By James H Nottage
As a museum curator, I have seen many remarkable artifacts and works of art over the years. One thing that strikes me is that sometimes small works can have a huge impact that goes well beyond their size or medium. Providing a little detail about one of my favorites, gives me the opportunity to marvel at an early work by California painter, Maynard Dixon.
If you have not visited the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art where I work in Indianapolis, you cannot fully appreciate the extraordinary collection gathered by our founder, Harrison Eiteljorg. Among the museum's treasures is Maynard Dixon's 1938 oil painting, The Cow Country, painted in the year he moved to Arizona. It is a formal and mature, 30" by 40" painting, rich in design, color and composition. This is the kind of painting that any major collection would be proud to have. Also collected by Eiteljorg, however, is a small watercolor, just 8 7/8 inches high by 11 3/4 inches wide. Below the artist's signature is simply written, Hill Camp, Ore. June 1, 1901. Despite its size, this small painting cannot be dismissed as a minor work. I will tell you why.
The story begins with two young artists meeting for the first time at the San Francisco Art Association Art School in 1891. The first was Edward Borein, a rough and ready Californian with a talent for art, a preference for undisciplined creativity, and a devotion to working with cattle and horses. The second was Maynard Dixon, more devoted to his art, but less experienced in the tasks of working on the range. The friendship was formed, yet Borein only lasted a month in the school. Ten years later, they both labored at art, but Borein was restless and Dixon found himself at loose ends. He wrote to his patron Charles Lummis that the two were making plans for a sketching trip by horse that might go as far as Canada. He noted that, "I am dammed glad we are going." They departed on May 6, 1901 and averaged 25 miles per day through Sacramento and Placerville reaching the slopes of the Sierra Nevada range and deep snow.
Resting in Carson City, Nevada, Dixon could write that, "Borein is a good traveling companion and teacher. I may in time even learn to throw a square hitch." In the weeks and months that followed, the two friends experienced much of isolated ranch and community life. In a small town they witnessed a murder trial where Dixon recalled that, "There were more real old-timers there than I ever expected to see together in one place again - long haired ones too." At roundups in Oregon they observed working cowboys. At the P Ranch, for example, they made numerous sketches of wild horses being corralled, branded, and broken to ride. By late August they had made their way through such colorful locations as Hill Camp, M.C. Circle, Harper Ranch, and BuenaVista Ranch. A pencil and pen-and-ink drawing of a bearded cowboy with angora chaps riding his horse done at this time is titled Oregon Cowboy.
By the time they reached Vale, Oregon, in late August, plans to head for Wyoming and Montana were becoming impossible. Both were running out of money, they were tired of the trip and tired of each other. Even so, Dixon wrote that, "I hate like 47 kinds of hell to turn back at this point - so near and yet so far." Heading for Boise and subsisting on rabbits and corn meal they survived, but their horses were suffering and became sick. At Boise they sold their outfits and with a brief stop in Pocatello, took the train home.
The adventure had come to an end, but there were results. Each of the two artists influenced the work of the other. As one biographer of Borein notes, Dixon affected Borein's style as an artist. Dixon in turn learned much from his friend about a rapidly vanishing way of ranch life and cowboying. While Borein is not thought to have produced much art from the trip, Dixon made voluminous notes and many dozens of drawings. Three drawings of bronco busting he did at the time were sold to Harper's Weekly and appeared in the magazine. Maynard Dixon summarized the experience with the following words. "The results of the trip were plenty of sketches, no oils, new knowledge of Indians and cowboy and range life in a tough country, and a greater respect for facts."
The little jewel he created on June 1, 1901, at Hill Camp, Oregon, is a precious reminder of this trip of two key figures in Western Art. Imagine if you will how both of them observed the scene. There is a real immediacy in this little watercolor. The dust swirls around the figures, but the composition helps you to image the noise of men and horses, the drama, and the action. The graceful pattern of the reata in mid-air and the sure-footed stance of the buckaroo assure you that he was a practiced hand and it was unlikely that his target was missed. The piece lacks the formality of Dixon's The Cow Country, but is more compelling. Can you see why I think it is so special? This is high desert buckaroo action at the peak of the industry. This is a dramatic, beautifully composed and executed watercolor by a still young, but rapidly maturing artist. In this scene, frozen in time, is a snapshot of working men and of an artist's hand as steady and certain as that of the cowboy with the reata. Before the dust had a chance to settle, both artist and subject would be facing change.
For those of you who are collectors, keep this in mind. Something can be very special based upon how well it is executed, the condition it is in, who created, what it expresses, and the story around its creation or use. The most special of works are those that are inspired and have all of these characteristics. That is why Hill Camp is so special.
Chief Curatorial Officer, Eiteljorg Museum, Indianapolis, Indiana
Founding Curator, Autry National Center, Los Angeles
Husband of Mary Ellen Hennessy Nottage
Top: Maynard Dixon, Hill Camp, Ore. June 1, 1901. Courtesy of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis.
Bottom: Maynard Dixon, The Cow Country, oil on canvas, 1938. Courtesy of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis.