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:

Friday, August 5, 2011

Olive Tales

I've enlisted friends in Wyoming to help with finding Olive, and things are getting good. A meandering message sent out on Facebook is resulting in some good finds. Several people are sending messages about pieces their parents have hanging in the house, and other people have some good stories.

Here's our first juicy bit

"You are making me obsessed with her now... I have always had memories of her like an old auntie. I called my mom last night and she told me that olive was great friends with my grandfather. ... (She) told me a great story last night. I guess Mr. Weiss bought Olive's ranch while she was alive and gave her a lifetime right to live there. She took her check and went to Billings to go shopping. When she came back she stopped in to see my grandpa. He asked her what she bought and she said 'A comb. It was all I needed.' That story tickled my grandpa so much because it was so like her."

I love that she went all the way to Billings, and only bought a comb. It is true that when Olive sold the 4 Bear Ranch she was given a life tenancy. She made sure that was also extended to the wild horses.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Find Olive Across America

We've just updated the website so you can find Olive and see where we are finding her pieces. Just click the "Olive Across America" link to the right, and you can track her. Click the image to find details. Let's see how long it takes us before Olive goes international.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Tracking Olive

Long before everyone was tweeting and GPSing their comings and goings newspapers were keeping track. Today we are drinking tea and following Olive through the "Wyoming Newspaper Project" What an exciting day to find Olive, can't wait to fill in the blanks on her travels.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

For Minds To Know: The Project's first acquisition!

The Olive Fell Project now has it's first acquired work: "For Minds to Know" (c. 1934?) 29/150.

This image is unlike any of the signed works we've seen by Olive, but much in the style of that strange deco series that we posted previously (more on those later). This image seems set in Wyoming (that formation that the figure is standing on looks very much like Castle Rock, on the Southfork.)
We have a Cody Enterprise article from 1936 that references this image:

"Wyoming's Miss Fell has contributed 27 prints of the Western scene and wild animal life that deserve close scrutiny and weighted consideration. The artist has draftsmanship and remarkably fine technique. An imaginative strain is given full play in "For Minds to Know," an effort to see past the finite dramatically presented..."

The Olive Fell biography from the National Museum of Wildlife Art says:

"Despite her isolation from the artistic community, Fell became known especially for her etchings. For Minds to Know was chosen as one of the one hundred best prints of the year by the Society of American Etchers in 1934. During the 1930s, several of her prints were featured in exhibitions sponsored by organizations such as the International Etchers, the Northwest Printmakers, and the Society of American Etchers. She also showed at the National Art Exhibition in Chicago in 1936 and the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939."

We are so excited to have this important work as we begin this Project.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Past, Present, Future: The facts cometh

Have you heard about the concept that people are divided into three camps according to their relationship to time? The theory is that there are Past, Present and Future people, and this, much like your Chinese zodiac sign, reveals much about the way you live your life.

There are folks who (regardless of their religion) are obsessed with genealogy. They have thick binders in the den with photos and birth certificates of distant half cousins twice removed. They found these after searching for hours in obscure, dusty Halls of Records in podunk county seats. They enjoy spending hours walking around in cemeteries.

My father is a Past. He might not remember what he had for breakfast, but he can tell you detailed accounts of a conversation he had at Ralphs Lounge in North Fork (CA, not WY) in 1958, who was there with him, and at least two generations of information on THEIR family trees. It's amazing.

Much ado is made about the virtues of living in the present, but I've known very few adults who actually do.

I imagine you can draw a line tracking Present-focus descending from birth to adulthood. As I’ve seen my children grow I see evidence of the trend. Babies are pure Presents (in so many ways) but then comes the relationship between birthdays and holidays and loot. Then it’s strapping on the school rocket, where finger-painting leads quickly to AP classes. The Present has a hard time not getting wrung out.

Folks in Seattle who enjoy sunshine become Presents by default. You see a ray of natural vitamin D and you charge outside.

“All his life has he looked away…to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was! Hmm? What he was doing! Hmph! Adventure. Heh! Excitement. Heh! A Jedi craves not these things!”

People who know me know that I am a hard-core Future. Highschool begat College, College begat Job…etc. It has propelled me to something approaching adventure and excitement, but in dark moments I wonder how much I have missed chasing the next big thing.

Olive Fell has provided me with step twelve in a program that I suppose began when I saw my son first open his eyes. Perhaps I am a recovering Future. I have this strange woman looking up at me from a grainy black and white photo and I want to know her. I see her handwriting and I want to transport back in time and walk into her little shop in Cody and hang out while she chats up tourists and applies glaze to flower-shaped clay ashtrays.

I want to learn from her.

The only way to do this is to pull the handbrake and concentrate on methodically building this woman’s past. I started out with a wonky excel document with a line beginning with her reported birth year, and ending in 1980 when she passed. On the line below I tracked 0-84…her corresponding age. Then I started dropping in little thumbnail images of her work (though precious few so far have dates inscribed). Then I started dropping in major events in Cody—when it was founded by Buffalo Bill (the year before Olive was born), when the Irma was built (she was 6), when the dam was built and the road to Yellowstone was opened up, etc. Then I overlaid world events, such as World Wars (she was 18 and 43) and women getting the right to vote (24…).

