Vivid yellow trees spread across rolling green hills. Outcroppings of rock frame the foreground, with mountains in back and three deer in the middle, heads up as they peer out at the painter.
That painter was Thomas Hart Benton. He and his wife, Rita, sold the painting in 1957 to Shawnee Mission students who bought it as a class gift for their high school. They paid $750 — the equivalent of $6,300 today.
For years the painting hung in the library at their school, now Shawnee Mission North. But no longer — not after an appraisal a few years ago put its value at $700,000.
Which, for people like Janet Hartsock, raises the question: Just where is “Utah Highlands” now?
“Is it tossed in the school basement or hanging in someone’s living room?” said Hartsock, whose husband, Paul Hartsock, graduated from the school in 1958.
The district isn’t saying.
The principal’s office referred questions to Leigh Anne Neal, the district’s spokeswoman.
“We don’t have a missing painting,” Neal said. “It is in the possession of the school district. We keep it in a secure location. But for security purposes, we prefer not to disclose that location.”
The painting — gouache on paper laid on board, about 21 inches by 28 inches — has been out of sight since 2008. In its place in the library now, locked behind plastic glass and hooked to an alarm, is a photo of the original.
Hartsock thinks it was around 2012 when her husband went looking for the painting and was told it had been moved to Shawnee Mission East. But he didn’t find it hanging there, either.
“No one seems to really know,” she said. “As a patron of Shawnee Mission, I kind of would like to know what happened to it. The kids who purchased this painting came up with a unique gift to give their school. It seems sad to me that it is nowhere.
“Isn’t art supposed to be viewed? If they sold it, fine. If they didn’t, why all the secrecy?”
Michael T. White, a Kansas City lawyer and jazz musician, also was in the class of ’58.
The painting, he said, “used to hang in the hall. I remember we used to walk past it every day.”
White said he was concerned it might be stuck in a vault somewhere. He’d prefer to see it at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
“It is a painting,” he said. “It should be seen. Just hiding it away is a shame.”
Cause of stress
Benton, who died in 1975, was one of the leaders in the Regionalism art movement. Among his most famous works are the 1936 mural “A Social History of the State of Missouri” in the state Capitol and “Persephone” in the Nelson.
Come October, about 100 pieces of his work will be included in an exhibition called “American Epics” at the Nelson. But not “Utah Highlands.”
And just for the record, the Nelson said it isn’t storing the painting.
Jack Olsen, owner of the American Legacy Gallery at 5911 Main St., has never seen “Utah Highlands.” But he said he’s sold several Benton paintings for upward of $1 million.
“His paintings don’t come along very often,” he said. “When they do, they are quite expensive.”
Benton paintings that include people, Olsen said, are more highly sought than his landscapes.
As the high school’s Benton appreciated in value over the years, it understandably became a source of worry for administrators.
A 2012 online posting for the now-defunct Shawnee Mission North Opportunity Fund put it this way: “North’s past principals had received it, admired it, displayed it, borrowed it, stored it, cared for it, hid it, ‘re-discovered’ it, protected it, and generally stressed over it — in one form or another — for quite some time.”
At one point, according to the posting, the school and district officials considered selling the painting to provide financial resources for the opportunity fund, which was set up to help low-income North students.
Fund organizers turned down that proposition, not wanting to sell off property belonging to the school. Members said they were later told the school no longer needed a fund-raising arm.
Bruce Hartman, executive director of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art on the Johnson County Community College campus, thinks it was six or seven years ago when a Shawnee Mission North administrator came to him with a photo and asked whether the gallery would exhibit the painting.
“We tried to help,” Hartman said, but the Benton painting did not fit into the scope of the Nerman collection. “All our pieces are post-1980.”
Hartman said the school “may be in a conundrum” over how to keep the painting protected environmentally and safe from theft.
But he also wondered what good it serves if it’s being kept out of public view. He said he knew of other area schools that had sold valuable artworks and used the money to further their mission.
‘We called him T.H.’
After all the years, details of exactly who bought the painting are a little murky.
In some recollections, it was the class of 1957, some the class of 1958. Some recall the purchase being a joint effort by both classes.
Olsen said several members of the ’57 and ’58 classes have come separately into his gallery to ask him what the painting might be worth now.
Marsha Pachter of Overland Park remembers that the 750 students in her class of 1958 each contributed a dollar to come up with the purchase price.
“I was the one who picked up the painting,” she said.
She remembers that student leaders had originally wanted to buy “a giant Indian head” to hang outside the gymnasium, in a nod to school team mascot. “I said, ‘Let’s get something that’s important locally,’” she recalled.
A friend knew the Bentons’ daughter and took Pachter to their Kansas City house. “We called him T.H. back then. I remember that his wife was his agent. She was very pleasant.”
The house is now a state historic site, the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio, 3616 Belleview Ave.
Steve Sitton, administrator at the site, said he’s never seen the painting. But he opened one of Benton’s ledgers to point to a notation of the sale.
All in all, it was a pretty good investment for a bunch of kids.
Now if only they could see it.