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Olive Rush: An Independent Spirit
By Bettina Raphael
Olive Rush was forty-seven years old and a well-established artist when she moved to Santa Fe, NM, in 1920, making it her home and source of artistic inspiration for the next forty-five years. Most people would be slowing down their professional careers at such an age, but it was only the beginning for what would be a most exciting and creative period in the life of this independent woman and artistic adventurer. During the next four decades she came to be known as “the first lady of the arts” in her adopted city and while her experimental artwork had a significant influence on the evolving art colony of Santa Fe, her personal relationships and commitments also contributed richly to the community.
Born in 1873 in Fairmount, Indiana, Olive Rush came from a long line of Quakers; followers of the 17th century religious leader George Fox. Tracing their American roots back to Virginia and Pennsylvania, members of Ms. Rush’s family had been landowners active in the abolitionist movement. Eventually they moved farther west and her grandfather built the family home, Rush Hill, in Indiana in the first half of the 19th century. Olive’s father, Nixon Rush, while maintaining the Indiana farm was also a Society of Friends (Quaker) minister. Olive’s youth was characterized by a rich family life of simple pleasures and modest Quaker traditions. The financial status of the Rush family with six children was adequate but never affluent. Her rural Hoosier home provided a sound education and an intellectual openness. Although the family no longer dressed in sober “Quaker grays,” they continued to address each other in the traditional plain speech using the familiar “thee” and “thou” instead of the more formal “you.”
Many Quakers of that day rejected art as vain and frivolous and did not think of its pursuit as a worthy vocation. However, Olive had been drawing since the age of three and showed considerable artistic talent early on. Much of her early works were drawings and watercolors of her family and rural surroundings. With the support of her parents, Olive set off at age sixteen to study art at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, which many years later awarded her an honorary Doctorate degree. She didn’t stay long at Earlham, however, for her natural ability was recognized and she moved on in 1891 to work with more experienced art instructors at various programs on the East Coast. This was the era when women had only recently been admitted to art schools and Olive was one of the youngest in her first classes. For the next 20 years, this gifted artist and disciplined student, followed her vision of becoming a painter; taking art courses in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York, Wilmington, Delaware and eventually Boston. She continued her studies during two trips to Europe, drinking in the artistic influences of the day in Paris and England.
In her early twenties, Olive continued to develop her art at the prestigious Art Student’s League in New York City but also began her professional career: she gained financial independence as an illustrator working for newspapers and popular magazines like Woman’s Home Companion. Olive created romanticized images primarily of women and children that appealed to readers during the American “golden age of illustration” and established her reputation and modest monetary success. While at the studio of Howard Pyle in Wilmington from 1905 to 1911, Olive Rush met other artists, including her life-long friend, Ethyl Pennewill Brown (Leach). Here she began to focus more on easel painting in oil and diversifying her experience through commission work on stained glass compositions and a large church altar screen in Delaware. Rush was slowly gaining recognition as an accomplished woman artist. During this period, her paintings won awards and were shown in many juried exhibitions from the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. to the New York Water Color Club.
Early on, Olive seems to have forsworn marriage as the necessary tradeoff for pursuing her artistic goals and independence. She never married and supported herself with her painting throughout her adult life.
During the first decades of the 1900s, Olive maintained close family ties, even though she often lived and painted at a distance from Indiana. Her father’s love for travel to the “far West” along with his interest in history and Indian lore were communicated to his daughter who accompanied him on his last trip west in 1914. They spent several months in Arizona and New Mexico where Nixon Rush met with other Quakers and ministered to Native Americans while Olive continued to sketch and paint. Inspired by the drama of southwestern landscape and the colorful indigenous cultures, Olive painted several significant impressionistic works during the trip. Toward the end of their travels, the Rushes stayed in Santa Fe and Olive succeeded in arranging a one-woman show of her paintings at the Museum of New Mexico, located in the Palace of the Governors.
This first look at the Southwest had a major impact on Olive Rush’s life and art. Although she returned to the East, she spent the next six years moving away from her work as an illustrator and towards becoming a contemporary painter, developing her portraiture work, experimenting with mural painting, and opening herself to the modernist trends of the day. During this period, Olive also focused on her goal to live in Santa Fe. This became a reality in 1920, thanks to her spirit of adventure and a small inheritance after her father after his death. When she arrived in Santa Fe, one of the first people she met was the artist Gustave Baumann. They were neighbors during her first year in Santa Fe and they remained close friends until her death in 1966 when Baumann wrote an “In Memoriam” in the New Mexican's Pasatiempo.
Olive Rush was one of the first women painters to join the budding art colony in this semi-rural New Mexican town of about 7000 people. Olive’s own words best describe her attraction to the setting and lifestyle of the city: “Artists are spiritual adventurers and the strange beauty of the Southwest country, splendid and generous, lyric at one turn, dramatic at another, invites us to dare all things. Compositions are marvelously made before our eyes, offering lesson after lesson in form and color. Up and down our rocky roads move flocks of goats, burros laden with wood, troops of black-shawled women or white veiled little girls, cowboys on holiday, Indians come to town to sell their handicrafts, horse and burro riders, white covered wagons, ancient buggies….
