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.