What I’m discovering is how long one’s life actually is—between the bookends of birth and death—and how much blessed time transpires. I’m a visual person, so clinically looking at it laid out in front of me—her life literally passing before my eyes—is so revealing, so daunting. It prompts introspection.

Word has it Olive was a pistol, so I can imagine this little red haired lady in buckskin reading this and giving me a solid kick in the rear. "Get to the point!"

OK Olive, so the first confirmations have arrived from official sources. I will insert images from the censuses for those Past folks out there. Something gratifying to see the names sing out in elegant early-1900’s everyman longhand.

1900 Census (June): Bridger Village, Clarks Fork, Carbon County, Montana

William W Fell, head, b. jun 1867, age 33, barber

Florence O Fell (Sarah Florence Taylor), wife, b. feb 1877, age 23

Florence O Fell, daughter, b. june 1896, age 3

William W Fell, son, brother, b. june 1897, age 2

1910 Census (April): Cody, Park County, Wyoming

Everett W Oskins, head, age 38, salesman in lumber yard

Sarah F Oskins, wife, age 33, second marriage (m. to Oskins 1 year)

Olive F Fell, step daughter, age 13, attending school

William Fell, step son, age 12, attending school

Confirmation from School of the Art Institute of Chicago:

Olive Fell attended 1916-1918 (age 20-22)

1920 Census (January): “North Cody”, Park County, Wyoming

Walter E Oskins, head, age 48, laborer/electric light co.

Florence S Oskins, wife, age 37, manager/greenhouse

Olive F Fell, step daughter, age 21(23?), attending school

Wm W Fell, step son, age 20, attending school

1930 Census (April): Cody, Park County, Wyoming

Florence Oskins, head, widow, age 52, florist/greenhouse,

William Oskins, son, single, age 26, lawyer/general practice, veteran

Olive Kensil, daughter, married (at 23), age 27, artist/print & oil

Sidney Kensil, son-in-law, married, age 30, operator/lumberyard, veteran

We have numerous leads and calls out there, and more information coming each day. I’ll keep the project informed with what facts I can find. I’ll try pretty-up that timeline and post that as well.

Friday, July 22, 2011

We plot The Project

The Olive Fell Project started over a beer in the Irma Hotel. It seemed like the right way to end a day. My husband Matt and I had spent the day driving through the Sunlight Basin. When we visit Cody we plunk ourselves at the river up the Southfork, and I had never taken him much further. With such a wet spring and summer I hoped Sunlight would still have green and hills with yellow flowers, or we could find a patch of wild iris on the way. While we drove and talked we kept coming back to Olive. Who the HELL was she? What else might be out there, sitting in other barns, or basements. Where else was she? And did she matter? Was she an artist? Was she a marketing genius? Were we the only ones who cared?

The legend was that Olive had fallen in love with the same man as Georgia O’Keeffe. Georgia won. Matt wondered if THE MAN could actually be Alfred Stieglitz. I said it seemed preposterous, but silently cursed my phone reception because I didn’t know who Stieglitz was. Even after a decade together I still try to make it seem that I know what Matt is talking about. It’s not until I have internet access again that I can piece that story together.

We switchbacked through the mountains, lacing back and forth from Wyoming to Montana and back again. Talking about artists and salons and colonies and all the mountains around us. We saw a new museum/gallery opening in Red Lodge for a cartoonist and wondered if we could ever pull that off for Olive. Or did the world have enough cutesy bears?

I make the worst choices but do my best musings when I’m drinking, so we decided to head to The Irma and keep the Olive fantasies going. We were served drinks by a Russian exchange student while a Buffalo Bill Cody impersonator walked the room chatting with tourists, asking if they were enjoying the Gunfighters Steak and Wild West Taco Salad. Aside from the gal at the register and Buffalo Bill, I was the only person from Cody in the restaurant. You don’t go to The Irma if you live in Cody, so it’s telling that I was in there, that after not going home for 5 years I’m clearly a tourist like the rest of them. The Russian exchange student knows more about Cody history than I do.

Growing up in Cody I just wanted out. I liked art and theater and music. The Buffalo Bill Historical Center, square dance, and rodeo didn’t do it for me. It was the 80’s and I wanted culture, like Les Miserable, and Sbarro. I wanted things I could only see on “120 Minutes”. Olive wanted that too...OK, maybe she didn’t want The Cure, but she wanted something. Somehow she left Cody, studied at School of the Art Institute of Chicago and later at Art Student's League in New York. When I was growing up Cody had a Kmart, and we had a McDonalds by the 80’s. But Olive’s Cody was still wild. She saw Buffalo Bill. At 8 she even gave him a sketch she made of him that he used on his postcards. She probably saw the building with whores and patients before her mother made it a flower shop. I had “120 Minutes”, but what did Olive have to inspire her, to drive her out?

And of course, why the hell did she come back and start drawing bears? How did she make it work? She was a formally trained artist, and survived as an artist. She made enough to purchase a large ranch on the Northfork. How many people can say they feed themselves with their art? How many people in Wyoming can put "Artist" on their tax return and really mean it?

