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Kingsbury photographs featured at Dordt College art exhibit

October 1, 2003

The word petroglyph conjures up prehistoric rock images, but that’s not what you’ll see at “Twentieth Century Petroglyphs” a photography exhibit now on display at the Dordt College Campus Center Art Gallery for the month of October.

The exhibit features the work of Francis A. Kingsbury, Ponca, Neb., a photographer who spent three years preserving to print what remains of the hand-painted commercial signs and murals on Midwestern main streets, created by artists from the 1850s through the 1950s. Kingsbury will be recognized at a public reception Thursday, Oct. 16, from 6:30-8 p.m. at the Campus Center Art Gallery.

From Ohio to South Dakota, Wisconsin to Nebraska, Francis Kingsbury used a Leica camera to create a series of color photographs that document the signs that were typically found in the Midwest of the past century. Kingsbury was inspired by the book, Landscape of Ghosts, written by Bill Holm.

Historically, the advent of higher speed transportation such as automobile and railroads spurred a proliferation of hand-painted signs on the walls of downtown commercial centers during that time period. Painted advertising signs and printed posters literally covered the surfaces of buildings during this era. Many of the hand-painted signs followed in the tradition of the printed advertising poster, but the painted sign had the advantage of being weather proof and crafted on a much larger scale to provide greater visual impact among the clutter of competing signs. 5 Cents

In the ’50s and ’60s efforts to “modernize” historic old brick buildings with stucco or paint destroyed many of the signs. In recent years, the demolition of buildings has continued the demise of this art form.

On one level, this show is about letters and signs used in the service of what is sometimes known as the commercial vernacular. On another level, the show documents signs or remnants of signs of a bygone era and gives the viewer a nostalgic reminiscence. A third level displayed in the collection are the photographs depicting murals, which have been painted in a folk art tradition. The intent of these murals is mainly to enhance the neighborhood through images of civic or ethnic pride and “beautify” the urban environment as a public space.

Considering the speed viewers would be traveling, signs were designed to convey information quickly and practically, but with style. Viewers of the show are encouraged to consider what forms of the commercial vernacular exist today, perhaps as billboards or pop-up web banner ads.

The photographer for the exhibit is a lifelong resident of Ponca, Neb., who graduated from Morningside College in Sioux City. After serving in the U.S. Army, he joined family banking interests in 1946 and currently serves as chairman of the board for the Bank of Dixon County, Ponca and Newcastle.

His interest in photography began in high school and college years and in 1946 he joined the Sioux City Camera Club. His early training with senior club members was in the field of traditional pictorialism. Early in the ’60s, he began to specialize in nature photography. For many years, he raised his own wild animals, including bobcat, coyote, red fox, skunk, raccoon, great horned owl and various hawks.

For several years he was included in the top 10 nature exhibitors of the world. In recent years, he has moved to more traditional subject matter for his photographs and experimented with contemporary creative techniques.

Kingsbury has had more than 1500 prints and slides exhibited in international shows, some of which include Hong Kong, South Africa, Pakistan, Austria, Australia and all major exhibits in the U.S. He is listed in the top 20 monochrome print exhibitors as well as the top 20 color print exhibitors in the United States. In 1972 he was elected a Fellow of the Photographic Society of America in recognition of his record in international exhibiting and for his service to photography.

He has held all offices in the Sioux City Camera Club and is co-founder of the North Central Camera Club Council. For more information about the show or the Oct. 16 reception at Dordt College, call David Versluis at 722-6374.

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