Down an unpaved road in Winnebago, Minnesota, sits the farm of George and Irene Bassett. Their ancestors have lived on this land since the Civil War. At first glance, the farm looks like many others in southern Minnesota, with its green and white farmhouse and big, red barn. However, it’s clear from a trip inside the barn that this farm is far from ordinary. Sandwiched between tools and farming equipment are busts of many famous faces throughout history, including Vice President Hubert Humphrey, environmentalist and writer Sigurd Olson, Pope John Paul XXIII and Dakota Chief Little Crow.
George Bassett, 93, has been depicting famous people (as well as ordinary ones) since he first became interested in art while in the Air Force during World War II. Stationed in Naples, Italy in 1945, he used to trade his ration of cigarettes for art lessons from a local shop owner. Since he had nights and weekends off, he was able to take art lessons twice a week – and he spent much of his time painting the people and places around him. “Sundays we would go out to the bay of Naples and do watercolors of the boats,” Bassett remembers.
When he came home from overseas, he got his degree and split his time farming, teaching, and doing his own sculpting, painting and artwork. He also got involved in local Democratic-Farmer-Labor politics, advocating for disabled American Veterans. It was doing this work when he first met then-Senator and soon-to-be Vice President of the United States Hubert Humphrey. “Humphrey was very sympathetic to our causes,” Bassett recalls fondly. Humphrey was receptive to Bassett’s artistic practice as well. The Senator agreed to sit for a series of live modeling sessions with Bassett, the result of which is a bust that is now on display at the Minnesota State Capital.
Other commissions soon followed. Senator Randy Staten commissioned a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. for the Minnesota State Capital, and Bassett worked with the African American Artist Committee and the Minnesota Historical Society to make that happen. The Minnesota Historical Society also commissioned a bust of Sigurd Olson, and the Bakken Museum houses his life-size sculpture of Earl Bakken. He also has consulted with the Papal Nuncio on a bust he did of Pope John Paul XXIII for his local church.
However, sculpting world leaders isn’t all Bassett cares about. In fact, he believes that “throughout art history, artists have painted or sculpted the people and subjects in their lives or people familiar to them. Sometimes that’s when you get your best. I do not make art just for famous people, and it is not a priority.”
Most recently, Bassett has been sculpting a wide variety of subjects. He says, “I like making busts of anyone, but I have a special affection when making art of my children or grandchildren.” Ultimately, Bassett states that, “My legacy is if my work is appreciated”.
Minnesota Music: Vicky Emerson
Production Team: Kate McDonald, Eric Pagel. Brennan Vance