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Family's artistic talent traces to grandfather

Staff writer

Judith Priest of Marion holds many memories of her father, Howard Bish, hard at work in front of an easel, crafting one of hundreds of paintings.

Priest and her sister Diane would observe their father transform a blank canvas into a scene of a farmhouse nestled in a vast prairie.

They witnessed his ability to improvise. He would add a splash of red and orange to what in reality may have been a dark sky. He may add a windmill to a farm scene where one previously did not exist. Priest said windmills were one of his favorite objects to draw. He would even add a historical figure — in one painting Arthur Herztler travels down a dusty road in his horse and buggy to treat another patient around Halstead.

“He was very inventive,” Priest said.

Bish was at his most inventive with a watercolor painting of a sunflower. Inside the petals of the gold flower are images synonymous with Kansas — a cabin, country schoolhouse, oilrig, covered wagon, and grain silo. Where seeds would normally reside, Bish painted the Capitol building in Topeka.

Bish entered his sunflower creation in a contest during the 1986 Kansas State Fair. The contest was to symbolize Kansas for the state’s 125th anniversary. Bish won the contest and Gov. John Carlin presented him a cash prize. Marion is set to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Kansas Old Settlers’ weekend the last weekend of September. Priest has temporarily donated the painting to be displayed in Marion library.

“He loved Kansas and he loved to do Kansas pictures,” Priest said.

Although he was drawn to the iconic rural images of Kansas, the Bish family lived near Wichita. Bish owned a printing company although he studied as an artist under Clayton Staples at Wichita State University.

“You starve if you’re an artist,” Bish told Priest at one point.

It was a surprisingly curt statement from a man who painted hundreds of pictures over his 92-year lifetime. Priest’s house at Marion County Lake is adorned with several of Bish’s paintings. She said she has several more displayed like a gallery in her basement.

Diane Bish has as many paintings from her father, even though some works were destroyed during a fire at her Indiana home.

Priest’s three children — Miriam, Stephen, and Rachel — each have several paintings from their grandfather.

Bish painted until his eyesight began to fail when he was 90. He was living at St. Luke Living Center then and at least one of his paintings hangs in the halls of the nursing home.

While he was a realist, Bish was as passionate as he was productive. His love of art was one-half of the inspiration that led to his daughters pursuing arts over a lifetime.

The Bish household was always a haven for creativity. The Bish sisters decided to follow their mother Esther’s example, who was a classically trained pianist. Priest went on to study violin. Diane Bish is a renowned concert organist.

Priest actually met her husband, Bob Priest, in college when they played violin together. The couple would eventually become Methodist pastors, including serving at Eastmoor United Methodist in Marion, United Methodist Church in Peabody, and a church in Burns. However, they never abandoned music. They both played during their services, usually Judith playing while Bob preached and vice versa.

Talent in the visual arts skipped a generation. The elder Bish taught the Priest children how to paint, instilling equal parts discipline and encouragement. Miriam paints. Stephen is a graphic artist who has published historical books for the Santa Fe Railroad.

Rachel, taking after her parents, is an operatic-quality singer.

“Music and art have always been in my family,” Judith Priest said.

Last modified June 8, 2011

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