The heritage and heart of ‘The Yesteryears’

By Kate Hayden,

Russell Sonnenberg chanced upon a small art display at a mall the day David Bublitz found him, back in the late 1990s.

“He walked up and said, ‘My name is Russell Sonnenberg,'” Bublitz recalled. “I said, ‘Oh, I’ve been looking for you.'”

Bublitz, a publishing agent with the company Meg’s Art World, had been interested in Sonnenberg’s work since he found a few 8×10 reprints at the Top of Iowa Welcome Center in Northwood.

“I thought, ‘Now here’s a good country artist. I’d like to add something like that to what we’re selling,'” Bublitz recalled. “When we started working with him, we started to realize that, here’s an artist that excels in all our orders from all artists together … He just took off.”

Prints of Sonnenberg’s work will be shown at the Charles City Arts Center for the next month, with a wine and cheese reception opening the show on Friday, June 2 at 5 p.m.

The subject Sonnenberg is known for is personal to most of his followers. Sonnenberg paints the 20th century equivalent of classical pastoral scenes. Instead of European maids shepherding cow herds, there are midwestern farmers inspecting Oliver tractors; replacing sheep at a lake’s edge are Allis-Chalmers machinery tending farmland. “The Yesteryear Collection” is available in limited prints through Meg’s Art World.

“It’s simple, but it kind of brings back the heritage of the yesteryears,” Bublitz said. “People can look back at those tractors and say, ‘Oh my God, my dad had one of those, Great-Grandpa had this’ … It really reminds people of the past in a way that brings back memories.”

Sonnenberg has created more than 60 original oil paintings of tractor models from the likes of Minneapolis Moline, Ford, Massey-Harris and John Deere, to name a few. In his biography for Meg’s Art World, he estimates each painting takes about 100 hours of research. Tractor models from the mid-1940s to the present day are featured in the collection.

Customers of Sonnenberg prints are primarily midwestern, although prints are sold to Canada and other international clients as well, Bublitz said.

“It’s a midwest thing,” he said. “The lion’s share are sold in Iowa, Wisconsin, North and South Dakota and Minnesota.”

When visitors enter the Charles City Arts Center, they’ll be greeted first by two portraits of Oliver tractor models, of which Charles City has a particular heritage. The Hart Parr Company was founded in Charles City in 1900, and merged with three other companies in 1929 to become the Oliver Farm Equipment Company, producing Oliver tractors within the Charles City plant. The company went through more rounds of name-changes, ultimately becoming White-New Idea, Division of Allied Products, before the Charles City production plant closed in 1993, according to the Floyd County Museum.

Sonnenberg himself grew up around Allis-Chalmers tractors at his family’s dealership, where Sonnenberg became a mechanic. He uses photographic references and owner’s manuals to create the level of detail viewers have come to expect.

“It’s very difficult to paint something that looks realistic … It takes years of practice to be that good,” Bublitz said. “Collectors, if they’re going to look at a piece, they’re going to say, ‘Well, the generator isn’t in the right spot’ or ‘this isn’t right’. He puts all the nuts and bolts just exactly where they should be.”

“He uses the tiniest brush you’ve ever seen to get his highlighting,” Bublitz said. “He’s really got good perspective, which is something a lot of artists struggle with … What I find interesting is he’s never had art training. This is all self-taught.”

As an artist, Sonnenberg also has one unique trademark that frames his scenery: a burr oak tree in the left corner of each work. Only one Sonnenberg picture is missing the tree.

“When an artist tries to look at an image, you kind of want to frame your picture in,” Bublitz said. “A tree … draws the eye into the picture. He’s really using the tree as a framing technique, to get you to focus in on the picture.”

From each original piece of artwork that Sonnenberg creates, only 2,000 prints are made. Framed and unframed prints will be available for sale at the Arts Center.

A few original pieces are on display full-time in Algona, close to where Sonnenberg grew up at in Kossuth County. Sonnenberg, now in his mid-70s, paints in Forrest City at the nursing home where he resides.

“He’s all about preserving the heritage of his art … He’ll just paint and say, ‘I hope somebody likes that,’ because he’s put his heart and soul into each one of these pieces,” Bublitz said. “It’s a labor of love, for sure.”