Plain life, as seen by a complicated artist

"Courting" by Xtian Newswanger. (Richard Hertzler)

Xtian Newswanger, one of Lancaster best-known artists, was humorous and serious, fascinated by the Amish and by circus performers and a highly creative man who just happened to be a Fulbright scholar.

Jeri Scott of D & J Scott Galleries knows these things first-hand.

She was a close friend of both Newswanger and his companion, Dorothy Freyer. Newswanger came to the gallery often, driven there by Freyer. After his death in 2005, a selection of his works was available at the gallery.

Last week, D & J Scott Galleries opened an exhibition of about a dozen works by Newswanger. The exhibition will run through Feb. 28, providing area art collectors a rare opportunity to view and purchase works by the notable artist.

Among the works available for sale are a set of original aquatints, including hand-colored pieces showing the Amish at work in the fields, the progression of the seasons, and Amish children and adults. As Scott explained, she once had many more Newswanger works, but most were purchased by art collectors.

"This is an opportunity to see the work of a multifaceted artist who was one of the first to paint the Amish," says Scott. "But there is much more to him than that."

Scott recalls the years when Freyer, who used a walker herself, would drive Newswanger to his appointments. He was always interesting to talk to and Scott was intrigued by all of his experiences.

He was the son of artists, so his fate was sealed early on. His father was Vernon Kiehl Newswanger, who was born in Lancaster County in 1900 and died at age 80 in 1980. The Newswanger family dates back to the 1700s. His mother was Myra Butterworth of Philadelphia, an accomplished artist whose style has been compared to Mary Cassatt.

Their son, Christian, was born in 1927 and lived until the age of 78. Throughout his lifetime, Newswanger, who shortened his name to Xtian, as in Xmas with the X meaning "Christ," often signed his work with a large Xtian.

"I think a lot of people wondered what the X meant," says Scott. "It was his way of being a little different."

And he was.

Growing up in Lancaster County, he observed the Amish farmers as they worked the fields, hung out their quilts on wash lines, did their farm chores and went to market.

As a youth, Newswanger turned down scholarships to Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania to study art with his father, a professor at Franklin & Marshall College.

Later, the younger Newswanger received a prestigious Fulbright scholarship to study at the National Art Academy in Dusseldorf, Germany. He also studied pottery with one of the last of the old-time potters in Maryland.

The father and son both did many paintings of the Amish and did a collaborative book in 1954, which was called "Amishland." The in-depth study of Amish life features the Newswangers' drawings of the Amish and Mennonites of Lancaster County.

In a 1955 book review, B.A. Botkin of the New York Times wrote, "This unique combination of sketchbook and notebook by two dedicated Pennsylvania German artists, Kiehl Newswanger and his son, Christian, is one of the most original and authentic works to come out of the folk life of the plain people."

The Newswangers may have been known for their drawings of the Amish, but they had many other interests, occasionally doing some cubist-inspired works and abstracts.

Like Lancaster's famed artist Charles Demuth, the Newswangers were intrigued by performers. The father and son enjoyed watching the acrobats and animal trainers when the circus came to town each summer. In fact, some of Newswanger's circus performers resemble some of the theater and vaudeville paintings that Demuth did during his career. As Scott noted, they even spent several years traveling with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to research their art.

"Knowing Christian as well as I did, I am very pleased to be able to share his work with the people who may not have seen it before," says Scott.

Newswanger and Freyer were constant companions, recalls Scott. After he died in 2005, Freyer died just three months later. For a time his work was stashed away and this exhibition is a rare opportunity to acquire work done by an artist whose work can be seen at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Lancaster County folk art by Xtian Newswanger

Cont. through Feb. 28

Tues. and Fri. noon-5 p.m.

(later on First Friday)

Sat. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Free

D&J Scott Galleries

323 N. Queen St., 397-5360