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A painting comes home

December 31, 2016 GMT

A painting by Charles S. Simmons was recently returned to the city for all its residents to enjoy.

Simmons was born near Scottsbluff on May 20, 1887. Throughout his painting career, Simmons painted sporadically. Sometimes, his paintings took several months to complete. His paintings brought western Nebraska to life.

Simmons’ talent was caught early on. He told Nebraskaland magazine in March 1966 when he was going to school in Gering in 1898, a teacher insisted he come to her house for art lessons.

“Looking back on it, I think the other teachers probably thought I wasn’t tending to my lessons, since I was always fooling with a pencil and paper,” he told the magazine.

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In 1900, his family moved to Scottsbluff. Simmons completed his schooling and went to work making signs. He did this until the 1940s when he decided to devote all of his time to painting. Even when he was making signs, he took a three-month course at the Chicago Art Institute in 1909. It was there he began painting with oils, a medium he became fond of using.

Painting the sky in oil was difficult for Simmons because it was always changing, he told the magazine. So he used images from color magazines instead of relying on his memory.

The painting which now hangs in Scottsbluff City Hall is a golden display of the Platte River in autumn. Sand bars stretch across the river while the water reflects the scenery. Golden yellows and ambers decorate the trees with a slight hint of green remaining.

There is no date for when the oil-based painting was completed, but it was given to Paul Wheeler sometime in the 1940s or earlier.

Several months ago, John Simmons, nephew of Charles Simmons, received a phone call from Robert Wheeler in Florida about the painting.

“They were cleaning out a relative’s house and ran across the painting,” said Cindy Dickinson, Scottsbluff city clerk. “Mr. Wheeler said, ‘I feel it (the painting) should be back in Scottsbluff.’”

John Simmons thought the painting should be at City Hall.

Simmons never asked anyone to purchase his paintings. If he painted something he thought someone would like, he would let the person know, but they were never under obligation to buy the piece. He told Nebraskaland magazine, “They are usually sold before they are done, but if they are not, I will only sell them if they suit both of us.”

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People enjoyed his art so much, they felt a show was needed. About 60 paintings, from as far away as Sao Paulo, Brazil, were brought to Scottsbluff. At one point the Joslyn Memorial Art Museum in Omaha was interested in his work and one of his paintings, “The Soddy,” was sent to Washington D.C., for a Nebraska painters exhibit. That painting of a western sod house was so popular, it stayed in U.S. Senator Roman Hruska’s office and Simmons recalled having to nearly beg for it back. It was his favorite painting and was not for sale.

Today, there are at least 258 of his paintings displayed throughout the world.

The city is planning to hang the painting somewhere the public can view it on a regular basis. One suggestion has been to rotate the painting around businesses and organizations in town until a permanent, public home can be found. For now, it rests in the office of the city manager where it greets Nathan Johnson every day.

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