Scrapbook Two Hundred Sixteen…

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October, 2019

 

Relentless Pursuit 

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In the early 1980s, I was working on my first biography of Joseph Henry Sharp, who in 1915, was a founding member of the important Taos Society of Artists. I was so raw at writing that I started out using a pencil on a yellow pad. My day job was running our Santa Fe gallery and we didn’t own a computer.

In some of our magazine ads we asked for information about Sharp. One day a nattily dressed man walked into my office. The guy’s chest filled out his shirt so completely that his tie looked like an aberration. When he sat down without being invited, I figured he had something important to say. I took a sip of Grapette and tried to appear nonchalant. 

“Whatcha know about Sharp etchings,” he said with an attitude. It sounded more like a statement than a question. I explained that as far as I knew, there weren’t any. “Then what’s this?” He threw an 8 X 10 black & white photo on my desk.  

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Photo of a Sharp etching

It was of a Sharp etching for sure. The artist’s scald was all over it and the signature was right. I was astonished in an ecstatic sort of way. 

I asked the man if I could please make a copy for my records, and I motioned to my secretary. “No you can’t,” the jerk said, as he grabbed for the photo. I quickly turned it over and read the logo on the back. JOHN WHITAKER PHOTOGRAPHY – CINCINNATI, OHIO.

The guy stormed out of my office like he was late for lunch with the queen.  

The logo was burned deeply into my mind, and it started me on a research expedition that lasted for many months. 

I must have made 20 phone calls in pursuit of that etching because it was fresh information to me and I needed it for my book.

The Whitaker photo business in Cincinnati had changed names and was being run by a wonderfully accommodating man. He gave me the name and address of lady who owned the etching. Phone calls and letters to her went unanswered. Requests for information about Sharp etchings in my magazine ads were ignored. 

I received information about the artist from museums and galleries, but nothing about his etchings. The trail ran cold for about 20 more phone calls. Then I started getting some breaks. 

I’ll shorten the story and get to the good part. I called a very elderly lady in Liberty, Indiana, and said, “Madam, about 1903, your father purchased at public auction in Cincinnati, 14 Joseph Henry Sharp zinc and copper etching plates. Included in the lot was a cigar box filled with etching tools.” There was a short pause, then in almost a whisper, she said, “No, I think there are 16 of them.”

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Joseph Henry Sharp (1859-1953). Copper etching plate, ca. 1900. Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, WY. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Forrest Fenn.

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Joseph Henry Sharp (1859-1953). Copper etching plate, ca. 1900. Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, WY. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Forrest Fenn.

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Joseph Henry Sharp (1859-1953). Copper etching plate, ca. 1900. Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, WY. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Forrest Fenn.

It was a lightning strike moment for me. 

They were stored in her garage and much too heavy for her to lift. When she agreed to sell them, I made plans to meet her the very next day. “Please have your doctor or lawyer present when I arrive.”

When I entered her home, 16 etching plates were spread out on her living room carpet. They were beautiful. Her attorney, John Something, was standing guard, probably not knowing for sure why he was even there. He struck me as being the kind of guy who would hit himself in the head with a stick because it felt so good when he quit.

I inspected each plate to make sure it hadn’t been cancelled. All but one were Indian portraits. They were in perfect condition.

I asked what she wanted for the 16 plates. Her lawyer started expounding on how valuable they were and…she interrupted. 

“Mister Fenn, I don’t know what they are worth, probably not very much. What are you willing to give me for them?” I said “Madam, I will give $5,000 each for the 16, that’s $80,000.

They both were shocked, and numbed, almost into incredulity. Their faces gave testimony to that fact. John Something sat down and began cleaning his glasses. 

“Mister Fenn, I think we have a deal.” The attorney had checked me out so I handed that beautiful lady a check, kissed her on the cheek, and was gone.  

What I had going for me was a note Sharp had written many years earlier stating that his intention was to print 250 copies from each plate, but most he had printed was 23.

We had a special porous paper made, each sheet with a large F hidden in the watermark. It could be seen only when held up to a strong light source. I didn’t want our etchings to be confused with those Sharp had printed, which were more valuable. 

Over the next few months we had a professional print maker finish printing the editions for us. That totaled 3,632 etchings that varied in value from $100 to $1,800 each. It was a wild expense for our gallery, but everything was tax-deductible. We donated 50 or more sets of the etchings to museums, art schools and other non-profits.

