where the children attended public school while Schach taught and worked on a book.

“Ruth typed the manuscript of the first book I ever published, during the winter of 1956 in Germany,” Schach said. “That was a cold winter and buildings were only heated two hours out of 24 because of fuel shortages. I would come back home at noon for lunch and she’d be at a little red Remington portable typewriter.

“She had a sweater, overcoat, woolen cap and scarf on. She’d type for awhile, stop, blow on her hands, put on gloves, blow on her hands a bit and then type a few more sentences. And that’s how that first book came to be typed. I’m just beginning to realize now she did about half my work for me. I got the credit for it – she did the work.”

Today, the 74-year-old is still busy writing and researching, only now his daughter Joan is his proofreader. Schach hopes to finish three books yet. But one project in particular has occupied much of his attention the past three years. It’s the translation of the diary kept by German explorer-naturalist-ethnologist, Maximilian Furst zu Wied of his 1832-34 expedition to North America with Swiss artist Karl Bodmer.

Maximilian’s chronicles, along with Bodmer’s paintings and sketches, document their historic journey along the Missouri River. The diary, artwork and related articles are housed at Joslyn Art Museum‘s Center for Western Studies, where Schach commutes from his Lincoln, Neb. home to work with the original manuscript. Scholars regard the collection as an unparalleled record of the early American West.

 

 

Prince Maximilian

 

 

Translating the epic, 4,000 -page diary is painstaking work which Schach is uniquely qualified to do. He grew up speaking and reading a dialect very similar to Maximilian’s – one few are fluent in today. As a boy Schach reveled in stories told in German by his extended immigrant family.

Schach’s work is made more difficult by Maximilian’s tiny script, which can be read only with the aid of a magnifying glass. The diary will be published in four volumes by Joslyn and the University of Nebraska Press. Schach has only a final reading to do before volume one is published within a year. Work on volume two is nearing completion and by July Schach said the translation project should reach its halfway point.

His careful reading and meticulous translation of Maximilian’s observations have put him on intimate terms with the man, whom he feels a close kinship with by virtue of their shared dialect, heritage and interests. Strengthening the bond is the fact Maximilian spent a summer in Pennsylvania, where Schach was born and raised.

“I’m seeing parts of that state much more clearly now through his descriptions. So many of the things he describes are things I have experiencd in my life,” said Schach.

Just as Maximilian spemnt a lifetime as both a rugged outdoorsman and rigorous scholar, so too has Schach. During his long career Schach has remaimed true to bedrock values learned as a boy gorwing up “mainly in mining camps and cow towns” during the Great Depression.

Despite harships, he enjoyed an arcadian youth in the fertile back country of eastern Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal mining region, where he developed a lifelong love for the great outdoors.

“Until I was about 20 I lived outdoors whenever I could – hunting, fishing and trapping. My father was a coal miner. Some days he’d strike it rich, and then for weeks he wouldn’t have any money at all. We spent quite a bit of our free time fishing and hunting for food. Yes, times were hard, but people in those times were hard, always shared things. Everybody helped everybody else. I was always being farmed out to work on different farms when someone got hurt or sick.”

Schach learned a healthy respect for nature and the land from his maternal grandfather, nicknamed the “Old Black Hessian” for both his dark features and horse-trading skills.

“When people came and wanted to buy soome wood on his farm, he refused to sell. They said, ‘We’ll pay you more money for those trees than you’ll get for the rest of your farm.’ ‘It belongs to the farm,’ he replied. ‘Well, the farm belongs to you, doesn’t it?’ He wasn’t quite sure,” Schach said, “because it would go to his son or daughter. It was his farm, but it was there for people to use and the idea was to make it a better farm then when he got it from his father.”

Schach laments, “There’s not so much of that (philosophy) “left anymore – people are mining the soil and destorying the forests.”

 

 

A Karl Bodmer watercolor from the expedition

 

 

He said Maximilian espoused the same Old World wisdom and was “shocked, even at that time, at the way Americans were destrorying their forests and their soil. In Europe, if you cut down a tree you have to plant two to replace that one.”

