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Renowned Iowa artist’s family gifts one of her pieces to Charles City Arts Center

  • Jim and Pam Sampson stand in front of one of their great aunt Atlanta Sampson's paintings. This particular piece was gifted by the Sampsons to the Charles City Arts Center. Press photo by Kelly Terpstra

  • One particular piece done by Atlanta Sampson that was shown at an art show held at the Charles City Arts Center on Monday. Press photo by Kelly Terpstra

  • A painting done by Virginia MacAurthur on display at the Charles City Arts Center on Monday. Press photo by Kelly Terpstra

  • A painting done by Frances Schoenwetter on display at the Charles City Arts Center on Monday. Press photo by Kelly Terpstra

  • A painting by Bernice Thorson displayed at an art show held at the Charles City Arts Center on Monday. Press photo by Kelly Terpstra

  • Atlanta Sampson was one of the featured artists at an art exhibit by Kurt Meyer on Monday at the Charles City Arts Center on Monday. Press photo by Kelly Terpstra

By Kelly Terpstra, kterpstra@charlescitypress.com

New York City native Leonard Weisberger was glad he met a girl from Charles City that he would later marry.

“She accepted me just the way I am,” Weisberger smiled while attending an art exhibit at the Charles City Arts Center.

It’s one of the reasons he was able to tell his story of meeting Atlanta Sampson — a renowned and influential female artist who grew up 40 miles from Charles City near the Iowa-Minnesota border in the small town of Toeterville.

Sampson was one of the featured artists selected by Kurt Meyer for an art show that is being featured this month at the CCAC. A reception was held for Meyer Monday evening.

Meyer is a historian and president of Humanities Iowa. His art exhibit was entitled, “Close at Hand, Works by Women Artists.” He brought more than 50 paintings, many from his own private collection, that focused on female artists of the 20th century.

Weisberger, who is an artist himself, stood right next to Sampson’s great nephew, Jim Sampson, at the presentation and began to tell the story of meeting Atlanta while a student at the School of Visual Arts at 23rd Street and 3rd Avenue in Manhattan.

“She was very vivacious. She was such a great spirit. She was just filled with life and energy,” said Weisberger. “She could flirt like men.”

Weisberger and his wife return to stay in Charles City every year from May to late September in his in-laws’ former house. Weisberger has New York subway portraits on display at the CCAC, where he has also held art shows.

Atlanta was an abstract expressionist who mostly painted watercolor, but also used pencil and charcoal. Jim said she painted from 6 years old all the way up into her 90s – when she achieved notoriety and fame after a New York business executive discovered her work.

“She tried everything. She just wanted to become famous,” said Jim’s wife, Pam Sampson.

Sampson devoted almost her entire life to painting and for nearly nine decades received little to no recognition or fame for her efforts until she held her first one-woman show in New York at the tender age of 91.

While Weisberger met Atlanta before she became famous, he feels it was an honor to have met the youthful soul that he said would joke around with his fellow students.

“It was such a great pleasure to meet her,” he said.

Sampson, a graduate of the University of Minnesota, moved to New York City in 1947. There in a one-room apartment, she devoted her life to painting.

Almost 50 years later, Atlanta was given her just due as national media picked up on her new-found success. Numerous art shows would follow – with one of her charcoal nudes selling for $7,000. On her 96th birthday, more than 40 of Atlanta’s pieces were displayed at an art show held in the Rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C.

Jim Sampson and his wife help run the Unionhurst Gallery in Toeterville, only three miles from Atlanta’s birth home, where the Sampsons now live. They have gifted the CCAC one of Atlanta’s paintings – an untitled piece best described by Meyer, who grew up in Mitchell County and has served as president of the Mitchell County Historical Society.

“The piece is non-representational to that extent that it suggests a floral arrangement. If somebody said this is a storm on the prairie I wouldn’t argue with them,” laughed Meyer. “She didn’t probably spend a lot of time scratching her head coming up with a name.”

Meyer said he hopes the selection of paintings shows how much of an impact women artists like Sampson, Bernice Thorson and Frances Schoenwetter had back in the 20th Century. Schoenwetter was an advocate of women artists in Chicago in the 1970s. She started a woman’s art co-operative while in the Windy City.

“That was kind of all the movement in those days. And why? Because women didn’t have a place where they could show their art,” said Meyer. “It’s been one of the inequities in the art world. If you’re a male artist, you have an easier chance of getting your art in exhibitions than if you’re a female artist. Now that’s historical. It’s a fact.”

Meyer was even tricked at first by Thorson’s work. Bernice signed many of her paintings as “Bern,” her nickname.

“Bern is short for Bernice. Suddenly, it’s a woman artist,” exclaimed Meyer. “I think she’s a well-regarded artist and yet for all these years I thought it was a man.”

There was a landscape, cityscape and floral piece on display of Thorson’s work. Dozens of other artists were also on display like Russa Graeme, Marian Alstad, Linda Le Kniff, Madeline Pyk and Jayne Cooper.

The Sampsons have run the art gallery in Toeterville – seven miles north St. Ansgar – for more seven years.

Meyer’s collection of art work will be on display through the the month at the CCAC.

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