Donna Baier Stein was on the hunt for her next project.
She found it in a painting hanging on the wall in her office by the artist Thomas Hart Benton, the Missouri-bred painter known for his stylistic and fluid murals painted between the World Wars. A self-proclaimed “enemy of modernism,” Benton painted left-leaning art during the Great Depression.
Born in the southwest Missouri town of Neosho, Hart spent most of his life in the state. His former home and studio near Roanoke Park in Kansas City is a state historical site. Hart’s lithographs, paintings and murals illustrated life in ordinary America — “ordinary” in that era meant bad working conditions and poverty.
Stein, a Shawnee Mission South High School and University of Kansas grad, had a Hart painting that was given to her father by a friend in the 1950s. “Spring Tryout” still hangs in her office today. It depicts two boys on a Missouri field. One of the boys is riding bareback while the second has just fallen off his horse.
Stein pieced together a sort of anecdote based off the lithograph.
“I just started writing down what I saw,” she says. “There’s a little grey farmhouse in the back, and I imagined someone living back there — probably the little boy’s mother — and I wrote a story.”
Her story was published in the prestigious literary magazine Virginia Quarterly Review. Stein was inspired to turn it into a series.
Scenes from the Heartland, published in March, includes nine stories based off one of Benton’s black and white lithographs. The ekphrastic tales are set in 1930s and 40s Missouri (with the exception of one in Hot Springs, Arkansas) and reel in readers to experience a world of dust storms, floods, war drafts and dance halls.
It wasn’t as simple as looking at a lithograph and composing the story; Stein had to study the period before she started writing. “Once you start researching, it’s kind of this meandering journey.”
She also learned the vernacular of the time, which is employed throughout: “My true love a blue-eyed daisy. No siree, Rufus Corn thought as he short-bowed his fiddle. My true love was a strappin’ gal with skin like coffee and eyes like golden raisins.”
Some of the narratives echo today’s world. Racial disparity, corruption and women’s injustice are a few of the hot issues woven into the collection. It wasn’t until she started actually writing them that Stein recognized how timely the issues are.
“As I wrote, I started to realize that these people experience the same things that any of us do today,” she says. “Because of the current atmosphere in this country, we need to remember that we’re all Americans.”
GO: Donna Baier Stein reads from Scenes from the Heartland. Monday, June 10. Kansas City Public Library–Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 6:30 pm.