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News» Art Gallery» Volume VI, No. 3, May June 2003



Volume VI, No. 3, May June 2003

The newsletter of the Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery
600 Shaftesbury Blvd., Winnipeg, MB R3P 0M4
(204) 888-6781
gallery hours: Monday – Friday, 8:30 AM – 4:30 PM; Saturday, noon – 5 PM

Sketches from Siberia

the art of Jacob Sudermann (1888 – 1940)


May 2 – July 19

Riches and tragedy from Siberia/gallery statement

Some time ago Werner Toews was doing research in the archives next door to the gallery and brought over a box with a few paintings for me to see. The paintings were small, meticulously crafted and still richly coloured watercolours from the 1930s. We began to talk about the artist, Werner’s uncle Jacob Sudermann. Sudermann, a Mennonite from the Ukraine, had been imprisoned in the 1930s under Stalin and, like so many others, sent to Siberia where eventually he died an innocent victim of a system gone mad.

Fingering through the few paintings none of the terror and discouragement Sudermann must have experienced was evident. They were filled with hope – images of imagined estates and beautiful landscapes. On the back were written reassuring messages to relatives. I was intrigued and agreed that we should try to mount an exhibition.

I feared that there would not be enough work to fill the gallery. Finding a Mennonite artist from Russia was rare. Finding enough of his or her work to fill a gallery, I thought, would be impossible.

I was wrong.

Sudermann’s relatives brought what they could of his art to Canada when they fled the Soviet Union. All of his larger paintings were left behind. But many smaller ones that could fit into suitcases made the journey to Canada. Well over 100 are in Sketches from Siberia. We believe this may be the most significant collection of art from this period in Mennonite history ever assembled in one place.

Sudermann had been a full-time artist at the time of his first arrest. Once in Siberia he continued painting on whatever scraps of paper he could find. At first these were vivid watercolours often on decent paper. The last pieces, once he had been forced from an office job into hard labour, were black and whites on tiny scraps of inferior paper. His refusal to stop painting shows a gritty determination to not surrender to the madness around him.

In bringing this collection together Werner Toews has exhibited that same passion and determination which must have been central to his uncle’s character. Werner is not an artist but instinctively felt there was something important in presenting this exhibition. The sheer volume of the work combined with the obvious talent Sudermann possessed makes this an extraordinary event. As I have watched Werner’s undaunted pursuit to track down artworks and seen the raw emotion he is investing in this project I feel I have somehow met the artist through him. As visitors view this collection I hope they will see beyond the beautiful landscapes and fanciful estates to a place where they can feel the passion and emotion of an artist who would not submit to the ungodly excesses of Stalin, whose spirit and talent shone through the tragedy.

-Ray Dirks


The Art of Jacob Sudermann (1888-1940)

“One cannot understand the present unless one has learned from the past. One cannot comprehend the future unless one understands oneself and one’s own people.” A quote from David H. Epp (1861-1934).

Jacob Sudermann was born on December 15, 1888 on the Alexeyevka Estate near Nikopol in South Russia. He was the seventh child of David and Maria Sudermann. The estate flourished through the hard work of his father and continued to flourish even after his father’s untimely death in 1902. Due to the hard work of the remaining family members and the financial success of the estate, some of the children were free to pursue higher education. Jacob and his sister, Anna, were able to study at the University of St. Petersburg. Jacob studied Mathematics and Physics but his real interest was in Architecture. He drew up detailed plans for estate houses and their surrounding landscapes. Later in his life he prepared a house plan and then, based on these plans, he and his brothers constructed a house where some of the Sudermann family lived after the Russian Revolution.

Jacob was a man of many talents. He photographed and developed his own pictures. Many of the earlier photographs were of landscapes and the Alexeyvka estate. Some of his later photographs were of the Chortitza Mennonite Church and have been published in many books on Mennonite history.

In 1917, during the turmoil of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, Jacob, his mother and siblings had to leave the estate. They moved to Nikopol and the family, like many other Mennonites, were now subjected to the unspeakable atrocities of the revolution. They endured famine, disease, the loss of their estate and most of their possessions. They moved to the Mennonite village of Rosental where they managed to build a small house. Jacob, his siblings and their growing families all lived in this house that he had designed and constructed with the help of his brothers. He continued with his art, painting, sketching and taking photographs. He and Anna were able to secure teaching positions and their lives became stable for a short time.

Now, with the Communist party in control of the country and the rise of Joseph Stalin as leader, a period of time in Russia called The Great Terror would further shape the life of Jacob and his family.