And more importantly, we bound an etching in each of 100 limited edition copies of The Beat of the Drum and the Whoop of the Dance and Teepee Smoke, my two biographies of Joseph Sharp. Each book was leather bound, numbered, and signed. For years they lumbered off of our book shelves. 

We gave the 16 etching plates to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center with the stipulation that no additional copies would ever be printed. 

Our gallery sold hundreds of the etchings, both individually and in sets. They also made great gifts for birthdays, weddings, Christmas, anniversaries, graduations, and “I’m just thinking of yous.”

The complicated etching operation was spread out over several years and I never knew how we came out financially. I hope we at least broke even. 

Those were happy days for me, partly because I was busy doing the things I liked doing. And now, nearly 40 years after I acquired the etching plates, I have 1 etching left. It’s a portrait of White Swan, who, after the Custer Fight, was found deaf and dumb on the battlefield. Sharp was deaf, White Swan was deaf, and so am I. Maybe that’s why I’ve kept this particular etching. f

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White Swan Etching by J. H. Sharp

 

 

Scrapbook Two Hundred Fifteen…

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October, 2019

 

Business Partners  

Personnel retention was always a concern and we were constantly trying to think of creative ways to deal with it in our gallery. I never wanted to reward an average or mediocre performer. It was too easy to change the performer. 

One day I got an everybody-wins idea and it didn’t cost anything, at least not very much of anything.

Mary Lou was a good employee who had been with us for more than a year. Everyone liked her. One day I took her to lunch at the Shed. It was near the plaza on Palace Avenue, and they had the best Mexican food place in town. While we were eating enchaladas (I always called them that). We talked about her boyfriend who had a good job, and was well liked in the community. Then I asked Mary Lou how she liked her job at the gallery, where she planned to be in 5 years, what could we do to improve our operation, and a few other nosey questions. 

I was impressed with her answers, so after we finished our sopapillas and honey, we walked a few doors east to Guadalupe’s Shoe Store. 

I told Mary Lou that I had to run to the bank and while I was gone, she could choose anything in the store she wanted (Ladies really like shoes). 

Guadalupe came over and said hello. As I headed for the door I turned and said, “but you have to pick out what you want before I get back and the bank is just 2 blocks away.”

Guadalupe, whom I had known for many years, helped Mary Lou select some imported shoes, a nice hand bag, and a belt to match the new spring ensemble that was in her wardrobe at home. 

After I complemented Mary Lou on her taste, I winked at Guadalupe and we walked out of the store without paying. I didn’t want to discuss money in front of Mary Lou. That would have been vulgar. Guadalupe knew I would return later in the day with a bunch of dollar bills in my hand. 

We were mostly silent on our way back to the gallery. I closed the door to my office and we sat down.

“Mary Lou, I particularly like your work ethic and the way you handle yourself. We want to keep you here. As an incentive to stay I’d like to give you half interest in that painting,” and I pointed to an Eric Sloane hanging on the wall near my desk. I saw a flash in her eyes that said she knew I wasn’t kidding. 

It was a $15,000 painting that we had recently purchased from Eric for $7,500. I explained that the gift came with 3 rules. One, she couldn’t tell anyone that she was half owner in the painting. Two, she couldn’t get pushy. “Let someone else sell it.” And 3, you must work at our gallery when it sells or the whole deal is off.” She blushed and nodded at the same time. It was a cute gesture. You had to like Mary Lou.

She had to be thinking that she was now our business partner, in a small way. She became more diligent and almost daily brought cut flowers to put on the front desk.

When the painting sold a week or so later, I wrote Mary Lou a check for $7,500. The transaction cemented our relationship with a top employee, and we got our cost back. We didn’t make any money. Our profit was intrinsic, and an investment in our future. 

We used that technique with several other “Mary Lous” during our 17-year tenure on the Santa Fe art scene. There were a few “Billy Bobs” too. 

The secrets about what we did eventually leaked out and I became known around town as Daddy Warbucks. 

Louise was different. We needed an accounts receivable clerk and she applied. She was out-flowing and a little gushy, but that was ok. 

That night I knocked on her door about 8 o’clock. She had invited me to meet her husband. I had to step over a hoodie to get in the front door, and “things” were strewn all around the house. Dinner dishes were dirty in the sink, on the table, and on the divan. Something gooey-red was spilled on a chair. I didn’t dare sit down.

