Friday, June 1, 2012

Nothing Says Birthday Wishes Like Doomsday

 ...and a terrified toddler.

Olive, not always so chipper when it came to birthdays.  But there seems like no better way to celebrate today than some of Olive Fell's birthday cards.  These are the original boards used to create her cards, check out the retouching on tissue before they were mounted to the boards.

It might seem like I've abandon you, Olive.  You might as well face it,  I'll never forget your birthday.  

Florence Olive Fell, born June 1, 1896.  

Friday, September 9, 2011

What's in a name?

One of the little gems we found in the boxes of art was a notebook Olive kept. Inside there is a sketch for a Christmas card dated 1928, so we presume most of the ideas inside are from around that time. Inside are all the usual suspects for a notebook. A newspaper clipping of E. Martin Hennings piece, Thistle Blossoms, a jerky recipe (which we will definitely try out), random sketches, and lists of titles. There is a list of nearly 400 titles, including many paintings we have identified. Is it a creative brainstorming exercise, or a catalog of existing pieces? We aren't sure.  It has become a scavenger hunt, a treasure list, that we want to cross off as we find.  

One list, tucked inside the notebook,  is different.

Clearly Olive is noodling, and eventually settling on, a title for Fenced Sagebrush. Some versions of this piece we have seen are titled Fenced Sagebrush - Wyoming  In 1936 it appeared, with a write up of Olive, in Western Art, and in an article from The Billing Gazette in January, 1939 Flavia DaFoe describes it this way:
Its subject, mountains circling a broad valley covered with clumps of the wild weed which had ruled the land ever since the west began.  But its dominion was over.
Stretching as far as eye could see was the fence, symbol of the slogan which epitomized America, "Westward the course of empire takes its way."  A nation's progress in this small etching:  wildness coming under man's subjection!  Idea and execution both projected out of that intimate knowledge of the fundamentals of technique which gives to an artist's work the effortless simplicity of genius.
Naming and signing pieces was important to Olive, and she was thoughtful about this part of the process.  Sometimes the titles are added to give a sense of location (TE Ranch, Coe Ranch), or to help the uninitiated identify animals (Wading Moose, Fording Elk), but in some titles Olive is looking to bring more emotion to the piece. For Minds to Know, Silence, Into the Infinite.  These titles bring clarity to the piece, and identify more than locations and objects.

Olive had a sense of humor, but she clearly had a dark, difficult side. She created Fenced Sagebrush during her turmoltous marriage to Dinty Moore, which ended in divorce in 1936. Even her little cub bears, as adorable and inocuous as they are, when seen together are lonely, almost desperate for love. Her etchings are often winter and fall scenes, seldom do we see spring, or new growth. Plants, animals, even buildings struggle to survive.  Homesteads show up often as subjects in her work, but this small homestead in Fenced Sagebrush is nearly swallowed by the desolate landscape surrounding it. 

So, what if Olive had gone with her final thought? Had she named her etching Fenced Disappointment - Wyo, would sagebrush by any other name smell as sweet? Shattered Hopes and Fenced Isolation  draw our focus away from sagebrush to homestead.  It is no longer, as Flavia describes it "wildness coming under man's subjection". Our attention is moved from nature to the homestead, and we are left to wonder about the people inside.   The empire is a tiny, potentially abandon homestead, dwarfed by nature.   

This is where, I think, Olive's commercial savvy comes into play.  If she intended this to be a museum piece, or to depict her version of Regionalism like John Stuart Curry,  she might want to heighten melancholy  through the title.  But this piece was always destine for retail.   Her goal was to sell this to a dude visiting the ranch, or a tourist traveling through Yellowstone.  

There is a photographic quality to her work, and you can see from the photo below, taken of Heart Mountain, where she got the inspiration for this piece.  But Olive was smart about her sales, and understood her audience.  Who would choose, as their souvenir of an epic trip to the west, Fenced Disappointment - Wyo?  Instead, Olive chose Fenced Sagebrush, and let you figure out the rest.  

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Olive and John Steuart Curry

In Mark Spragg's beautiful book, Where Rivers Change Direction, there is a haunting description of Olive. One passage describes a conversation with the author where Olive takes out a shoebox full of letters from Georgia O'Keeffe and John Steuart Curry. Olive is quoted as saying "I thought once I might like to marry Mr. Curry".

Without having those letters, we've been feverishly researching to substantiate the relationship between Olive and these two famous artists. So far, we've been unsuccessful.

Tonight, we made a wonderful discovery.

In the Smithsonian's Archive of American Art, buried deep within a John Steuart Curry correspondence folder titled "First names only and unsigned" we found this letter from January 1, 1942:

Olive is reconnecting with Curry after what seems to have been a very long time--perhaps since they were in art school together in Chicago (25 years prior). She talks admiringly about his successes then proceeds to describe her life.

