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‘Prairie Daughters’ Exhibit Hits Home

Last night I went to the opening reception for Prairie Daughters: The Art and Lives and Annie Stein and Orabel Thortvedt at The Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County. It celebrates the lives and work of two local female artists and hit awfully close to home for me.

Their work isn’t what I normally gravitate toward, but the curators wisely showed it alongside their notes, scrapbooks, journals, family photos and re-creations of their studio spaces, which makes their art and their personalities so vivid.

Annie Stein and Orabel Thortvedt were born a generation apart, both daughters of early European immigrants raised on Clay County homesteads alongside the Buffalo River.

As a creative woman born a few years later and a few miles down the road from both of them, and I can’t help contrasting their lives with my own. It’s fascinating to see how their work evolved, especially since they lived in a time and place that limited opportunities for women in general and largely ignored female artists.

Annie Stein (1872-1923) was born, lived and died on the family farm in Georgetown, Minnesota, just a few miles from Hendrum, where I lived for the first 18 years of my life.

Annie Stein

She was the artistic daughter of a mysterious German family who, while friendly enough, kept their distance from their neighbors in the tiny prairie town. She was a painter, photographer, poet and gardener who also wrote music and did beautiful sewing and embroidery.

Detail of “Ma and Pa” by Annie Stein

She was self-taught (and a little self-conscious about it) but her oil paintings — especially her landscapes — really struck me.

The scene in this painting is eerily similar to the flood I lived through almost exactly 100 years later and just a few miles away.

Detail of “Flood at Georgetown, Minn, April 1897” by Annie Stein

Annie’s world was both domestic and full of adventure, since the Stein family farm was a stop on the stagecoach road that took travelers from Saint Paul to Fort Garry, the city would become Winnipeg.

Her father Adam also ferried people across the Buffalo River near their farmstead in the days before bridges.

Detail of “Old Hudson Bay Crossing, Georgetown” by Annie Stein

Annie kept largely to herself, living on the farm with her other unmarried siblings, shooting photos of friends and sewing, composing and painting in her parlor until her death in 1923.

Her remaining family kept her work until a it was sold at the family estate sale in 1976. If not for the efforts of a few dedicated collectors — many of them neighbors with last names I recognize — her work might have been lost.

Orabel Thortvedt

If Annie Stein seems serious and a bit mysterious, Orabel Thortvedt (1896-1983) seems to be just the opposite. She was born into one of the oldest Norwegian families to settle in Clay County, near what is now Glyndon, Minnesota. (My grandma grew up in the same area — small world.)

They were a large family of storytellers, avid journalers and notetakers who preserved huge amounts of early Clay County history. They seemed like a good time, too — family photos show a mischievous-looking Orabel and her sisters playing croquet and cards.

Orabel turned some of her family’s stories into a series of sketches and also was also commissioned to do oil paintings.

Detail of “The First Stage Coach arrives at Fort Abercrombie, 1859” by Orabel Thortvedt

I think I would have liked Orabel, who I can almost picture running wild across her family’s land, playing with her animals, reading, writing and — this is my favorite thing ever — creating beautiful reclining figures out of clay carved directly from the river bed. Since they were never fired, she knew they would dissolve in the elements, but she took photos to remember them. As she got older, she began to sculpt in cement as well.

Sculptures by Orabel Thortvedt

Orabel lived in an era that was more open to female artists and won scholarships to study art at the Minneapolis School of Art and the University of Minnesota. She lived in The Twin Cities metro area during and after college and made a living as a professional artist. Her specialty was animal portraits like this one.

Detail of “Wanee and Nupah” by Orabel Thortvedt

She moved back to the farm after her parents died and continued to paint, sculpt and write well into old age.

I went into this exhibit dutifully — like I was getting extra credit for going outside my artistic comfort zone — and left feeling inspired.

The guest book in Orabel Thortvedt’s Studio

These women lived life on their own terms, building a world and a body of work that made them excited to get up every day. I have so many more opportunities than they had, so this was a pretty vivid reminder to take advantage of them and to try to live my life with the same passion. I guess you never know what will inspire you!

Which female artists inspire you? How has an art or history exhibit spoken to you? Which artists come from your home town or region?

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