When T.C. Steele, granddaddy of the original artists’ community of Brown County, first took his new wife there, he warned her not to put on airs, to keep her Indianapolis sensibilities to herself. The rustic neighbors, he said, were “a curious people.” On her first trip to the Belmont General Store, historians say, her shopping list was rebuffed: She was told she could not buy butter and bread because everyone in Brown County made their own.
Even 100 years ago, when almost all of Indiana was natural and raw, artists saw something special in Brown County. The place might have been slow to get indoor plumbing and electricity, and the pioneers who settled there might have been a gruff bunch without much use for artistry, but a lavender haze tinted the landscape. Ice Age glaciers, to blame for nearly everything about Indiana’s topography, were uncharacteristically kind to Brown County, carving swooping valleys and piling up rolling hills while flattening fields everywhere else.
On a hilltop amid this beauty, T.C. Steele bought 211 acres and built his House of the Singing Winds. And though other Midwestern artists who settled in Brown County preferred to paint village landscapes of quaint Nashville, Steele took as his subject the wilderness on and around his melodiously named estate.
Today, it doesn’t cost much—just $5—for an afternoon at his home and studio, where many of his most beloved paintings were made and are still on display. The best part of touring his home, where first editions of James Whitcomb Riley volumes still line the bookshelves, is the freedom to wander the grounds after the tour and see the expansive gardens planted by his wife, Selma, who eventually came to love Brown County in her own right. After Steele’s death, it was Selma who donated her husband’s paintings and their house to the state of Indiana, ensuring that he would be remembered even as most of the artistic world was turning to more modern subject matter.
Brown County continues to inspire artists, some who work in town and some who work out in the woods, some who focus on nature, and others who focus on the built environment—just as they did in Steele’s time. Larry Spears, who has been a potter for more than 30 years, mixes glazes that reflect the reds, blues, and lavenders he sees around him. His son Kyle, a photographer, primarily shoots travel and urban streetscapes.
Like any tourist destination, Brown County has its share of cutesy gift shops and cheesy crafts, but look beyond that: You’ll still find artists who saw in Brown County what the original Hoosier painter found so appealing. T.C. Steele State Historic Site: Home, studio, gardens, nature preserve. 4220 T.C. Steele Rd., Nashville. 812-988-2785, tcsteele.org.