Jacob, as the son of an estate owner and a college instructor, was a frequent target of the Secret Police or GPU. He was often called to the city of Zaparoszhe for interrogations.

In 1933 Jacob was imprisoned for six months during which time his mother passed away. He was distraught that he had not been home at the time of her death. He was allowed to return home and be with his family for a short period of time. His sister, Anna, wrote that the imprisonment had definitely changed his personality.

On November 23, 1933 two officials of the Secret Police came to his house and took him away for the last time. Anna recorded the events of that day in her memoirs:

“I said a very painful and short goodbye to Jacob. I remember and I will never forget the sound of the wagon wheels as they left, taking Jacob away from us….forever.”

He was detained until April 1934 when he was taken before a tribunal (Trojka) and sentenced to five years in a “Labour Camp.” He was then transported to eastern Siberia to the newly founded city of Swobony.

While in the Siberian work camp he was allowed to continue with his art. His escape from the harsh life of the work camp was sketching and painting. Anna wrote, “Even in the camp Jacob had access to paints and paper. In many letters he would include small paintings for the children and larger ones for the adults.’’

Many of these paintings and sketches were drawn on scraps of paper he found in the camp. The subjects of his paintings: landscapes, houses and their grounds, reflect his love of nature and architecture. He also sketched some of the work camp buildings and surrounding landscapes of Siberia. He would often write a short letter to his family on the backs of these paintings.

The years went by and in 1937 his two brothers, Heinrich and Nikolai, were also taken from their families and transported to a work camp never to be heard from again. Jacob was transferred from camp to camp and finally wrote that he was forced to perform hard physical labor. The letters stopped. We believe he perished sometime in 1940.

In October of 1943, the remaining members of the Sudermann family left Russia with the retreating German Army. Jacob’s sister, Anna, with whom he was very close, packed up as many of his artworks as she could and distributed them into the suitcases of other family members. Thus the long trek of his artwork across Europe during World War Two started with the final destination being Canada in 1948.

The collection of well over one hundred paintings and sketches, as well as many of his photographs, were gathered from the descendants of the Sudermann family and will be shown together for the first time. His art work is unique as he is one of only a few artists to emerge from the Russian Mennonite experience.

This art show is a tribute to my Great Uncle Jacob Sudermann and his sister, Anna Sudermann who both realized the value of history and preserving it for future generations.

-Werner Toews

I would like to thank Henry Sudermann, Helene Patkau, Luise Dyck, Margaret Toews, and Therese Bergen for allowing his art work to be displayed at this show. Also Arthur Kroeger for the Russian to English translation of Jacob’s correspondence to his family on the back of some of the paintings.

Gallery News

Prayer Garden unveiled; Friday, June 13, 7:30PM. The global quilt project of the MHCGallery has resulted in a “Prayer Garden” of quilt panels. Come and view this installation piece unlike any other “quilt” before it starts its world tour – beginning at the global assembly of Mennonite World Conference this summer. Quilt blocks from around the world have been incorporated into the “Prayer Garden” under the supervision of artist Agatha Doerksen. This event will be a celebration and blessing of the finished artwork. It will remain on display through the weekend – Saturday, June 14 and Sunday, June 15 with the gallery open from noon to five both days.


War and peace are on our minds more than they have been for many years. This year’s juried group exhibition will focus on “Peace on Earth”. During the Advent and Christmas season we readily speak of “peace on earth”. What do we mean when we say that? How do we see ourselves being active participants in helping there to be peace on earth? What needs to be done to create peace? Artists, speak to us on peace.

Submit slides, digital images, photographs or ideas by August 20. A jury will make selections in early September. The exhibit will open in mid-November and run through the Christmas season.


Caribbean Market II. The same Caribbean women’s group that turned the gallery into a Caribbean market for one week two summers ago will do the same again, except with many more craftspeople and artists. July 25 to August 1. More information will be sent in the coming months.

Global Exhibition. Gallery curator Ray Dirks recently completed his last trip related to the global exhibition he is putting together for the Mennonite World Conference. Funding is still required to complete the project. If interested in making a tax deductible donation contact the gallery.


Ray Dirks, Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery, 600 Shaftesbury Blvd., Winnipeg, MB R3P 0M4;; 204-888-6781; fax 204- 831-5675

Your tax deductible donations to the gallery are always appreciated. We continue to run behind and need your help.

If interested in seeing some images from the Sudermann exhibition or the global exhibition contact Ray Dirks at