According to Schach, Maximilian’s enlightened environmental concerns were typical of a man who was ahead of his time. “There were so many ways in which he was so very modern, such as the idea of conserving the soil and forests. There’s so much to learn from a man like this.”

Far from a rural idyll, however, life for the Schachs was full of severe trials, just as Maximilan weathered blizzards, epidemics and other miseries on his trek.

Then there were the man-made problems the Schachs and their neighbors confronted.

“There was a lot of trouble in the coal mines,” Schach said. “The owners would shut down the mines so the miners wouldn’t ask for more wages. You couldn’t even buy coal in the coal regions – you had to go out to slag dumps at night, where we were shot at frequently. My father wanted to get out…there was just no future there because he didn’t own any land.”

The family pulled up stakes and headed west. They settled in Colorado, where Schach’s father hoped to dig for gold but was disillusioned to find “the gold mines had petered out just as coal had in Pennsylvania.” He opted for running a grocery store instead.

Schach helped support the family of eight by working as a hired hand on a cattle ranch along the Arkansas River, riding horseback in the shadow of Pike’s Peak. The full-fledged cowboy broke wild horses, drove cattle and lived a Western life most young men only dreamed about.

“I enjoyed working on the farm and especially on that ranch. Coming from the East to the West, I suppose, made it more romantic.

“We used to move the cattle up in the spring to a higher pasture in the mountains and then, in the fall, bring them down. When you brought them down they were just as wild as buffalo. you could handle them on horseback, but on foot they’d either run away from you or they’d come right at you,  in which case you ran for the closest fence,” he recalled, laughing heartily.

“I liked working with horses, but I guess I was never too good at it because I’ve been banged up pretty badly several times.”

The last time he tried taming a horse was just 10 years ago. The result: three broken ribs. Years later he still feels the effects and carries the scars of his horse spills. He joked that it’s open to question whether he broke horses or they broke him. “But I still love them,” he said.

Schach passed on what little horse sense had to two of his daughters, who are “very good with horses.” He sometimes goes riding with them at a local stable. But to his daughters’ amusement a bronco buster’s old habits die hard. He’s been bucked, bitten and kicked enough times that he mounts any horse, even a tame one, as warily as if it were a time bomb.

“I set up close to the shoulder, facing the back, so he can’t get me with his foreleg. I pull his head away from me so he can’t bite me. And I watch his hind leg and am conscious to get my left foot in the stirrup and to swing into the saddle. Then I wait to see what’s going to happen. Of course, with these horses around here, nothing happens. He just sits there,” said Schach, who delights in telling the story.

 

 

A Karl Bodmer watercolor from the expedition

 

 

He exchanged a saddle for a school desk in the mid-’30s, when he enrolled at Albright College in Reading, Pa. Although he was a roughrider, Schach always found time for books and writing. He had as his models two older sisters who taught school.

“I always read a lot. I read German and English from the time I was 5. I used to keep notebooks with lists of all the words I could find in German and English of colors, for example. Or synonyms of all kinds.”

He was immersed in his people’s rich reservoir of culture and language. “The Old Black Hessian was a marvelous storyteller. I remember one story had two different endings. When I was about 10 I got up enough courage to ask him which of the two stories was the true one. He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Paulos, the one is as true as the other,’ which was a marvelous answer.”

Schach, who’s recorded German immigrant dialects from Canada to Texas, has collected Russian-German folktales handed down through generations. He cherishes both the grassroots education he got at home and his formal training in high school. He feels today’s students are shortchanged.

“If you intended to go to college you had to have a thorough knowledge of French, German and Latin. You took science and math courses straight through, including trigonmetry and geometry. I would say graduates of my high school in 1935 or so had a much more solid education than the average college graduate today.

“We’ve lost touch. I read European newspapers all the time…people all over the world are talking about what’s happened to the United States, how we’ve fallen behind in science and can’t make anything that meet their standards. The neglect of languages has been a terrible handicap to our country and we have suffered greatly from it, too.”