When we ordered a second round of drinks we started getting greedy. I wanted to see everything she ever made. I wanted people to send us pictures, tell me their stories, let me touch things she had made. I wanted to see everything. I didn’t have to own it, but I had to know it existed. Matt wanted to line out everything in chronological order and watch her grow. And then I wanted someone to narrate her story as I walked the paintings.

A few days later we left Olive behind in Cody with my parents because we didn’t know what else to do. We knew we wanted to catalog things, but beyond that we were just being greedy wanting to turn it over in our hands and make up stories. (For the record my dad offered to sell it all to me for $10.) We thought it was more practical to keep it all together where it was dry and safe. Also, Wynonna, our ’75 winnebago, needed to make it back over the Rockies. I’ve seen too many youtube videos of blazing RVs to know that I wouldn’t be able to get all the work and our toddlers out before the whole thing went up in flames. We asked them to at least unpack the art from produce boxes covered in masking tape and put everything in plastic bins. Get it out of the barn, which really might fall down at any moment. Then we packed up our kids, said goodbye to my parents, the sunshine and Olive; and drove Wynonna home to cloudy Washington.

At a campsite outside of Missoula Matt finally drew the line between all our dots. I’m the narrator, but he’s the architect. He's the one who wondered if while gathering Olive's story we could start telling a larger story about artists and women and really who knows what else. I'll leave that part of the story for him.

So for now we start hunting down Olive Fell.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Finding Olive

When I was 14 years-old I bought a whorehouse. This building, in downtown Cody, Wyoming had also been a hospital, a flower shop, and the gift shop for a western artist who might have murdered a few people. This building deserves it’s own country song.

Technically, my father scooped it during an auction when my mother had gone to Billings, Montana to do some shopping. Growing up, Billings, which is 2-hours drive North, was the closest thing to culture we had. There was a MALL there, and a record store, and Dos Amigos, the Mexican restaurant that served fried ice cream. With Linda gone, my dad figured he should do some shopping of his own. He used money he had placed in an account for me after my grandfather died, and then made payments back to me. So that is how I came to own a whorehouse. And that is how I inherited Olive Fell.

Once he had purchased the building my father had to sit through the rest of the auction. John Parko passes RV's on one-lane roads in Yellowstone, and purses his lips nodding expectantly when a story lasts more than 3 sentences. If you are still reading this you have more patience than him because he's already skipped to the last paragraph.

Patience didn't come easily to him back then, but work did. He wanted to start work on the building immediately, and standing around was unbearable. My father was a woodshop teacher wanting to retire early and looking for an opportunity to make some money with a good real estate investment. This building needed lots of work, but certainly he was capable of work.

It must have been excruciating for him to sit there as one by one the auctioneer pulled pieces from the shed behind the building and auctioned them for pennies and dollars. His pain was so great, and his desire to get everyone the hell out of there was so overwhelming that he was willing to pay a huge amount of money to get them gone. He offered the actioneer $100 for the content of the shed, and everyone was promptly cleared out.

Inside were hundreds of prints, etchings, and original works. Boxes of postcards, reams of paper, piles and piles of unfolded greeting cards. They were all works by Olive Fell, a local artist and eccentric who sold her work to tourists heading through Yellowstone. But he didn't want the kitschy bears in the shed, the value was the building.

Later I found out about the purchase and was told about the former uses. The flower cases were still there, the walk-in, the antique cash register. I helped clean out the cases, and spent a hot summer day painting out the trim in the pop-out window. Upstairs the old beds, which I imagine made the transition from whores to invalids easily, still leaned against the wall. I considered taking one of them with me when I moved to Maine after college, but couldn't imagine finding a mattress for their thin, short frames.

We concentrated on the building. Some of the art was sold, a few were framed and went on our walls, but most went into cardboard boxes from the back of the IGA and were dropped in the milking section of The Old Red Barn. I pulled out a few pieces I liked, and put them up in my apartment when I moved to Maine and later San Francisco. Everything else sat in a bat infested barn for over 20 years next to the cash register and Olive’s brothers WWII coat, with his bus stub from Denver still in the pocket.

This summer my husband and I opened those boxes again, and began understand what immense work was inside. Over cocktails with my parents they gave us the lore they knew. Olive Fell grew up in Cody but made her way to New York, where she became friends with Georgia O'Keeffe. They fell in love with the same man, and Georgia won. Dejected Olive returned to Wyoming, leaving behind high art, and began painting bears. Bears in trees, bears by the lake. Lots and lots of bears. And deer. And elk. And moose. Maybe she killed someone. Maybe she killed a few people. Some guy claimed to be her son, but that was never really clear. The whorehouse-turned-hospital-turned-flower shop was her brother’s and when he died everything was sold at the estate sale.

So if the building deserves it's own country song then Olive deserves her own mini series. But all I can give her right now is a blog.
Tomorrow we'll start posting some art, telling more stories, and asking for your help in finding Olive. Until then I'll leave you with 4 untitled, unsigned pieces that were sandwiched between some Yellowstone postcards. Something we think Olive was doing before she returned to Cody.