The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Roscoe Misselhorn, a talented local artist who honed his craft and shared his work in Sparta for more than seven decades, will be inducted into the 2022 class of honorees.
Roscoe Misselhorn was born in Sparta in January 1902. From a young age, Roscoe discovered that he had an interest in and talent for art. Even as a kid, he would later reflect, “more than anything else, I wanted to draw.” He dropped out of school before graduation and went to work in a Sparta department store while also drawing sketches and cartoons for the Sparta Plain-Dealer. His work caught the attention of executives at Meyer-Both, a news syndication company out of Chicago. They hired him to do weekly political cartoons to be printed in papers all over the country, paying him $5 for each cartoon.
In 1926, Roscoe married Ruth Tritt in Sparta. She encouraged him to develop his talent at the School of Fine Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. He studied at the school for two and a half years, discovering the thrill of working as part of a community of artists. He left the university in 1928 to work in advertising, but the school would later award him an honorary bachelor’s degree in art. While he loved St. Louis, he ultimately decided to make Sparta his permanent home. He told the Southern Illinoisan in 1959, “For a home, I prefer a quiet place, where when you meet someone on the street, you probably know him and he knows you.”
Roscoe began a career as a commercial artist, painting signs and murals, and in his down time, he started to develop his own personal artistic style. In 1930, he would produce the first of a series of pencil sketches that would become his trademark. The subject was the covered bridge over Mary’s River, which his grandfather, Wilhelm Misselhorn, had supposedly helped to build. The county’s landscape would provide him with endless inspiration over the next half a century. Rolling hills, historic homes, farms, rivers, bridges—the entire world of Randolph County seemed designed to be captured by Roscoe’s pencil.
The public responded enthusiastically to Roscoe’s work, and eventually he was able to leave his sign painting business behind. He published a series of books featuring drawings he’d done both at home and in St. Louis, including Misselhorn’s Pencil Sketches of St. Louis and Misselhorn’s Pencil Sketches of Missouri. His work was exhibited in museums in St. Louis, and then across the country. One wood engraving, “Ohio River Fish Boat,” was shown at the Carnegie Institute and the Library of Congress. Prints of his work became sought after, and he began producing notepads and postcards with his sketches of landmarks in Randolph County, Carbondale, Cairo, Ste. Genevieve, St. Louis, and New Orleans.
In 1951, Roscoe began teaching adult extension classes in drawing, as well as working with pastels, oils, and watercolors, through SIU Carbondale. Over the next three decades, he assembled work for a proposed book of sketches of Southern Illinois. When the project struggled to find a publisher, his work ultimately found a home in Sparta. Roscoe and Ruth established an art foundation, to which they contributed more than 4,000 pieces of his original artwork, as well as a collection of art books valued at $50,000. The foundation then helped coordinate the restoration of the Gulf, Mobile, & Ohio Railroad Depot on Second Street in Sparta, which was reopened in 1992 as the Misselhorn Art Gallery.
The new foundation and gallery ensured that the legacy that the Misselhorns built would remain accessible to art lovers for generations to come. The Southern Illinoisan praised the city of Sparta for helping to fund the project, writing, “The community of Sparta showed that it cares about its art and its architecture.” The foundation has helped to extend that care by awarding scholarships to young artists, encouraging the continuation of Sparta’s artistic legacy. Roscoe died in 1997, five years after the gallery’s opening, but the museum has continued to support both his work and the work of other artists over the past three decades.
In the years since Roscoe sketched many of those landmarks and landscapes in Illinois and Missouri, many of them have been lost or changed significantly. Today, Roscoe’s work provides us with both a moment of beauty and a window into the past. In 2010, foundation trustee Terry Waldron told the Southern Illinoisan, “The reason I think he’s important, especially for a Midwest artist, was what he chose to draw. The stuff he liked is the stuff that’s not around anymore. The historic value of his work is what’s important.”