She starts by talking about missing Curry when he was recently in Cody. At that time, Olive was on a 12,000 mile road trip putting her cards in all the national parks. She transitions from asking about Curry's new wife to this passage:

I have had a not so pleasant experience, I have been married and I got a divorce. I took my maiden name back.

I live all alone now for six years on a large ranch in the mountains. When I say alone I really mean alone. I have no one to help me. I have forty six horses and love every one. Three of my horses got so old that I had to have them shot and two of my three little dogs died and since I had transfered my affections to the animal world I had quite a time. I have lived so alone and have been so devoted to my animals, wild and tame, that when I lost them I seemed to loose everything and had a terrible time righting myself, (this must sound like strange words to you) but I took the long auto trip and once more got back to realizing that all material things are lost and only the spiritual remains or is anything. I have lived on this ranch for fifteen years but only the last six I have lived alone.

I have lived a very happy and eventful life. I have had some terrible things to go thru but it has all been for the best and I would not trade my life for any other I ever heard of. I get so much joy out of my work. I always have that grand buoyant thrill on every new thing I start on, it never lets me down and I never stop working day in and day out as the years go by. I put out great quantities of greeting cards and commercial prints, for a living and then I paint wall tapestries and make etchings the rest of the time. I am trying to write three books but it is slow. I have never sent an etching to an international show that it has not been accepted, so I know I am going along in my own way if I do miss out on any prizes and ballyhoo.

I was planning on making myself a new house and studio this year but the war put a crimp in all of that. When I get my new place built I want you and your wife to come out and spend some time with me some summer. I really have the most beautiful mountain ranch in all the world I think as do many others. My big lodge burned to the ground and the houses I now have are just log cabins that need a man's ability and strength to repair. I walk over the place on showshoes most of the winter.

I probably look much older as I should by now but I can't remember what I looked like then and I can only see what I look like now. I have gained twelve pounds, I have no grey hairs but many chins, which I seem to rest very comfortably in.

Please do write and tell me a lot about yourself. I am indeed very interested for you were always a fine friend that I never forgot.


Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Spending the day at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. Feeling like the little bear couple motoring down the Southfork. Wish we had a groovy lil red convertible! Here is one of the 40 original card drawings we have cataloged.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Mystery of the Zinc Duck Plates

Or did Olive really go to New York?

I am a student of the Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie school of detect work, and I pride myself on being the first person in the movie theater to know who the killer was. This whole project speaks to me on a gut, junior high sleuth level. And here’s something that has been bugging my inner detective: I can’t find proof Olive attended Art Student League of New York. Several articles reference it, but we just can’t find proof. Between listening to "Toy Story 3"on Audio Book and handing out Trader Joe’s snacks in the car I was looking forward to some time with our little black book to do some sleuthing. (If you don't want to read all our musings and sleuthing, just skip to the bottom of this entry for The Big Reveal!)

Over the last week we have printed every article we can find on Olive and her family from The Wyoming Newspaper Website, and compiled them in chronological order. Our little black book has almost 200 mentions. Some of them are minor, some are sad, but all of them place Olive in a specific place and time, and give us a more complete picture of her. We can track her comings and goings just as easily if she had tweeted “Gr8 trip 2 Billings.” So I put on some kids rock-n-roll, handed everyone a bag of kettle corn, got out my little black book, and my Nancy Drew thinking cap. It’s clear Olive went to Art Institute of Chicago (1916-1918), and that she attended UW (1918-1919), although we use “attended” very loosely as her transcripts indicate she didn’t complete a single class over the 4 quarters she was there. But we just can’t substantiate the claim of Art Student League. We received an email from the registrar stating they have no record of Olive Fell, but asking if there could be another name she studied under. Olive was a shrewd brander, and was precise in always using Olive Fell. Even though she produced a lot of work while she was married we haven’t found a piece with Kuentzel on it. But we were still hopeful, so we sent the registrar all the spelling we have thus far for “Dinty Moore” (more about that later, but yeah, he had a real name, however everyone called him Dinty Moore. Yikes.) Kentzel, Kuentzel,Kensel.

In the car we tried to piece through the times she could have gone. The May 7, 1919 Wyoming Herald says:

Miss Olive Fell returned Saturday evening from Laramie where she has been taking a special art course. She reports everything very active at the State University and reports the “Cody bunch” which this year consists of nearly twenty students to be the real thing. Miss Fell expects to spend the summer months in Cody and next year to finish her art work at the Art Students League in New York City.

If she went to New York it would have been big news because at that time the “Goings On” section of the paper mentions every ice cream social and “motoring to Billings” that happened in Cody. A young woman headed to New York would have gotten top billing. However, our next reference for Olive doesn’t come up until May of 1920 when she and Amanda Clement are back in Cheyenne and are clearly planning to start a tearoom. The Shadowette opens Sept 15, 1920. (When I investigate The Secret of the Shadowette Tearoom, we’ll post more.)