Other artists continued to be drawn to Santa Fe throughout the 1920s. Often poor, they shared resources and a love for the space and light of their new Southwest home. Olive knew them all, from the more conservative “old timers” like Gerald Cassidy, Sheldon Parsons, and Carlos Vierra to the newer arrivals including Will Shuster, Joseph Bakos, Andrew Dasburg and Raymond Jonson. She also counted many of their wives and other women artists among her inner circle: Jane Baumann, Eugenie Shonnard, Inez Sizer Cassidy, Laura Gilpin, and Georgia O’Keeffe, with whom she shared a cat, Anselmo. From her earliest days in Santa Fe, Olive was an active exhibitor at the new Art Museum of New Mexico which had an open-door policy encouraging local artists to hang their works in the galleries.
Olive purchased an old adobe farmhouse on Canyon Road which she renovated and furnished with simple local arts and furniture continuing a tradition of Southwest vernacular style artist studio-homes. She was drawn to the aesthetics and simplicity of both the Indian and Hispanic cultures of New Mexico and she opened her own artwork to these new influences. One of her first acts on completing the renovation of her home was to design a corner fireplace on which she painted a decorative fresco using the old world technique of applying water-based colors to the wet plaster. The effect was so successful and blended so well with the architectural environment of the Southwest that Olive went on to paint numerous frescos and other murals in the homes of friends including “Los Luceros” owned by Mary Cabot Wheelwright and Florence Bartlett’s home in Alcalde. She also completed frescos in public buildings in New Mexico and surrounding states. Olive’s passion for mural painting had been stirred by many influences: her knowledge of Italian, Greek and Egyptian wall paintings, her trips to Mexico in the 1920s and 30s, and surely by the public art movement of mural paintings by artists like Diego Rivera. Two of her most famous commissions are from the WPA period when, as a New Deal artist, she frescoed the walls of the old Santa Fe Public Library (1934) and the interior dome of Foster Hall, on the campus of New Mexico State University (1936). Both of these public art projects can still be seen. Her friend, the art curator Grace Guest, believed that Olive was at her happiest painting murals but this commitment meant that at the age or 63, the delicate “Miss Rush” was scaling scaffolding and painting ceilings in wet fresco plaster like Michelangelo.
Before these projects of the 1930s, however, Olive had gained much local visibility when she was commissioned by Mary Colter to paint the walls of the New Mexico Room as part of John Gaw Meem’s remodeling of the La Fonda Hotel in 1928. She produced a room full of colorful images of vaqueros on horseback, Spanish maidens, and whimsical local plants and animals. The paintings were admired by her fellow Santa Feans, including Chester Faris, Superintendent of the U.S. Indian School in Santa Fe (where the Pueblo Indian School is today). He invited Olive Rush to instruct the Indian School students in mural painting and to help them paint the walls of the school’s dining room. The young artists took to the task with confidence and produced works that were acclaimed throughout the region for their boldness and skill. This project was the beginning of “the Studio,” the program in the arts sponsored at the school and taught by Dorothy Dunn. This program led to the style of Native American painting that blossomed in the 1930s and 40s and continues to have its influence today. This early contact with the talent and traditional Indian culture of the Pueblo, Navajo and Kiowa students had a profound effect on Olive and she continued to mentor and promote the artists in exhibits and lectures across the country for many years afterwards. Although these early murals at the school were painted over in the 1950s and then recently destroyed when the historic buildings at the Indian School were torn down, there are other examples of Olive’s collaboration with Indian artists. Together with several Native painters, including Pablita Velarde, Joe Hererra, Pop Chalee, and Awa Tsireh, Rush created a beautiful mural series in 1939 which is still in place on the entrance walls of Maisel’s Trading Post on Central Avenue in Albuquerque.
Olive Rush had been first introduced to Indian culture during her childhood through her father’s stories and later from her numerous experiences throughout Indian Country – trekking over the Hopi mesas, attending Navajo ceremonials with Mary Wheelwright, and visiting Pueblo friends and sketching tribal dances around New Mexico. She developed a deep respect and affinity for Native Americans and their value of tradition. Their reserve and spirituality seemed to resonate with her Quaker roots while the Native style of painting, free of perspective and often full of symbolism, recalled her earlier attraction to Asian art and Persian miniatures. She adhered to a philosophy of art inspired by the Chinese phrase: “The life movement of the spirit in the rhythm of things.” Like others of her generation, Olive was disenchanted with many aspects of the industrialized world and voiced her critique of modern materialism early in this 1922 quote: “America has been far too interested in its food, its comforts, and in the machinery of its vast competitions to grant first importance to matters pertaining to the soul. Art has been caught up in this net of materialism until a work of art seems good to us only if it resembles something else….”
There was a heady and creative atmosphere in Santa Fe during those early years. All of the arts seemed intertwined with poets, painters, actors, cultural anthropologists, and scholars sharing their thoughts and projects. Olive knew and collaborated with many of the luminaries and lively characters in town during this time including Mary Austin, Witter Bynner, Edgar Lee Hewett, and John Gaw Meem.
In 1933, Olive was a founding member of the Santa Fe Artists’ Guild that helped promote local artists by selling their works directly to the public during the “slim” years of the Depression. Even into her eighties, she was known for attending most local exhibit openings, encouraging young, innovative painters, and keeping up with the latest trends in art. Her own work was consistently relegated to the more avant-garde or “modernist” alcove at the Art Museum, at a healthy distance from the more conservative and accepted paintings of the day.
From the 1930s through the 50s, Rush continued to experiment in her art, both in painting media and style. When she first came to New Mexico, Olive was painting the landscape and Indian and Hispanic scenes; bold works in oil. During the following decade, she became well known for her delicate watercolors of deer and other creatures of nature in which she used Chinese-like brushwork and created an ethereal sense of space. The art historian Van Deren Coke summed up her work eloquently: “Her pictures are a demonstration of the artistic potential of understatement as an expressive means.” He goes on to note that: “She has grown in daring as she has progressed in years….” In fact, Olive’s work became more abstract and expressive of her inner reality than of outer surroundings as she moved from her sixties into her seventies. In response to some friends’ concern that her work was growing too unorthodox, she replied: “As a matter of fact, I painted surrealism long before the term was invented.”
Her watercolors, oil paintings, prints and “fresco plaques” were presented in exhibits all over the country including at the Brooklyn Museum, the Denver Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, and in her home state at the John Heron Art Institute in Indianapolis. Works by Rush now hang in many of these museums and others were purchased by Mrs. and President Herbert Hoover, a maharajah from India, and the esteemed Phillips Gallery in Washington, D.C. The New Mexico Museum of Fine Art held a major retrospective of Olive Rush’s paintings in 1957 and today includes many in its permanent collection. Inspired in her philosophy and practice of art at different periods by Kandinsky, El Greco, and Matisse, in addition to the ancient Chinese and Japanese painters, she moved comfortably in search of a personal expression that did not have to be tied to literal objects but expressed the inner rhythm and harmony of nature and of the new “Modern Age.”
Her attachment to her adobe home and extensive garden on Canyon Road were well known and they continued to provide Olive with constant satisfaction throughout her forty-plus years there. Like her artwork, her home was identified with a kind of “spiritual cleanliness” – a place of simple beauty, of frequent visitors, of annual garden parties to welcome the spring blossoms, and where her tiny “Ramada” guest house provided traveling young people and Quaker friends with a place to stay when traversing the country. She was still planting hollyhocks and harvesting from her many fruit trees into her eighties. With a few other locals, she had founded a small Quaker Meeting in town and in her later years the silent Sunday gatherings were often held in her home. Eventually Olive would leave her historic house and garden to the Santa Fe Society of Friends to be used as their permanent meetinghouse.
Today the lovely Olive Rush Studio is maintained by the Meeting much as it was in her day, like an island of quite history in the midst of the contemporary gallery scene on Canyon Road. The spiritual beliefs and social values of Olive’s Quaker up-bringing came to influence her artistic work as well as her interactions with people during her entire life. This included a conscience for social justice, respect for nature, and a gentle, non-dogmatic spirituality. From her earliest youth when she participated in Suffragette meetings in 1892, to her work for the Polish War Relief effort after World War I, to her advocacy in encouraging respect for and preservation of Hispanic and Indian culture along with champions like Mary Austin, Elizabeth White, and Frank Applegate, to fundraising projects for famine relief in the 1950s, Olive Rush continued to champion humanitarian causes. Fundamental to Ms. Rush’s beliefs was a reverence for life and the dignity of every human being. A number of her paintings after World War II, such as Horrors of War, depict “the grief and destruction left in the wake of holocaust”.
Throughout her life, Olive Rush followed her own council that: One cannot “go on copying past successes. To do so is stagnation.” Olive died in 1966 in Santa Fe at the age of 93, having followed her “inner light” throughout a life well spent. Her words still hold meaning for us today: “I believe that all art should carry without effort ‘the outward signs of an inward grace’. You must learn your own best way of living and creating. You are an individual in art as in life.”
Coke, Van Deren. Taos and Santa Fe, The Artist’s Environment 1882-1942. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press (1963).
Cuba, Stanley L. Olive Rush: A Hoosier Artist in New Mexico. Muncie, Indiana: Minnetrista Cultural Foundation, 1992.
Guest, Grace Dunham. “Olive Rush, Painter”, The New Mexico Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 4 (1951).
LeViness, Thetford. “Olive Rush”, Kansas City Times, May 31, 1954.
Rush, Olive. “Transplanting an Artist” in “Artists’ and Writers’ Edition”, Santa Fe New Mexican, n.d.
Rush, Olive. “Artist’s Statement”, Exhibition of Paintings by Olive Rush, probably held at Chicago Art Institute, Chicago, 1925.
“Successes of Past Can’t Be Copied Forever, Says Miss Rush”, The New Mexican, Jan. 19, 1945.