"Vernon Rickman: An Artful Life," the biography of a Newton-born artist by Beverley Olson Buller, is being released this week.

"This is a project that has been a long time in the works," Buller said.

Rickman died in 2013, having retired from working more than 20 years as a sculptor for the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History.

Born in Newton in 1929, Rickman came from a family of five children.

"He loved to draw from childhood," Buller said. "His cousin said he always had a pencil in his hand."

Rickman graduated from Newton High School in 1947.

"He started at the Cleveland School of Art in Ohio and then the Korean War broke out, so he joined the Army," Buller said.

Rickman enlisted in 1951, received six months of training and would spend 17 months in Korea before being honorably discharged in August 1953 with the rank of sergeant.

"When he came back, he was able to use the GI Bill to go to the University of Kansas," Buller said.

After graduating with a bachelor's degree in art, Rickman started graduate work at the Kansas City Art Institute. After a few months, he decided to move to Washington, D.C., to apply for a job with the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. He was hired in 1958.

"He started at the bottom, in the plastics (division) of the exhibition department. By the time he retired in 1980 ... his title was Head Sculptor," Buller said.

Rickman sculpted animals and humans, including figures for the First Ladies exhibit and The Ice Age Origins of Early Man. While Rickman's work has been replaced by updated sculptures for the First Ladies display, several of his Neanderthal figures can still be seen at the museum.

"He did all of those figures from scratch," Buller said. "...Vernon had the shop, the equipment and the skill to do it."

Buller was able to piece together details of Rickman's career from the Smithsonian's newsletters, family interviews and letters to his brother, Keith.

"Primary sources are pure gold," Buller said. "They are priceless when you are trying to write about someone who is long dead. It allows them to speak."

It was in Rickman's letters that Buller learned he continued to take art classes throughout his time in D.C. He worked with charcoal, oil painting, sculpture and bas-relief.

Buller theorized the more brightly colored pieces of traditional subjects Rickman produced may have been class assignments.

"The other, darker things he did for himself. That was his preferred subject matter," Buller said.

Many of Rickman's painting include skeletons, grim reapers, political symbols, bare trees in winter, dark clouds and roads with lone human figures.

"I don't know if that was his commentary on life being hard and death is always there, with you," Buller said. "...A lot of his things are really unique."

Living in Washington, D.C., during the 1960s meant Rickman would have been exposed not only to the political world, but race riots as well.

Rickman himself was of mixed race heritage and it was said he could pass for being Italian or Hispanic. In the 1940 census, his family was classified as Negro, but his military records and death certificate list him as Caucasian.

"I think Vernon, of course, was very aware that he was mixed race, but I think he let people just look at him and take him for what they saw," Buller said.

Rickman never married, but kept in close touch with his family.

"He was a very solitary person, very quiet," Buller said.

In the mid-1970s, Rickman bought a house in Newton — in part so that one of his sisters who had recently been divorced could live there.

Rickman left the Smithsonian in 1980 and moved back to Newton around 10 years later.

"Newton was always Vernon's home," Buller said. "...He brought everything he needed to continue to paint and sculpt."

A series of strokes left Rickman unable to paint and he moved in with his sister, Roselyn, before going to live at Kansas Christian Home.

Before his death in 2013, Rickman's work was featured at a show at Bethel College.

"We have photographs of him at the show in his wheelchair," Buller said. "His nephew told me that he was beaming that night."

In 2017, Rickman was recognized as a Distinguished Alumni of Newton High School.

Rickman didn't sign many of his pieces and only gave titles to a few. After his death, around 300 paintings were found in his home. Rickman's family partnered with Carriage Factory Art Gallery, a nonprofit organization supporting the arts in south central Kansas, to sell the pieces.

"Out of the partnership had grown this book and I hope it will get Vernon's work out there to a wider audience," Buller said.

Buller will speak about Rickman's life and work at 9:30 a.m. Feb. 13 during Life Enrichment in Krehbiel Auditorium in Luyken Fine Arts Center at Bethel College. Admission is $2 or free for first-time attendees. She will also speak at 2 p.m. Feb. 17 at Harvey County Historical Museum, 203 N. Main St. Admission is $5 or free for members. A book signing will be hosted from 6 to 8 p.m. Feb. 21 at Carriage Factory Art Gallery, 128 W. Sixth St. Admission is free.