After selling the business in 1922 Amanda planned to return to teaching at the University of Wyoming, and “In the fall Miss Fell expects to enter an eastern art school.” (Wy State Trib July 9,1922)

Clearly, she didn’t make it. Dec 27, 1922 “Miss Olive Fell, who has been visiting friends in Sioux City, Iowa for some time arrived to spend Christmas with her mother, Mrs. F.W. Oskins, and incidentally to attend the wedding of Miss Betty Beck with whom she attend the local schools.”

In 1923 she decorated a tearoom in Missoula, Montana, and in 1924 she took a job at the Cody post office. She opened the Pine Needle Bear in April of 1925, closed it after Christmas to take a class back at Art Institute of Chicago. Pine Needle opens again in the spring of 1926, and August 21, 1926 she married Sidney S. Kuentzel. So her window for attending Student Art League is small. Maybe Fall of 1920, or maybe during a murky time in 1922-23. But since theregistrar doesn’t have a record, and because no papers are mentioning it we didn’t think it was possible.

I wanted so badly for her to have attended Art Student League. It would help with the whole Georgia O’Keefe story, and I loved the idea of a scrappy Wyoming gal taking on New York. Preferably during prohibition. In her chaps and spurs. But as we put together Olive’s story I’m also seeing a shrewd business woman, who learned from one of the great huckster, Buffalo Bill. Was it possible that her desire and plans to go to New York never came true, but she folded it into her narrative anyway? Could she have fabricated a story about herself that was just taken as fact?

But then we started opening the crates.

Special mention has to be made about the crates, which have been moved from The Old Red Barn to the house. And although they used to be sitting in old orange cardboard crates they have now been moved into fancy plastic boxes from Walmart. My dad has been painstaking in getting everything ready for our visit. I don’t know how many hours it took him to sort and stack everything for us, but it is amazing. Now sitting in the garage are 6 plastic boxes of Olive’s work. Neatly organized and ready for inspection.

Saturday night while the kids watched The Little League World Series the adults had cocktails in the garage and opened boxes. Most of what we found will be for other posts, some treasures, and several reams of greeting cards. We had laid out all the ceramics on the tailgate of the truck, and were discussing the crude horse figurines while we left Matt to put everything away. He pulled out some zinc plates still neatly wrapped and bound. And that’s when he found the smoking gun. Or smoking duck!

You can see the final print here.

If you look closely at the zinc plate you can see the initials OFK. So sometime after her marriage in 1926, but before her divorce in 1936, Olive really went to New York. Amazingly, this is the only piece we have that includes the Kuenztel initial. Hopefully with the dates narrowed down that can help Art Student League turn up her registration.

Another question answered! It was Mrs. S.S. “Dinty Moore” Kuenztel in New York with an etching tool! Now Nancy Drew and her trusty driver are headed to The 4 Bear Ranch today to have a look around. Lots of photos to come, so stick around. Next mystery in the series, The Secret Names of "Fenced Sagebrush".

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Heading to Wyoming!

Packing up the car for tomorrow's early morning drive from Seattle to Cody.
We've got an action-packed week ahead of us. Our planned investigations include:

1. 4 Bear Ranch
2. Buffalo Bill Historical Center
3. Park County archive
4. Meeteetse Museum
5. Cody Enterprise
6. Old Trail Town
7. Park West Hospital

Up till now we've been largely relying on the web and the phone to find information. Now we're heading to Olive's country. We're going to be seeing the real stuff.

Meanwhile, the documentation of the Family Collection has begun in earnest. Here are a few that we've enjoyed:

Stay tuned for some wild postings from Wyoming!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

"Wyoming" in Chicago

Cody Enterprise, November 29, 1916

Olive Fell at Chicago Art Institute:

'My school work is just wonderful.
When I pass all those grand pictures
every day it seems like heaven. I go
to school from nine in the morning
until five in the evening. On Satur-
day I have sketch class from nine
until noon. I enjoy this work so and
wish that I could go all my life. I am so
happy to think that this is the kind of
work I am taking up. There is such a
wonderful atmosphere about it all and
I am filled with inspiration and happiness.'

H. M. is the highest mark given at the Art
Institute and Olive has been getting this
mark on most of her work. She enjoys
the sights in Chicago and
is not homesick and says that her classmates
have nicknamed her "Wyoming".

Olive was 20 years old and fresh out of Cody High School.

This is an image I pulled up of a National Women's Party protesting for suffrage rights at a President Wilson speech, Chicago, October 1916. Olive could have been at this protest.

This is a photo of downtown Chicago in 1916:

This is what Cody looked like around the same time: