Olstad painted on found materialsAfter a recent tour of the Einar Olstad paintings at the interpretive center at the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence, near Williston, something hit home: The man painted his oil pieces on whatever he had around, whether building scraps or repurposed objects.
By: Sharon Cox, The Jamestown Sun
After a recent tour of the Einar Olstad paintings at the interpretive center at the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence, near Williston, something hit home: The man painted his oil pieces on whatever he had around, whether building scraps or repurposed objects. Olstad (1878-1955) is an idyllic example of a folk artist. He was left to care for a family of six after his blacksmithing dad died. Before that time he painted. When he took over the business he burned his brushes and for 40 years worked forging iron and steel into utilitarian products so badly needed in the World War I and II periods.
It was his sister Olga who, during the dust-bowl days of the 1930s, sent him his second set of oil paints (and new brushes) and encouraged him to go back to that first love. Droughts ravaged the Upper Midwest and money for making items out of metal just wasn’t there. Olstad realized he wasn’t going to make a living until the ranchers did. But without water, ranchers couldn’t grow grain and cattle had no feed. Without their income, Olstad would not need to forge new branding irons nor gates.
“No sense trying to ranch during the drought,” he said, and for him, blacksmithing was no longer the way for him to live (on rancher’s patronage).
So he sought a different patron. The Works Progress Administration and Roosevelt’s “New Deal” became Olstad’s new way. He returned to his first love at a time when the United States was begging for steel and copper. It was the Great Depression, and just getting food to eat was a hardship, not to mention money for art supplies or finished paintings.
Largely self taught, Olstad used what he had, used subjects he knew, and grabbed whatever ground material (painting surface) he could find, and he began to paint.
He painted sheep, cows, people and places that he knew. He used Sheetrock, Celotex, Masonite, plywood, cardboard and just about any other surface that would hold paint, and he brushed those colors all over it until he had a likeness of something others recognized.
He painted sheepherders bringing in the flock, cowboys lassoing calves, people he knew from his community at social gatherings, and even did portraits of his neighbors in roles of iconic characters we associate with the movement westward.
The fact that his figures’ heads are out of proportion for their bodies doesn’t matter. This is considered “folk art” and as such allows great variations of “reality.” His figures are recognizable as humans and their faces and bodies as specific personalities.
In the display at Fort Buford’s Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center, there are 22 individual paintings. Two are painted on the reverse sides and one is showing both sides (because how does a curator select “which” side to display when both sides are good?) It has been displayed in an ingenious method: reflecting the back side using a mirror.
I hope if you get up to the Williston area, whether to take the oil boom tour, to follow the Lewis & Clark Trail on Highway 1804 and 1806, or to go paddle fishing, that you’ll stop in at Fort Buford. Amazing North Dakota histories are preserved at the site and interpretive center. Do a walk-through of Olstad’s paintings. It will be well worth the time. You’ll also have a better understanding of what life was like in the Dakotas and Montana during the dust bowl and how artists like Olstad managed to do something as expensive as painting pictures when every penny had such precious value.
If anyone has an item for this column, please send to Sharon Cox, PO Box 1559, Jamestown, ND 58402-1559.