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.