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John Lamb, Published January 20 2013

Show ties together two female artists overlooked in their lives

MOORHEAD - Contemporary art patrons won’t likely know the names of Annie Stein or Orabel Thortvedt.

In truth, when Stein died in 1923, she was a spinster in the town she lived in her whole life, Georgetown, Minn.

When Thortvedt died 50 years later, she was known also as an eccentric and mostly for her pet portraits.

The two underappreciated artists are finally getting their due exposure in a joint show, “Prairie Daughters: The Art and Lives of Annie Stein and Orabel Thortvedt” at the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County.

The exhibit is as much an art show as it is a visual and often written documentation of life in a developing agrarian Red River Valley.

It also offers a particularly unique and detailed view into something that wasn’t well-documented – the lives of female artists at the turn of the century and the early 1900s.

“This is an astounding project. There’s not much written on women artists of the area,” says Markus Krueger, visitor services coordinator who worked on the exhibit, which was more than a year in researching.

There is also an urgent lesson to the display as it illustrates the importance of retaining history.

“Most of these (works) have been hanging on people’s walls for nearly 100 years,” says HCSCC Executive Director Maureen Kelly Jonason. “In our rummage sale culture, we want to get rid of everything.”

“It’s art as not a stand-alone piece, but interactive with the family history and county history,” says HCSCC marketing coordinator Gwen McCausland.

Through Stein’s eye

The genesis of the show came from HCSCC volunteer and former board member Kelly Wambach, who donated a number of Stein’s paintings to the exhibit.

A native of the Georgetown area, Wambach had heard of Stein, though she died in 1923 at the age of 51. His grandmother had cleaned her house as a young girl, so when the family’s estate was auctioned off in the 1970s, Wambach listened to his grandmother’s commentary on items as they were brought out of the house.

A painter himself, Wambach was intrigued by Stein, who was known more for being a recluse than for her colorful paintings. Still, when the work emerged from the house, he wasn’t sure it was for him.

He recalls the 1917 painting “Stein Family Farm,” which looks like a poster for an agricultural attraction. At the top of the piece, a banner displays the words “Pluck, Luck & Worth” (a reference to President James A. Garfield’s quote, “A pound of pluck is worth a ton of luck,” organizers believe) above the farmhouse with vegetables orbiting around.

When his grandmother pointed out a head of cabbage in the upper-right portion of the image held a profile of the artist, Wambach’s interest was piqued, and he bought the piece.

While he couldn’t buy them all that day, he had the foresight to collect the names of the purchasers and keep in touch with them since. When the HCSCC started organizing the show, Wambach lined up many of the collectors to loan their works.

In addition to painting, Stein was a photographer, made her own clothes and even wrote music. (The sheet music to her composition “Annie the Rannie” – which organizers think means “renaissance” – is also on display.) The photos in the show, both taken by her and by others, show some of her sewing handiwork. They are the only images of the artist, as she chose to focus on her immediate surroundings on the farm instead of self-portraits.

One picture in particular is historically significant. “Flood of Georgetown, Minn., April, 1897,” shows the bookend of the 100-year flood of 1997. The image shows water surrounding a house with people rowing around. Stein’s family farm was where the Buffalo River meets the Red River.

Another painting shows the Georgetown Ferry, which her father, Adam, who came to the area in 1859, piloted.

Stein never received formal training, something she was conscious about as she signed the back of one piece, “Please do not criticize this work too much, for God alone was my master.”

But some works show a certain level of accomplishment. At first, a portrait of her parents looks like a hand-tinted photo, but a closer look reveals her brushstrokes. The photo portrait which she worked from is displayed next to the painting, and shows that she added the home setting as a backdrop.

Marking time

Orabel Thortvedt was born in 1896 to one of the earliest families to settle in Clay County, and her artistic interests spring from the soil.

As a child, she sculpted figures of girls sleeping on the riverbanks from the clay on site. She also made markers and, an avid pet lover, marked animal burial spots with tombstones. Some of these are pictured in period photos and others were taken more recently as some of her clay works have survived on family farm land now owned by descendants.

Her interests were recognized and nurtured by her family, and she also earned scholarships to the Minneapolis Institute of Art and University of Minnesota. While living in Minneapolis in the 1930s, she established her pet portraits and was in demand among wealthy patrons, including Gov. Mark Dayton’s grandfather.

Her interest in animals was not passing. The show includes a number of journals with detailed animal biographies and vignettes.

The Thortvedt family was close and supported her artistic pursuits when she moved back to the farm in the late 1930s. After she died in 1983, the family held on to her work. The paintings, drawings and numerous journals in the show are loaned by relatives.

Her admiration for the family is shown in luminous paintings of her grandfather and another of her grandmother in the kitchen. A series of illustrations depicting her father’s travels to the Red River Valley are also displayed in the show.

Like Stein’s work, Thortvedt’s is valuable not only for the imagery, but the stories they tell and the histories they preserve. Another of Thortvedt’s journals of the time depicts houses of the area as well as floor plans.

The compulsive journaling was a Thortvedt trait.

Archivist Mark Piehl, who also worked on the show, notes that there are notebooks from four members of the family, each detailing how they learned of Armistice Day.

The Thortvedt family was recognized for their diligent recording of history, receiving the Clay County Heritage Award in 2012.

“They’re a remarkable family with a passion for documenting and saving stuff,” he says, referring to their recordings as “an archivist’s dream.”

And in an almost surreal moment, he pulls out one of Orabel’s journals and points to an entry with a drawing of a house. The date is 1947, and the dwelling is the old Stein place. Twenty-four years after Annie died, she and Orabel finally cross paths when the younger artist visits Stein’s sister. In a passing mention, Orabel notes that she is shown Annie’s paintings on the wall, where they would remain until an auction in the 1970s, when the stories of a reclusive artist are told to Kelly Wambach and a show is born.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533