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Edward Deming

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The Geneseo Public Library thirty miles east of here is worth a visit if only to see the original oil painting by Edward Deming. In this strange, almost mystical painting, an Indian stands on the shore of a small lake ringed by dark woods. The woods shape the sky above into a ring the same size as the lake.

The Indian is holding a bow upward at arm's length toward the sky. The arrow, if there was one, has passed the limits of the painting. All the other trappings so favored by more famous Indian painters such as Frederick Remington and Charley Russell are missing: no headdress of eagle feathers, no war paint, no horse, or chiseled features or sharp eyes, no muscles straining. This Indian and his two dogs are alone and at peace with the world.

Perhaps that is why Edward Deming never caught on as a painter of Indians, though he devoted his life to portraying their vanishing cultures. Deming's family moved to a homestead on the Green River five miles north of Geneseo in 1860. Here, on the edge of the old Sauk and Meskwaki lands, Deming grew up admiring the friendly Indians who came to trade with his family. In spite of family objections over his interest in art—his father thought it was too feminine for a man—Deming determined to become a painter. And after a trip out West to Indian Territory, he decided that his subject would be Indians.

He sold a herd of horses he had raised to support himself in art schools in New York and France. Then, for much of the rest of his life he lived among the Sioux, the Apaches, and other tribes, spending his winters painting.

Deming grew respect from the critics, who noted his accuracy and attention to detail, and especially his ability to capture the soul of the Indian. But he was overshadowed by the popularity of those painters who chose to give us a fiercer, more violent Indian—those whose chiseled features inhabited our grade school textbooks.

Frederick Remington, with whom Deming had become close friends, said it best. "The difference between your Indians and mine," he told Deming, "is that I saw my Indians through the sights of rifle, and you saw yours from the inside of his blanket and tipi."

But as they both knew, guns sell better than souls.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.