Himler's painting was all the talk

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Three elderly men gather on a cold day in the country under a threatening sky.

What are they talking about?

The title of Mary Martha Himler's painting tells us: "Rural Politics."

For the fourth consecutive year, the Post-Gazette features a winter-scene painting on the cover of the Christmas Day newspaper. This year's painting was selected by PG publisher John Robinson Block and executive editor David Shribman during a visit to the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg.

The men in "Rural Politics" are Miss Himler's father, George Washington Himler, in the tan overcoat, and his two brothers, Fred and Joseph. They have stopped at the gateway to Fred's Westmoreland County farm.

Miss Himler painted it in 1955 from memory or a photograph; the Himler brothers, sons of German immigrants and all born in the 1850s, likely were deceased by then. Miss Himler is gone now too; she died in 1982 at age 93 after a long, fruitful career as an artist and teacher.

George, a carpenter, and Joseph, a steelworker, both lived in Latrobe; Fred was a Hempfield farmer. The artist identified them when she gave the painting to the museum in 1978. While the exact topic of discussion is unknown, the Westmoreland's permanent collection catalog of the same year reports that in the oil-on-board painting, which measures 30 by 36 inches, the brothers are "engaged in one of their frequent, enthusiastic discussions on local politics."

Fred Himler, sporting the handlebar mustache, was a favorite subject of the artist.

"I loved him and he taught me a lot -- he had a great feeling for the earth," she told The Pittsburgh Press in a 1967 profile, which described her as "stalwart, foursquare and determined."

Seeing a reproduction of the painting for the first time recently brought back memories for James Himler of Hempfield, Fred's great-grandson.

"The yellow building was a springhouse," he said. "Back in those days they used it like a refrigerator. They'd put their milk in there and it would keep it relatively cold."

Although Miss Himler didn't include it in the painting, "There was a granary to the left," he said. "You could run your wagon through the building and on each side you keep corn or grain." On the granary's second floor, Fred Himler had his workshop.

All of those outbuildings, along with the two sheds shown in the painting, are gone. The house, located on a one-lane country road, is well cared for but no longer in the family.

A legacy in Latrobe

Miss Himler was a prolific American Scene painter in the WPA tradition, popularized in the 1930s by Works Progress Administration artists who sought to portray and ennoble everyday life. Many of her paintings are of the houses and factories of her native Latrobe, where she lived in the family home next to Loyalhanna Creek. She also painted the Westmoreland County countryside, drawing inspiration from her own 70-acre farm north of Ligonier, which had been established by her grandparents, George and Mary Himler, after leaving Bavaria around 1841.

"To this day I go into the woods to learn how to draw a tree and to shape a leaf, and to learn all the different qualities of color," Miss Himler told the Press.

"She was a good painter, painting the American scene locally, and recorded it very much of the period that artists were doing that nationally," said Westmoreland Museum curator Barbara Jones. "She is one of the undersung artists. She has a reputation around here but not beyond these borders."

The museum has seven of her works; she also gave several paintings to her church, Trinity Lutheran in Latrobe. Four more are in the Special Collection of the Greater Latrobe School District, which Miss Himler co-founded in 1936 with fellow Latrobe High teacher James Beatty. In 1938, the community began to fund the program through the Latrobe One Hundred Friends of Art.

"She was a strong woman, and stubborn, but the kind of woman who got things done," said Barbara H. Nakles, who heads the Art Conservation Trust, established in 1991 to care for the collection.

It comprises about 200 works by Western Pennsylvania artists; all of the works were documented in a catalog last year. There's not another school collection like it in the country, she said.

A similar program in Pittsburgh, the Friends of Art, distributes works among many schools but suffers from poor record-keeping; about 300 of the estimated 600 works donated since 1916 now can be accounted for, thanks to a recent, ongoing effort.

In Latrobe, the high school walls are lined every few feet with paintings and a few prints and sculptures selected annually by students from group exhibits in Pittsburgh and Westmoreland County for almost 80 years. It's an impressive, well-documented display harboring many lesser known but quality works by prominent Western Pennsylvania artists, including Sam Rosenberg, whom Miss Himler studied under at Carnegie Tech in the 1920s after graduating from Indiana Normal School (now Indiana University of Pennsylvania) in 1912.

Her father, another of her favorite subjects and with whom she lived until his death in 1941, didn't approve of her going to college. But after she graduated, he was proud of her achievements.

"We got along fine," Miss Himler told the Press, "once I established that I had a mind of my own."

Art for all

She began her teaching career in a one-room schoolhouse, which she painted from memory in "Recess," a work in the Latrobe collection since 1942. It shows the artist surrounded by her students and some of their pets in front of a white frame schoolhouse.

In the collection's early days, Miss Himler would select works from the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh exhibits, bring them to the high school and talk about them at a school assembly.

"For most of us it was the only art education we ever had," Mrs. Nakles said, as art was an elective course.

"She was quite good," said Ligonier artist William Hoffman, Miss Himler's student in the late 1940s and art professor emeritus at Rutgers University. The Latrobe art collection "meant a lot to me," said Mr. Hoffman, who remembers voting for its first abstract painting, Richard Crist's "Blue Center," in 1951.

Then as today, the works form a teaching collection; art, English and social studies teachers bring their students into the halls to study and write about them. While many of the works are landscapes, subjects also include World War II, interiors, still lifes and portraits.

After Miss Himler reached the mandatory retirement age of 62 in 1952, she took a six-week course in animal husbandry at Penn State and became a milk tester on local farms. But soon she was back in the classroom, teaching art for another nine years at Hurst High in Mount Pleasant as well as for the Latrobe recreation department.

"She was critical in making art accessible to just about everyone," Ms. Jones said. "She was very involved in daily life around here."

Much of her teaching was dedicated to helping her students see beauty in ordinary things.

"Everybody works so hard to be rich -- why, all you have to do is open your eyes, and you see the same sky and hills as the millionaire does," Miss Himler told the Press. "That's real wealth."

Architecture critic Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590. Mary Martha Himler's "Rural Politics" can be seen in the lobby of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, 221 N. Main St., Greensburg. Reproductions of the painting are available as a postcard (75 cents) and as a special order, 20-inch by 24-inch giclee print, $100 unframed.


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