He believes language studies are vital “not only for what they tell us about language” but for what they reveal about culture, history and ourselves. As an ethnologist, Maximilian studied the cultures and languages of Native Americans from a humanist perspective rare for expolorers of the period. His progressive learnings helped him empathize with the Indians while his scientific training lent his descriptions great objectivity. He approached the study of Indians not as something strange, not as the savages we’re used to reading about in cowboy and Indian stories, but as human beings. He didn’t idealize them. He didn’t denigrate them. They were people – good, bad, indifferent – and he just portrayed them as they were,” Schach explained, adding that Maximilian’s accounts are treasured for their wealth of detail and accuracy.

 

 

Statue of Karl Bodmer and Prince Maximilian at the Castle of Neuweid in Germany

 

 

Maximilian, whom Schach described as “a very well-educated man,” had both a priviliged and liberal upbringing. A nobleman by birth, Maximilian’s inherited title was Prince of Wied. His grandfather had established the city of Newied, on the banks of the Rhine, as a refuge for victims of religious persecution. The family castle was located there.

“Early on, Maximilian was in contact with peoples of all nationalities, religions and so on,” said Schach. “I think this was a big help to him when he studied the Indians.”

Schach’s own educational pursuits have been diverse. After graduatiing from Albright in 1938 he began work on his master’s degree at the University of Pennyslvania. Before finishing his thesis, World War II erupted and Schach soon found himself putting his language skills to use in the U.S. Navy. He was the only U.S.-born member of a translation project team assigned the top-secret duty of translatiing captured documents on Germany’s jet propulsion and rocketry programs.

“As soon as they developed something, we knew about it,” said Schach. “The material was easy to read and understand, but we had no (compatible) terminology in English. We hadn’t done anything  in those areas yet. We literally had no words to translate into English. That was a strange and a frightening situation.”

It was all the more frightening, he said, because “we knew the V-2 was designed for an atomic warhead. We also knew there were German engineers who could construct an atomic bomb.”

The stateside team based in Philadelphia did hands-on work as well – once reconstructing a Messerschmitt 262 from parts of three of the German jet planes that had crashed. It flew, too. “I guess that the first jet plane to every fly on this country,” he said.

After the war Schach taught at Penn, where he also earned a doctorate. He taught several years at Albright and at North Central Collge in Chicago. He joined the UNL staff in 1951, lured by the opportunity to study the area’s many varieties of German, Czech and Scandinavian dialects. Another factor was Lincoln’s close proximity to Colorado, where the Schachs often vacationed summers, roughing it in the outback.

“We never had much money. The salaries were miserable then. One summer we had $75 – I took the tent, a gun and my fishing pole and we all headed west in the car.” En route to Colorado their meager funds were cut by a third when a flat tire needed replacing. To conserve money that summer the family ate whatever Schach hooked or shot. “We ended up eating mostly fish that summer. At one point the children just sort of sat and looked down their noses at the fish, and Ruth said, ‘You better go to town and buy some hamburgers.'”

Until recently Schach still hunted regulalry, favoring the Nebraska Sand Hills for ducks and the Pine Ridge area for deer. He ventured as far north as Ontario, Canada for bigger game, including a bear he bagged with one shot.

Translating Maximilian’s diary leaves precious little time for the outdoors these days. “I’ve become perhaps too much interested in the man. This is one of only several major projects I’ve been working on. But it’s like reading a good book – you read it four times and you see things you didn’t see the first time. Maximilian was a very remarkable person.

Some would say Schach is no slouch himself.

Naturalist-artist John Lokke – In pursuit of the Timber Rattlesnake and In the footsteps of Karl Bodmer

September 2, 2010 3 comments

en: The Fox River near New Harmony in Indiana....

Image via Wikipedia

This is the kind of long-form journalism that’s become increasingly rare in city newspapers and magazines.  My profile of naturalist-artist John Lokke is one of my personal favorites among my own body of work.  The nuances and connections made throughout the article represent the kind of context and texture that is just not possible in a short piece.  I wish I had the opportunity to do this kind of writing, for pay that is, more often, but the realities of 21st century journalism preclude it.  I found Lokke an utterly fascinating figure and after reading the profile for the first time in a dozen years I must say I still find him as compelling a subject as I’ve ever encountered in a quarter century of journalism, over which time I’ve interviewed and profiled hundreds of people from literally all walks of life.  It helps when you come across, as I did with Lokke, a subject who expresses himself so well and who has an appreciation for not only his passion but for how it fits into the big picture.  And that very quality, of honing in on the specific while keeping in mind the big picture, is one of the things that distinguished my work.  The story originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) and this is the first time it’s been republished since then.  I eventually lost track of Lokke, but I’d like to think he’s still out searching for the Timber and painting his heart out.