This gal was not going to work in my accounts receivable department.

Messy people are usually extroverted, smiley, and meet people easily. That seemed to be Louise’s forte’ so I hired her to work in sales. I was a good decision because she kept our staff morale up. We even taught her to wash coffee cups. 

And then there was Grace. She was a gentle Spanish lady, severely Catholic, who must have been sent to us from the personnel department in heaven. Both of her husbands were murdered and her son was hit by a car and killed at night while trying to change a flat tire. 

Grace quickly became part of our family, and after 42 years with us we talked her into retiring. That was 6 years ago. I once told her that she was “the strawberry in the milkshake of my heart.” I think she repeated that comment to everyone in North America and some of the ships at sea. My wife just rolled her eyes. 

We still give Grace her salary but she has to come to our home each a month to pick up the check. We just want to see her and make sure she’s okay. Her daughter drives Grace now because she’s 94 years old. 

The gallery business in Santa Fe was good to my family for 17 years. We worked with some really good people and met a bunch of celebrities. And you know what I found out about them? They were just plain-ole people who had a highly specialized talent. But doesn’t that describe all of us? 

Sometimes when I write stories like this, I feel really good when I’m done. Maybe I’ll go make some hot chocolate and pet my dog. f

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Me, my wife, my daughter, some Mary Lous and a couple of Billy Bobs

 

 

 

 

Scrapbook Two Hundred Fourteen…

scrapbook

October, 2019

 

The John Ehrlichman Saga.

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When John was the Domestic Advisor to President Nixon it could be argued that he was one of the 5 most powerful people in the world. Then along came the Watergate scandal that drove Nixon from office. It also spelled John’s political ruin. He said, “rules in the Oval Office were different from rules anywhere else in the world.” 

He was convicted in federal court of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury, and he served 18 months in the prison at Safford, Arizona.

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Forrest, John and Diane Sawyer in the library at Fenn Galleries. She has just interviewed John for a nationally televised program. John refused to answer any questions unless both he and Diane were on camera together for fear that the question would be changed before broadcast and it would look like he was answering a different question.

I met John soon after he was released and we became friends. Our gallery had a book signing for his, Witness to Power (there were pickets outside our gallery), we fished the Pecos and San Juan rivers together and went to China on business once. 

John and I spent many hours in conversations about his political experiences and the famous personalities he had met along the way. I found his stories fascinating, especially the one about a criminal plot to break him out of prison and hold him for ransom. He thought it was funny that the government would have to pay the ransom to get him back so they could put him in prison again

John was easy and forthcoming with an answer to any question posed by me. One day John and I were talking about his trial and it was plain to see that he felt abused. He pointed out that, with public opinion so strongly against him, there was no way he could be found not guilty. He said, “When the president of the United states asks you to do something it is very difficult to say no,” thus his perjury conviction.

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To fight the boredom of long hours sitting in a courtroom John doodled. He drew portraits of the jurors, witnesses, lawyers, prosecutors, bailiffs, US Marshalls, other things, and Judge John Sirica several times. There were 102 doodles and many were drawn on White House letterheads. 

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Original documents by John Ehrlichman

What his doodles lacked in artistic deference was made up in historical importance. They showed what a very important, man on trial for serious crimes, was thinking about while his fate was being decided by a group of people he didn’t know. 

Accompanying each doodle was a lengthy ink-written caption that explained the subject or provided commentary about it. 

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I suggested that we publish his art in a leather-bound book. To give it class we needed to gild the edges and put it in a slipcase. The plan was to sell the books, each one with a doodle tipped in. That meant printing 102 books, I knew I was going to lose a bunch of money. John agreed, and we signed a contract. I wrote the foreword for the book. John Connally signed it.

Soon after the book was printed, we had a party at my home. While thumbing through a copy, my attorney turned to me and said, “Forrest, you’re gonna be sued for a hundred million dollars.” 

The comment caught me in mid sip. The small Corona beer I was half way through didn’t seem as necessary as it did when I first started drinking it. 

All of a sudden, I saw my attorney as a lawyer. Although I didn’t know the difference between the two, I think that characterization was correct. He started showing why I had made a mistake by publishing the book. One aberration was the drawing of a woman’s leg. 

