Fred Geary Woodcuts: A Window Into History Feeds Today’s Imagination

I happened upon an exhibit of Fred Geary’s woodcuts at the Kansas City Public Library’s Central Branch earlier this week. It was another example of how writing historical fiction has changed my perspective on the world. (See my earlier post on reading a newspaper article about modern gold panning.)

Geary’s woodcuts were mostly done in the 1930s and 1940s, and many of them portrayed small town life in the rural Midwest. He drew houses and farms, jalopies and steamboats.

Some of the pieces were of Kansas City’s downtown, and some of New Orleans. I’ve been to most of the places Geary drew, and I smiled at his illustrations of locations where I’ve been, although some of these buildings and street corners have changed substantially in the intervening decades.

But I was most drawn to the farmhouses in mid-Missouri that Geary depicted.

“That one,” I said to myself, as I stood in front of one woodcut of an eight-room house with an attached ell behind it. “That’s Jenny’s farmhouse outside Arrow Rock.” Jenny is the heroine in my novel about traveling the Oregon Trail.

Obviously, Geary didn’t draw Jenny’s house, since that house exists only in my imagination. And it wasn’t exactly right – her house had a small portico that Geary’s woodcut lacked. But it was close, and confirmed for me that the type of house I had imagined when writing was true to the time period of my novel.

Our imagination is fueled by everything around us. In the year 2012, my imagination was fed by artwork done in the 1930s of a building built in the 1850s, to evoke a house I dreamed existed in the 1840s. Time is fluid, as I’ve written before.

Unfortunately, the exhibit of Geary’s work at the Central Branch ends on June 30. I’m glad I stumbled upon it during its last week in Kansas City. If you have a chance, go see it before the woodcuts return to their home at the State Historical Society of Missouri.

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