 

Naturalist-artist John Lokke – In pursuit of the Timber Rattlesnake and In the footsteps of Karl Bodmer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Snakes have served as potent cultural symbols since, well, Eve was led astray by one in the Garden of Eden. Whether it’s the Hydra of Greek mythology or the serpent (read: Satan) in the Book of Genesis, snakes have long been equated with treachery if not outright evil.

The tendency throughout history has been to regard all members of the Serpentes family — even non-poisonous ones — as deadly threats to be eradicated at all costs. That bad rap, combined with their demonized place in myth and holy scripture, gave rise to the notion the only good snake is a dead one. Indeed, snake hunting has made some species scarce and others extinct. Then too there’s the creature’s cold calculating eyes, sinister scaly body and slithering, secretive ways.

Still, not everyone has bought into the snake-as-devil doctrine. Native American rituals, including Hopi Indian dances and Lakota Indian vision quests, celebrate the snake as a symbol of power and regeneration. Sierra Club types contend snakes are wildlife treasures unfairly maligned for instinctive traits borne of evolution not evil.

Then there’s John Lokke, a local herpetologist, naturalist and watercolorist who combines his interest in the Timber Rattlesnake (“the largest and most imperiled venomous snake in Nebraska”) with his love for the Missouri River Valley, his interest in this region’s history and his rigorous artistic vision. Lokke, a 43-year-old Omaha native, creates paintings capturing the ever-changing face of the river bluffs where the Timber once roamed in great abundance across southeast Nebraska but, due in part to extensive rock quarrying operations begun in the 1930s, has been nearly wiped out. Until then, the snake went largely undetected, but once discovered became a target for residents who killed them in great numbers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today, the snake, whose range in Nebraska was always limited to the extreme southeastern corner, is rarely reported within the state’s borders. In 20 years of searching for them Lokke estimates he’s seen dozens, with the vast majority in Kansas. “They’re not easy to find. They blend in beautifully with their surroundings. It’s a big beautiful snake. A really large one is just a little over four feet long. Probably what accounts for it being rarer or absent today throughout its range in Nebraska and in other parts of the country is that its habitat has been degraded to the point where it can’t carry on its life cycle,” he explained.

He blames rampant tree succession, which unchecked prairie fires once controlled, for spoiling the high rock outcroppings favored by the Timber. “As the trees fill in the rocks no longer get the warm sun in the spring, when the snakes emerge from their dens, or in the fall, when they retreat back into them. Bluffs are slowly but surely being consumed by the trees, including dogwoods, cedars and cottonwoods.” Further eroding the snake’s habitat, he added, is a widespread phenomenon called slumping in which tons of dirt slide down from atop a bluff to cover or bury a rock outcrop, effectively making it uninhabitable.

It is tempting to compare the tall, tapered Lokke, who began studying and collecting snakes as a child, with the Crotalus Horridus he often seeks and paints on field trips in far southeast Nebraska. Much like the Timber, he has a quiet, still presence and patiently bides his time before acting in precise, definitive ways.

Since the mid-1990s this rather sober artist has been on a self-appointed mission to document a stretch of the Missouri along the Kansas-Nebraska border where the Timber once flourished but is now mostly vanished and where noted 19th century Swiss artist Karl Bodmer traveled with German Prince Maximilian of Wied, a noted naturalist, to explore the then pristine American West. He not only makes drawings, paintings and photographs of riverscapes but collects data on the area’s history through interviews with long-time residents, including old quarry workers whose labors inadvertently revealed the snake’s existence and sealed its fate. Why does Lokke do it? To leave a record of how the river, the land and the snake’s habitat has been altered by man’s presence in the ensuing years since Maximilian-Bodmer journeyed there during their 1832-1834 trek. It is Lokke’s way of providing a link to the past and a gauge for the future.

