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.


  1. Ok, I want to keep this post pure, and not edit what I thought was the truth. But the more we learn the more I believe this was never Olive's gift shop, The Pine Needle Bear. What makes more sense is after she passed away, 1980, her brother brought all her possessions to his flower shop (which had been his mother's). So, I still believe it was a whore house/hospital/flower shop, but now I guess it was only the resting place for Olives things. We'll see when we head to Cody next week what we can dig up.

  2. My mom knew her, we were both born in Cody, my great aunt and great grand mother knew her well, we have several prints of hers. I'll try and find out some stories