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.