When, in 1996, Lokke discovered he had been drawn in his search for the snake to visit and paint some of the very sites Bodmer had before him, it revealed fresh connections and sparked renewed dedication to his mission.

“I had made three initial watercolor landscapes in Cass County of King Hill and of Indian or Ace Hill. When I discovered Bodmer had painted these hills it absolutely bowled me over,” he said. “It was through repeated searches for this snake I really became enamored with the beauty and mystery of those hills. I always knew there was something very powerful, very special about those hills, something a little more deep and more rugged than the others, and obviously a scientist from Germany and an artist from Switzerland 160 years earlier thought so too, and I thought that was pretty amazing. To see that Bodmer had chosen these hills was very validating for what I was trying to do because, you know, I went into this basically cold.

“I believed in what I was doing — I knew it was important — but I wasn’t sure of an historical context. But when I saw Bodmer’s work, that all changed. I now had a link with my natural history interests and a tie to the past through art history. I made up my mind then I was going to make a lot more of these paintings and make them ever better. That I was going to work at this very hard and push this as far as I can…and maybe I could leave behind some paintings that will be as useful to people in 200 years as Karl Bodmer’s are today. I got very invigorated by that possibility, and I went to work.”

 

 

 

Karl Bodmer

 

 

 

The bridge between Lokke and Bodmer takes on added interest in that Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum, where Lokke worked as an art education intern, is the repository of the internationally renowned Maximilian-Bodmer collection. The collection, under the auspices of the museum’s Center for Western Studies, includes hundreds of Bodmer watercolors and sketches as well as three journals kept by Maximilian that detail the expedition’s day-by-day progress. Joslyn has featured the Bodmer collection in major exhibitions and catalogs.

By 2001-2002, work should be completed on a new book detailing all 81 of the hand-colored engravings Bodmer made from his on-site watercolors, and during 2003-2004 a first-ever European tour of the Bodmer watercolors is scheduled. The long-anticipated publication of Maximilian’s German-language diaries is still two or three years off, according to museum officials.

Lokke, who discovered his link to Bodmer in the book “Karl Bodmer’s America,” envisions an illustrated book of his own someday that, in his words, “will tell the story of this amazing snake and its habitat and all the changes that have happened along this habitat in the 20th century.” The book will also document his own personal journey of discovery in the places he’s visited, the people he’s met, the stories he’s heard and the paintings, drawings and photographs he’s produced.

Beth Irwin, a former teaching specialist at Joslyn who supervised Lokke at the museum, is familiar with his work and its reverberations with Bodmer. “The feeling you get from John’s work is similar to the feeling you get from Bodmer’s. The Bodmer watercolors have a strong feeling of immediacy because they were painted more quickly — done maybe over a day’s time — where John’s are probably done over a month’s time. But they both have that freshness and immediacy in common.”

After working as a commercial artist during the 1970s and ‘80s, Lokke decided to embark on a fine arts degree about 10 years ago. Now a year-and-a-half away from earning his degree at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Lokke brings a non-traditional maturity and vision to the classroom. One of John’s teachers at UNO, associate professor of art Bonnie O’Connell, said Lokke distinguishes himself by “his extensive experience out in the field” as well as by “the research he’s done. He’s quite delightful because he’s literate and articulate.”

Frances Thurber, an associate professor in art and art history at UNO, has taught Lokke and seen his watercolor work develop. “John really took to watercolor and became quite facile with the medium. He has a natural affinity for it. John really looks at the subtleties of that paint. He has a fine eye and a fine hand,” she said.  “And I think he’s found a real niche for himself by incorporating his interests as a naturalist with his historical recording and his gifts as an artist. He has very much a scholarly approach to things. His work is precise and deep. He’s very gifted.”

To date, the artist has completed some 23 paintings and drawings relating to the Timber’s historical range and/or updating Bodmer’s views of the region. His watercolor landscapes, which have shown in a few area exhibitions, will be on display at the Omaha History Center through the end of October.