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I didn’t think that was so bad, but when my lawyer started reading other captions in the book, I balked. I had heard enough already, and I turned to John, who was standing nearby. “John, will you indemnify me for any loss I might incur as a result of what you wrote in this book?” He said “NO” with a halting abruptness that made me think it might be the only word he knew. 

With concern that something might happen inimical to me, I wrote a letter to John dated May 23, 1985. It said, in part, “When the book was printed and we were ready to start advertising and distribution, you took a copy to Morton Janklow (John’s lawyer and agent in New York, whose daughter worked in our gallery). He raised the question of libel, which you relayed to me. At that time, I put a hold on the project until we could find out where we stood.”

Other things were happening that I didn’t like, so one cloudy afternoon I burned 101 beautifully bound doodle books that had gilded edges and were slip cased. With that deed done, my liability was gone. I kept one copy for my own library and that’s all. It’s an orphan. 

There are a small few unbound copies of the book out there somewhere. Morton Janklow has one, my daughters each have one, and a friend in Cody has a copy. 

I just hope Jill Wines doesn’t get wind of it and come looking for me. 

In 1999 John died from complications of diabetes. He was 74 years old. I’m glad that chapter in my life is closed. f

 

 

 

 

Scrapbook Two Hundred Thirteen…

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October, 2019

 

New Things That Turn Into Old Ones

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For a while now, I’ve been on a history kick, trying to think of ways I can influence the thinking of folks in the future. All sorts of ideas are coming in. One of the best involves plant life.

The changing leaves of autumn are bragging about their new fall colors, I’m taking advantage of the situation.

I’ve gathered some of the prettiest newly-fallen leaves from around my yard. Then, with a felt-tip pen, I write the type of plant, the date, and print my name.

So far, I have a yellow from an aspen tree, a beautiful red from a vine that climbs one of my ponderosas, and a maroon from a group of weeds that keep coming back into my garden each year, much to my chagrin. 

Then I place each each inside the cover of a book to dry out and wait for some smiling face to find it in the far-distant future.

You should do that too. It’s a way to leave your mark on history and someday cause a smile. Please don’t underestimate your importance. What fun it would be to find an old book with a leaf that George Washington had signed. 

If you don’t want to do that, please go out someplace and plant a tree. f

 

 

 

 

 

Scrapbook Two Hundred Twelve…

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October, 2019

 

My Rubloff Experience

 

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Arthur Rubloff, Chicago Real Estate Developer

In the 1970s, when our Santa Fe gallery was in full flourish, one of our good clients was Arthur Rubloff. He personified aristocracy in its finest moment. Wearing a 3-piece suit and patent leather shoes, he looked like a Prime Minister. The only fault I ever found with Arthur was that his shoes looked to be too long for his feet, although I didn’t profess to be an authority on either subject.

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Massasoit Bronze

Somewhere along those years, we sold Arthur a bronze portrait of Massasoit (1581-1661), the great chief of the Wampanogas tribe. At more than 10’ tall, some said the feather in the Indian’s hair reached clear up to the sky.

The bronze was installed in one of Arthur’s Chicago shopping centers, and he invited me to attend the unveiling ceremony. When we walked into the mall, I saw that the bronze had been cordoned off, about 10’ around, with an obtrusive white picket fence. Arthur smiled and said the fence was there to prevent the kids from damaging the bronze. 

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Grizzly Bronze Outside the Natural History Museum in Denver.

After telling him that there was no way anyone could harm that piece of sculpture, I reminded him that he wanted the bronze on display to give something back to the many shoppers who frequented his mall. I told him of the giant Jonas Brothers grizzly bronze that stood outside the entrance to the Natural History Museum in Denver. “As high as the kids can climb, and reach with their hands, it has the most beautiful patina in the country, and above where they can touch, it is dull and lackluster.”

As the fence was being removed, the band played Hail to the Chief.

Arthur said a few words to the small crowd of people who had paused in their shopping to listen, then he introduced me. It fell my lot to explain who Massasoit was and say how much the art meant to the city of Chicago. It was one of my classic red-face speeches that lasted just long enough to satisfy propriety. 

Arthur’s limo took us to his office. The driver, dressed in a casually pressed black suit, sat erect and always faced forward. His matching colored leather cap, daintily tilted, seemed to evoke a festive mood. The lady in the shotgun seat I guessed was one of his secretaries. I couldn’t see her face because a glass partition separated the two of them in the front from the two of us in the back. 

