The tree of life flowering
within the sacred circle
at the center of the earth.
From a speech delivered August 4, 2013 at the opening of the F. W. Thomsen permanent art exhibit at the John G. Neihardt Center, Bancroft, Nebraska
By JOHN THOMSEN
Dad would have been greatly honored to know that his work has found a home at the Neihardt Center next to two of the men he admired the most: John Niehardt and Black Elk. . . .
In 1955, Dad was asked to teach at Dana College full-time as the head of a growing art department. Because of Dana’s lack of funds, Dad was [also] asked . . . to take on the demanding position of dean of men. This was during a time when some of the students had just returned from Korea and were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; so on top of the regular duties of a dean of men, Dad spent many hours counseling these young men who would often wake up shaking from horrible nightmares. I think that this kind of passion for what is healing and good and meaningful is what eventually brought Black Elk, Niehardt, and Dad together. . . .
Luckily Dad never believed that God could be put into a little box called Lutheranism, Catholicism, or any other ism, so when he was about sixty-five, around 1970, and discovered Black Elk Speaks, he was blown away by the power of the vision and beauty of the symbolism. . . .
Niehardt was impressed by Dad’s feeling for the symbolism of Black Elk Speaks . . . [One} of Dad’s works that particularly excited Niehardt was The Star of Understanding, the morning star. Dad talked to Neihardt about [M]an being what he is all over the world, pretty much the same in nature and impluse, and the universe being the same; the sun rises and sets [as do] the moon and the stars and most people have some kind of admiration for the morning star. Niehardt responded [with a quote from Black Elk Speaks], “Then the daybreak star was rising, and the voice said ‘It shall be a relative to them, and who shall see it shall see much more, and those who do not see it shall be dark.’ ” . . .
Then Dad showed Niehardt colored photos of a very large pastel of the Tower of the Four Winds, and Niehardt immediately noticed that both colors red and black are shown on the horizontal arm of the cross and that they then become vertical as they work together. Dad said, “Yes, they merge.” And Niehardt replied, “They merge and then you have the tree of life.”
Dad mentioned that all he needed was Niehardt’s blessing on his conception for the Tower, and Niehardt said with great sincerity, “Well, boy, I believe it, and I believe in that. I think it’s a wonderful conception. The idea then — they have been horizontal, but they rise.” Dad said, “Yes. Now it’s lifted right up.” And Neihardt replied, “Yes, both; both of them will be lifted up. And then they join together, and you get the tree of life. . . . .Oh, it’s gorgeous; it’s just gorgeous!”
What a feeling Dad must have had when he heard those words. Niehardt had given him his blessing, which Dad felt he needed to move ahead with the Tower. . . .
Since the 1950s, Dad had had a vision of a cross near the top of Dana Hill that would be seen by travelers as far as the distant bluffs on the other side of the Missouri River Valley. Dad tried to find backing for this dream, but it was not to be. But dreams like this have a way of working out in mysterious ways, and of course The Tower of the Four Winds was the magnificent result. One thing about Dad, he did not have to have something this important happen quickly. Someone once said to me, “Your father is like moving water, continously moving and moving and wearing down everything in its path.” And it was true. If there was something worthwhile, Dad wouldn’t stop and with the Tower, he was truly inspired to continue working diligently. Moving, moving, moving . . . believing, believing, overcoming one obstacle after another, and continuing to move until the Tower, the park, and the fine artwork depicting some of Black Elk’s tremendous visions had been accomplished. Dad was fortunate. God had chosen him to spearhead this mission, knowing that the realization of these goals could not be controlled by Man but would happen in God’s own time.
I particularly want to mention one of Dad’s later works, called Peace. It’s a work he loved very much because, in a powerfully symbolic way, it holds so much of Black Elk’s vision. I often regret Dad didn’t live long enough to turn this small pastel into a monumental mosaic or radiant stained-glass window. . . . This beautiful pastel comes from these powerful words in Black Elk Speaks:
Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round beneath me was the whole loop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell, and I understood more than I saw.
. . . Black Elk, Neihardt, Dad — men chosen by God to spread His truth and His light. I feel great joy that these three fine men came together through spirit to give us such images, thoughts, and feelings of spiritual power.