Finding the subjects for his watercolors requires Lokke venture to some off-the-beaten-path spots. He backpacks into remote wooded areas along the river, accessing long-abandoned quarry sites and mining towns. His favorite haunts include the Barada Hills, Jones Point, Morgan’s Island and the site where the Big Nemaha River meets the Missouri. Since much of the territory he covers is private land, he asks residents permission to traverse their property. Through such contacts with locals he’s heard many tales about the Timber Rattlesnake and about life along the once free and wild river.

“I’ve had some great experiences talking to these guys. They provide a glimpse into pre-World War II life on the Missouri River, before it was managed. Life then was simpler. Much less mechanized. Farms were smaller. A lot of southeastern Nebraska was devoted to fruit production. More families fished the river commercially. There were a number of small ferrying operations. The Schmid brothers, a pair of bachelor farmers who came to the United States from Switzerland in 1930 and settled on some land at the base of Indian or Ace Hill, remember being able to walk out their door, cross a flood plain and find an oxbow or slough full of fish in clear water. They feel the river is less for the better through channelizing. A lot of the wildlife and natural beauty is gone. Their opinion is it probably should have been left alone.”

Pete Everett, a 95-year-old ex-quarry worker, has told Lokke of the time at King’s Hill Quarry when a mound of loose dirt was removed from a bluff to reveal a depression in the ground. Digging turned up a den of 40 hibernating Timber Rattlesnakes. Lokke practically drools at the thought. His works include a series of “illustrated narrative” paintings depicting some of the snake tales the men have told him. He relies on the memories of men like Everett to inform him what those hills looked like and what habitat they sustained. He says his work is “increasingly becoming a tribute to the old men who have provided me with such wonderful stories. The greatest satisfaction I get is when I show them the paintings and watch 40 years fall off their faces.”

While far from a raving John the Baptist in the wild, Lokke concedes his quest is all-consuming, leaving him somewhat out-of-step with the times. “I’m much too slow for the 20th century,” he said. “I barely know computers. To tell you the truth I miss probably about 90 percent of popular culture. I don’t know what’s going on. I kind of live in my own oblivion. You kind of have to, you know?”

He prefers old-fashioned American music and often plays it on one of his National resophonic fingerstyle guitars. He also composes original tunes based on sounds that come to him on his river sojourns. “If I do something quite rigorous, like hiking or struggling with a drawing or searching for snakes, I’ll start hearing a recurring sound in my head — a riff — and once I get it in my head I try mentally playing with it and expanding on it and then I try to find it on the guitar. Some, I discard. Others survive to become what I like to think of as soundtracks to the places I go and the things I see.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

He looks to the past for much of his inspiration and, a la Thoreau, to nature for his sustenance. During one of his many Missouri River haunts, when he variously searches for the Timber and for just the right vantage point from which to paint its river bluff environs, he is a man in tune with himself and with his universe. At one with the rushing wind, the streaming river, the warbling Thrush. “It is essential,” he said of communing with the Great Outdoors, “because when I’m out there, even if I’m having a really bad day and just can’t get it together, I still think I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. It can certainly become a spiritual experience.”

In his work Lokke calls on both his training as an artist and his knowledge as a natural history buff. “I do go out there with the overt intention of striking a balance between what I know from my artistic training is aesthetically and
compositionally engaging and what is of historical interest or importance. My basic technique is to make as detailed a drawing as possible in the field. Then I take a few color snapshots just to help my memory with the colors I was seeing out there at the time. The drawing is really the skeleton and essence of what’s going to become a painting. In the drawing I bring out details lost or distorted in the photograph. I transfer the drawing directly onto good watercolor paper.” He often returns several times to the same site before finishing a painting.

For someone as passionate about nature as Lokke, working with a sketch pad outdoors can prove distracting. “It’s absolutely overwhelming to draw outdoors because I have a naturalist’s eye and I’m trained to see as much as possible, so I have to be selective. You cannot take it all home. After awhile a sense of what needs to be there will come through. But it’s very hard. I’m usually pretty tired by the time I’m done with one.”

Just as the remote bluffs that once provided a perfect haven for the snake and its dens have changed since Karl Bodmer’s time, so has the muddy river below — owing to massive dike-building and channelizing efforts aimed at taming floods and aiding river navigation. Lokke, who has a river’s stillness and serenity accentuated by his deep gaze, long slow gait and deliberate manner of speaking, would have loved to glimpse the Missouri and its surrounding hills in their pure wild state.

