A Line of Inspiration
Nailing a framed print of Albrecht Dürer’s “Christ in Limbo” to a
plaster wall, Jonathan Harper ’08 lingered for a moment. “That’s
a strange creature,” he says, pointing to a winged figure in the upper
corner of the German artist’s work. James O’Rourke ’56 nodded,
leaning in for a closer look.
The Concordia student and the executive director of The Rourke
Art Museum in Moorhead had looked forward to this moment for
more than a year. In the summer of 2007 they learned that Thrivent
Financial was taking its collection of prints by Dürer and Rembrandt
van Rijn on the road. Harper immediately booked the exhibit, called
“The Inspired Line,” but getting the show to Moorhead took intense
collaborations and lots of hard work.
“It may be the most important exhibit that has come to Fargo-Moorhead,” O’Rourke says. “You can’t do something like this alone. We’re very fortunate that others got involved.”
Concordia and The Rourke have a long relationship that includes students working and volunteering at the museum. The two institutions reignited their partnership when the college began a museum studies program this fall. The program, a rarity among small liberal arts colleges, gives students hands-on experience in an art museum setting. Organizing an exhibition will serve as the program’s capstone course.
Although Harper didn’t formally graduate with a museum studies emphasis, his work at The Rourke and his leadership with “The Inspired Line” helped launch the program, says Dr. Peter Schultz ’94, chair of the art department. “Jonathan was a test subject, if you will,” Schultz says. “He showed us that this is possible.”
Harper attended Concordia for its music program. He graduated in December with a major in flute performance. His first semester, however, he took a required Principia course from Schultz that inspired him to take art courses in addition to his music studies. During his sophomore year, he secured a job at The Rourke where he mastered skills from cleaning art to installing exhibitions.
But Harper’s interest in Dürer sparked much earlier than that. He was introduced to the artist during a high school tour of German-speaking countries. The rich imagery in the printmaker’s work captured the student’s imagination. Later, as a college student, Harper completed extensive research on one of the artist’s most popular pieces, “Melencolia I.”
O’Rourke also has a personal connection with the German artist. The Moorhead man has experimented with woodcuts, the technique Dürer mastered. After attending Concordia, O’Rourke enlisted in the Army’s 2nd Calvary, mostly because he would be stationed in Nuremberg, Germany, Dürer’s hometown.
“He was a favorite artist of mine,” O’Rourke explains. “I wanted to visit his home.” Such backgrounds made bringing Dürer and Rembrandt to The Rourke even more precious for Harper and O’Rourke. They and Schultz worked with Concordia’s Office of Advancement to find the show’s sponsors, John and Sandi Adams. They updated the museum’s climate control and assured the exhibition company that storage and security met its standards. Then they waited one long year.
To bring Dürer and Rembrandt to Fargo-Moorhead is no small feat, Schultz says. The artists are the best of the best, the upper crust of their craft. “(Jonathan) put in the time. It sounds exciting to work in a museum and be an art historian, but you have to be willing to sweat it out,” Schultz says. “Intelligence and passion are meaningless without the work.”
For weeks before the show opened, the famous prints remained packed in three large crates. Harper and O’Rourke thought of little else as they prepared for exhibits scheduled before “The Inspired Line.” They wanted to see the works, to surround themselves with the brilliance of two Old Masters.
“You can never experience a piece the same as when you can see it in person,” Harper says. “How can you not be in awe when you think, at one point in time Dürer handled that piece?”
When it finally came time to look at them, O’Rourke carefully unpacked the framed pieces ranging from the size of his palm to a poster and lined them up around the gallery. As he and Harper examined the prints more closely, they noted how clean and clear the lines were. It was one benefit of getting a close-up view.
“I always tell students how great museum work is – you come to work and get to see and handle art,” O’Rourke says. “It doesn’t get any better than this.”