The HERITAGE WORKS exhibition is an attempt to remember, express and record Midwest rural communal life.  Having grown up in a Mennonite family on a farm near Fargo, North Dakota, my life and worldview were strongly influenced by farm work, reliance on family, and a strong identity with the church community.

Expression of these influences is sought in imagery that symbolizes honesty, simplicity, and scriptural literalism—characteristics of Mennonite life.  These memories also find expression through the directness of photo silk-screened images on untreated cotton duck canvas, an aesthetic that is forthright and expressed in a monochromatic style results. Conversely, this intention is contrasted with brightly painted elements signaling secular society and the lure of “worldly” enticements. “Being in the world, but not of the world” is further symbolized by dividing the painting surface into components. 

The heritage series of paintings caused me to probe the most intimate aspects of personal memory. The challenge for me, however, was to remain honest to a personal aesthetic, to pay homage to a nurturing community, and to explore a visual arena that is symbolic, iconographic, and spiritual. 

  1. *The HERITAGE WORKS are part of the Midwest Museum of American Art’s permanent collection.

Abner Hershberger

Heritage Works*


acrylic / screen print / collagraph: triptych  

78 in x 204 in

Heritage Works



Visual expression was sought that would symbolize directness, truth-telling, and simplicity.  I attempt to do this by employing photo silk-screen paint as a medium and recording the image directly on raw canvas duck material.  The devotional head covering worn by my mother on the left, and the plain suit of my father in the center panel were truly significant for me, and a very present reminder of our “nonconformity” to the world.  Black and white panels contrast color panels in a single unit to symbolize being in, but not of the world.


An ethical dilemma was encountered with the growing of good barley, because it was sent to brewing companies to make beer instead of being used to feed animals.  Alcoholic beverages were forbidden.  Barley got tested at the grain elevator regarding its impurity content.  At church, my friends liked to compare how our farm crops were doing.  When it came to barley gathering, contrary to other grains, everyone told how weedy theirs was.  I mistakenly said ours was “great” one year.


At Christmastime each year I longed for a Christmas tree.  My parents said it was a pagan practice.  This answer was puzzling because the school had a very large tree in the auditorium where we performed the Advent story.  One year, my friends took me to the Lutheran church to see its beautiful tree.  My imagined tree in the dark of night, while others slept, was even more spectacular and regal because it was decked in gold.


The entire family participated in the harvest during “threshing days.”  Everyone had a job, whether it was as “water boy” or pitching bundles of grain into the threshing machine, hauling wheat to the granary, or preparing the banquet style noon dinner.


This John Deere, Model A, tractor is identical to the one I drove day after day in the large fields of North Dakota. We had it for a long time. The color of green varied with the time of day, seasons, weather conditions and, of course, my attitude.


Robert Frost’s poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, was in our fourth grade reader.  It promptly became my all-time favorite.  Each day our school bus drove through a wood as we crossed a creek.  I pictured our horse, Maudy, in these woods waiting to be driven home. 


Two major historic religious traditions have influenced me:  One Catholic and the other Anabaptist.  One exudes rich visual imager and symbols and through art history it became my artistic heritage. The other embraces peace and communal life. Both are important and relevant to me in different ways. 

Biblical stories carved on the façade of a Tenth Avenue Manhattan church symbolize and characterize the affinity I’ve experienced between faith and art.  The theology of the martyrs has evolved new dimensions and significance for me as I redefine their message in visual ways.


During W.W. II, the milkweed pod contents were used as kapok in life preserving jackets.  I secretly defied the church’s anti-war stand on this single project, amidst victory gardens and war bond projects, because I reasoned it was important to save lives.  My second grade teacher, Miss Naffig, said I did the right thing and only the two of us would know about it.  Incidentally, this same teacher earlier affirmed my art skills by requesting seasonal color drawings on the classroom chalkboard.


The piecing and quilting of bed covers was a perpetual activity at my home.  Many were needed for a family of twelve. 


The format of this work imitates the composition of early altarpieces. The lower panel or “predella” contains supporting themes, thus completing the narrative.  The cycle of arrivals and departures, winter and summer, outdoor and indoor work, snow and gardens, provided a grid on which a variety of rituals were exercised.


The tumbling block design, my favorite of mother’s quilts, intrigued me at an early age. I was surprised to discover at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that the “tumbling block” design dates back to classical antiquity and is known as the “Mosaic from Antioch.”  These “reversible cubes,” according to art critic, E.H. Gombrich, graced the walls and pavements in Plato’s time.  This design motif serves to unify the Heritage Works.  In this work, it is juxtaposed with barn beams.   


At about twelve years of age, while shopping with my parents, I spotted the tie of my dreams in a department store. When they came over to tell me there were leaving the store, my father commented, “Too bright and worldly” and we departed without the tie.