The Art of Tractors

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A drawing of a 1916 Waterloo Boy

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Drawings by Dennis Almquist

In the fall of 1989, Dennis Almquist attended a craft show in Thurman, Iowa, that gave him an idea. ' I noticed that there were people there selling drawings and paintings and thought, 'Maybe I could do that, '' he remembers.

Not everyone could just decide to make art and sell it, but Dennis had reasons to believe he could. Trained as an architect and engineer, Dennis had been drawing ever since he could remember. In 1989, he had been one of 11 people chosen from over 400 to receive an honorable mention in the Small Business Administration's Business Week Poster Contest. Even at the age of 4, his mother tells him, he would spread out grocery bags, their bottoms torn off, and draw pictures of his father's farm equipment. 'When I was between the ages of 1 to 6,' Dennis recalls, 'we lived on an 80-acre farm that dad farmed with antique machinery. He had two Farmalls, - an H and, maybe, an M - a corn picker, a two-bottom plow, a feed grinder and other things.'

Despite moving away from the farm at a young age, Dennis never quit drawing. The farm equipment ceased to be his subject, however. He took drafting and art courses in high school in Red Oak, Iowa, and completed his bachelor's degree in architecture at Iowa State University in 1978. 'There was no CAD (Computer-Aided Design) back then. We took a year of freehand drawing classes and watercolor courses,' he says.

After college, he went to work for an Omaha, Neb., architectural firm, where he began to move up from mechanical draftsman to mechanical technician and then to his current position, mechanical engineer. Along the way, there were two major tests he had to take to gain certification as an engineer. Those tests - or, at least, their completion - led Dennis to his current avocation, drawing antique tractors. 'In 1988, I took my second exam for engineering. I spent months studying, from June to October, for hours every night. Then when the test was done, I had nothing to do with my free time,' Dennis says. It was then that he began drawing for the poster contest. He was still on the lookout for a way to spend his free time when he attended the Thurman craft fair and decided to make some drawings to sell at the next year's fair.

'I tried to kind of anticipate what would sell,' he reminisces.

The next year, he took 40 original pieces of art to the show, six of which sold. Most of the pieces which sold were of tractors, so he began drawing more and more of them, and selling more and more as well. 'Then I started getting requests,' he says.

In 1992, unable to keep up with requests, Dennis began having prints made of some of his most popular tractors. 'People wanted old John Deeres and Farmalls. I'd say the Farmall F-14 was a pretty popular one.' And, finally, he came full circle. He received a request for a drawing of a Farmall H, one of the tractors he had sketched onto a grocery bag at the age of 4, and the type of tractor he still owns today - not the original, but, still, one passed down to him from his father.

One of the benefits of this work, he says, is learning about the tractors he draws. He says he's learned a lot. 'People will assume I'm an expert on them,' he says, 'even though I don't consider myself to be.'

Many people who are experts in the field of antique tractors are impressed with Dennis's work. In 1994, one of Dennis's drawings appeared on the cover of the book Allis-Chalmers Farm Equipment, 1914-1985, by Norm Swinford. Today, his prints are selling in five art galleries in three states.

He's sold his art nationwide through the mail and, he says, has received nothing but compliments. It's not really the money or the recognition that drives Dennis, though. 'I'd probably be doing this even if I weren't getting paid for it.' He likes the challenge. That's why the tractors he likes to draw best are those with a lot of intricate details: Waterloo Boys, F-30s, etc. Some, like Olivers, are easy because of their many smooth surfaces. The simplest of the tractors take between two and three hours for Dennis to draw, the more detailed ones can take four to six. Dennis never draws them in one sitting, though, preferring to work on them a few minutes at a time.

Dennis will try to draw just about any tractor requested. 'I generally ask for a photo,' he says. 'If they have a good photo, I'll try to draw it for them.'

Dennis Almquist can be reached by e-mail at dca81@hotmail.com.