By Jared Olar
A piece of artwork with an interesting Pekin connection recently was donated to the Pekin Public Library’s collection. The artwork is a watercolor depicting a row of six seated circus elephants being directed by a trainer, with a second trainer or ringmaster standing in the background between the second and third elephant.
At the bottom right corner, the artist signed his name, “Kingman.” That was the late Dong Kingman, whose obituary, “Dong Kingman, 89, Whimsical Watercolorist,” was published in the New York Times on May 16, 2000. The obituary says Kingman was “an American-born watercolorist known for humorously illustrational cityscapes, magazine covers and contributions to Hollywood films.
Kingman was born in 1911 in Oakland, Calif., and his father was a Chinese immigrant from Hong Kong. His family returned to Hong Kong when he was child, and while there he studied traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy as well as European styles. During the Great Depression, Kingman returned to the U.S. “After a successful first show of watercolors in 1933 he joined the Works Progress Administration for five years, while also teaching at the Academy of Advertising Art in San Francisco,” the obituary says.
“In 1940 the Metropolitan Museum of Art bought one of Mr. Kingman’s paintings, and later two more. His New York solo debut was at Midtown Gallery in 1942,” the obituary continues, also mentioning that, “Paintings by Mr. Kingman are owned by the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and are in private collections.”
Before coming to Pekin’s library, this watercolor had hung for many years in the Huntsville, Ala., law office of the late Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. After Baker’s death on June 26, 2014, his former law firm of Baker Donelson closed the Huntsville office on Oct. 30, and Baker’s senior adviser Fred Marcum and secretary Jewell Kidd closed out his estate. In so doing, they had this watercolor sent to the Pekin Public Library.
Why did they send it to Pekin? The immediate answer to that question is found on the back of the framed watercolor, where one may find a handwritten note that says, “From Ben Regan / Eventually wants it placed in Pekin Library.”
That, however, raises more questions — namely, who was Ben Regan, and why did Baker want this watercolor sent to Pekin’s library? Baker presumably directed that it go to Pekin because of Baker’s own link to Pekin – Baker’s late first wife Joy was the daughter of Pekin’s native son, Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen.
An interesting political column by George Tagge, printed in the Chicago Tribune on Aug. 17, 1968, says Regan, formerly of Chicago, was an old friend and associate of Dirksen. The column tells of some backroom political maneuverings of Dirksen and his friends aimed at convincing Richard Nixon to choose Baker as his running mate rather than Nelson Rockefeller. Describing the maneuver of Dirksen and Regan, Tagge writes, “Sen. Dirksen hoped on convention eve that a delay in committing the largest bloc of votes Nixon was to get from any state would bring Nixon around.”
As a long-time friend and ally of Dirksen, Regan apparently acquired this Kingman watercolor as a gift for Dirksen’s son-in-law Baker. The watercolor’s circus theme is perhaps intended as a humorous allegory of the “circus” shenanigans of Washington politics. Dirksen, Regan and Baker were staunch Republicans, and the elephant is the symbol of the Republican Party, so an illustration featuring six circus elephants would be a nice fit for the office of a prominent Republican.