Crafting his words as carefully as he renders the details in his fine paintings, he said: “Often times when I’m driving home I get this deeply satisfying sensation that I I’m somehow connecting with the history of the place. The recollections of the old men come back to me strongly when I’m painting. My imagination gets keen with how it must have looked when this was frontier. I see it in very idyllic terms: The hills are a savannah that are basically open, with a spangling of hardwood trees through them; the bottoms are extremely rich with grasses, trees, water, birds and fish. I try not to think about the mosquitoes or the mud or the other problems.”

 

 

 

 

He appreciates that while he sometimes contends with tough conditions out in the field, ranging from hordes of nagging insects to severe heat or cold, he can always retreat to the comfort of his car and to a warm soft bed at night whereas Bodmer was exposed to harsh elements for weeks at a time, with only the bare provisions and flimsy accommodations afforded by the Yellowstone Steamer he and the rest of Maximilian’s party used to ply the Missouri River.

“He dealt with things that were much worse than what I face,” Lokke said. “From what I’ve been able to glean from notations in the journals, Bodmer was not just an artist for hire but also a crew member who was expected to go ashore and cut wood and hunt animals and assist when the steamboat got caught in snags or mired on sandbars, which was a common problem. It was a very difficult journey.”

It is not an exaggeration to say Lokke feels a kinship with Bodmer that extends beyond simply retracing the earlier artist’s historic steps. For example, Lokke paints in the same medium (watercolor) as his predecessor did and shares with him an affinity for nature and a sensitivity for accurately portraying flora and fauna.

“The kinship I feel with him is that we both work in watercolor, which can be a difficult and unforgiving medium…an elusive way to do art. At the same time, the properties of watercolor — the transparency and the way the paint behaves — are very conducive to rendering nature. There’s something about the way the colors lay on the paper, especially a fine rag paper, and the way that beautiful white paper shines through this paint.

“Bodmer was an immensely talented man. I love the way he handles his colors. His paintings have great economy. He can depict a whole line of trees along the river with basically just two layers of color whereas I have to use half-a-dozen. The greatest thing about his paintings for me is how his use of colors evoke the last glimpse of an unspoiled continent. The colors have a softness and sophistication that I think, more than any frontier artist I’ve looked at, capture the innocence of the North America he saw.

“The real connection I feel with Karl Bodmer is he had a real love for details and it was important to him that the plants and animals and the people and their tools were all done accurately. Bodmer was one of hundreds of artists in the 1800s sent far away to bring back imagery of foreign lands for review at home. Topographical artists like him were the camera of the day. Pictorial accuracy was paramount.”

In 1998 Lokke’s own skills as a representational artist led the then director of the UNO-sponsored Bethsaida Excavation Project, Richard Freund, to commission him to visit the Holy Land and paint historic sites documented by 19th century
topographical artist David Roberts. It was his first trip abroad. “That was a chance for me to live out every topographer’s dream,” Lokke said. His resulting paintings are currently on display in Hartford, CT and will tour other cities across the U.S.

Lokke is not the first Nebraskan to feel a keen personal kinship with the Maximilian-Bodmer odyssey. The late Paul Schach, emeritus professor of modern languages at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, worked 12 years on the translation of Maximilian’s diaries. In a 1990 interview Schach, who grew up in Pennsylvania speaking and reading a dialect similar to Maximilian’s, said the painstaking translation put him on intimate terms with the man, with whom he shared more than a common heritage and language. Just as Maximilian spent a lifetime as a rugged outdoorsman and rigorous scholar, so too did Schach, who admitted to having “become perhaps too much interested in the man.”

Although Lokke regrets the fact he and Schach never met, Lokke feels they shared a bond no words could have expressed. Each felt the pull of the frontier West. Each identified with his own historical counterpart. Each in his own way delved far into the past in order to extract a better understanding of then and now. Schach is gone now, having left behind a vital store of knowledge. Lokke hopes to leave behind a legacy of his own whenever his time comes. A legacy staked out in the footprints of Bodmer.

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