Ken Kercheval

(Wolcottville, Indiana 1935 - 2019 Clinton, Indiana)

Ken Kercheval, famed actor for his role as Cliff Barnes on the television series “Dallas,” was a long-time friend and supporter of the Swope Art Museum. Growing up in near-by Clinton, lndiana, Kercheval often shared his first experience of the Swope. He was in third grade at Clinton Elementary School on a school field trip, just a few years after the Swope first opened its doors to the public.

“... I had no idea how important that trip would be to me. l walked into the gallery, glanced around, and then my eyes fell on the painting that changed my life: ‘Hush, Somebody’s Calling My Name,’ 1940 by John McCrady. l was drawn to that painting as if it were calling me personally. l didn’t want to leave. Finally, they had to drag me out.”

Kercheval would often reflect on that experience and why he felt so connected to the painting. He would later realize that it was the first time in his life that he had been emotionally affected by an inanimate object. “But here was a painting — something that l had done nothing to — and it was affecting me in a way that l had never felt before,” he said.

Shortly after the experience, he began taking art classes with Floyd Bombard at his studio above the Grand Theater in Terre Haute. After class, Kercheval would walk the block down Seventh Street to visit the Swope and see “Hush.” “l am always excited to see it,” he stated in 1988 during a phone interview with Sheron J. Dailey, professor emerita at Indiana State University and a member of the Swope Board of Overseers. “l am ready for my feelings to take a dip down to a more solemn place. And when I walk out, I feel refreshed,” he said.

Once during one such visit, the painting was temporarily not on view. From that point on Kercheval made sure to call in advance of a trip. lf it wasn’t on display, he would make an appointment for a private viewing of McCrady’s painting. In October of 2018, Kercheval made his last appointment — this time to view “The Wedding,” 1941, by Carl Hall. As a fellow Clintonian, I was excited to speak with him on the phone and hear him tell the story of his first visit. I was surprised that he wanted to see the painting by Hall, as I knew of his love for “Hush.” ln preparation, I pulled from the collection all the works by Hall — another oil painting, “lt Came to Pass” and its watercolor preparatory painting, and the pencil study for “The Wedding” that the artist gave to the museum.

The timing worked out that the museum was between exhibitions and I hung the works in an empty gallery just for Kercheval. The day of his scheduled visit, he called to cancel due to car troubles. l wasn’t sure if he still lived in Clinton and I didn’t want to intrude. I wish I had and offered to pick him up.

Kercheval’s love of his work brought him to become a close friend of John McCrady’s widow, Mary. He would later convince her to sell him one of her late husband’s works, “Judgement Day,” 1938. Kercheval would then go on to collect many works of art, inspired by the founding collection of the Swope. “My collecting really began that day in third grade. I didn’t actually buy a painting for many years. But that painting — and that day at the Swope — were the catalyst,” Kercheval said. 

Romantically, I like to think he was collecting works of art in hopes to surround himself with the feeling he first had upon seeing “Hush” and visiting the Swope.

With the museum wrapping up its annual tours for every fifth-grade student in Vigo County, I can’t help but remember a passionate quote from Kercheval: “People in Terre Haute must know how effective the Swope Art [Museum] is. Art is so personal. You never know what will linger in those small minds. You just never know.”

Knowing that every student saw “Hush,” l wonder what work of art will linger in their minds.

Ed Trover is the Curator of Collections & Exhibitions at the Swope Art Museum. While born in Terre Haute, he was raised in Clinton and considers himself equal parts Clintonian and Hautean.