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The Drama of Ordinary People

by Johanna Blume | May 21, 2012
Kenneth Miller Adams, The Dry Ditch, 1964

Kenneth Miller Adams, The Dry Ditch, 1964

Greetings from the curatorial offices at the Eiteljorg! Johanna here, assistant curator of Western art, history and culture. I thought I’d kick off our time together on this blog by sharing a little about one of my favorite pieces in the museum’s collection, The Dry Ditch by Kenneth M. Adams (1897-1966).

Kenneth Miller Adams began studying art as a teenager, first in his native Topeka, Kansas, and eventually in Chicago, New York and Europe. It was in 1924 that he first travelled to Taos, New Mexico, where he met and befriended the burgeoning colony of artists there known as the Taos Society of Artists. In 1927, he was elected to that group, becoming the last and youngest member of the Taos Society before its disbandment that same year. Like many other Taos area artists, Adams spent a fair amount of time painting the local Native people. But unlike many of his peers, Adams spent a considerable amount of his time painting the Taos locals of Spanish descent. The Dry Ditch is one such painting.

So why is it one of my favorites? Well, there are three main parts to that answer. First, I’m attracted to the looseness of the composition and the paint. While still a realist painting with recognizable subjects, there’s enough abstraction, enough ambiguity present in the painting to let my imagination run wild. Who are these people? Where is the woman going? Is it the beginning or the end of the day? And what’s going on with that kid? Does he not want to move? Or has he fallen? I’m a sucker for art that tells a story, whether it’s one that the artist specifically had in mind, or one that I make up in my head. The Dry Ditch fits that bill.

Secondly, Adams had a knack for conveying the attitudes and personalities of his subjects in his art. One scholar of Adams’ work noted his “awareness of the inward quality of common things and ordinary people.”  The people in this painting exude feeling: fatigue, sadness, maybe a little annoyance or anger, but also confidence, pride, and resolve.

Finally, Adams was also known for his interpretations of the New Mexico landscape and environment, though his true passion lay in painting people. For me, The Dry Ditch does something not a lot of other paintings do. The landscape, the mountains and the fields and the tree on the left, become as much a character in the drama of the painting as the people. I mean, the painting is called The Dry Ditch, not Farming Family, or any of a million other possible titles.

The American West has never really been the empty wilderness so much of Western Art has led us to believe. Humans have been affecting the shape of the land, and the land has been shaping the lives of humans, for centuries. For me, The Dry Ditch is one of those rare pieces that perfectly captures that relationship in paint. And how lucky am I that I get to see it every day?




Johanna Blume, assistant curator of Western art, history and culture

1 Comment

  1. 1 Suzanne I Martley 14 Jun
    Nicely done!

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