During the 30-minute ride Arthur and I didn’t talk about architecture, but I couldn’t help but notice the name Rubloff written on the sides of 2 or 3 buildings. He asked what I would like to have for lunch. My reply was something like, “Well, under the circumstance, maybe champagne and pheasant-under-glass are in order.” 

We laughed and I asked him about his celebrated glass paperweight collection that he had promised to the Art Institute of Chicago. The question was a mistake because he started dropping types and names about which I knew nothing. Out of respect, I listened intently, and frequently nodded.

When we entered his spacious office spaces and sat at his dining table, we were served glasses of chilled sparkling champagne, which had to be from a very good year. Although I didn’t like the stuff I sipped and smiled in celebration of the moment. After a nice salad came the pheasant-under-glass. (His secretary had listened on a secret limo intercom, and phoned ahead). 

It didn’t take me long to realize that I was way out of my cozy element, and I probably wondered if Arthur knew what a hot dog was.

Looking back on that day now, more than 4 decades removed, I am reminded of other experiences that similarly favored me during my gallery years. But none of them were as good as being at home in the friendly surroundings of my family. f

 

 

 

 

 

Scrapbook Two Hundred Eleven…

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October, 2019

 

Requiem for a Wreck

A few months ago, I pulled out of my garage, successfully negotiated the turn around a big pinon tree, and headed for the street. I had done that about 58,688 times before. But this time I was fiddling with the radio trying to find Meryl Haggard singing Me and Bobby Mcgee. 

Everything was going great until I hit an awkward looking box elder tree. It was in front of the bunk house where Shiloh lives. There was a loud careening noise that resonated around the inside of my car, and parts of something were flying through the air. 

It was the housing that covered the mirror on the passenger’s side of my jeep. I suddenly went into denial and hoped Shiloh had not heard the crash. I thought about blaming it on Willie, but he wasn’t in the car.

So I picked up as many of the pieces as I could find and hurried them into the big trash can stationed by the gate. As I drove away, I noticed that the mirror was working fine. Only the covering was gone. 

Broken Mirror

And you know what? Even to this day no one has noticed the damage, and I’m not talking. The unfortunate mirror still needs a little cosmetic surgery, but I don’t care about that.  My wife would be appalled if she knew. 

The wreck made me start thinking. Maybe the gods were telling me to pay more attention to things that were happening in my life, and be more in charge. So I will, starting right now.

Who says I have to repair the fool mirror? It’s my car isn’t it, and I get to make all of the decisions related to it, don’t I? 

And while I’m on the subject, who says I have to eat broccoli, cauliflower, rhubarb, and certain kinds of squash?  Men my age are supposed to do as they’re told but from now on, I’m gonna do exactly as I please. 

With my new found freedom I might even get a piercing someplace, who knows?

And maybe I’ll make myself a hot dog for lunch, with sauerkraut and whatever else I want on it. But for now, I’m going out and thank that great box elder tree for giving me inspiration. f  

 

 

 

 

 

Scrapbook Two Hundred Ten…

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October, 2019

 

Canoncito Church at Apache Canyon

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Click on the image to view it larger.                                                             photo by Lou Bruno

This painting hangs near the kitchen door that leads out to our portal. I look at it several times every day. It was painted by Joseph Cestmir Svoboda (1889-1953), and was exhibited at the Chicago Artists Exhibition in 1934 where the listed price was $5,000.

 Joseph was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire but came to America early on so he could study at the Art Institute of Chicago. There he met Walter Ufer, who was elected to the Taos Society of Artists in 1917. Under Ufer’s influence, Joseph painted in Taos on and off for 30 years. 

I think it is a sweet little painting, but I like it for another reason. I acquired it from a neighbor lady one morning while we were sipping green tea and munching on Oreos. She was Joseph Svoboda’s daughter and her name was Olga. f

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Contemporary photo of Canoncito Church at Apache Canyon

 

 

 

 

 

Scrapbook Two Hundred Nine…

scrapbook

October, 2019

 

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Chaos                                                                                                             photo by Cynthia Meachum

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Embroidery                                                                                                    photo by Cynthia Meachum

I love these two objects.

They found their way into my collection via a friend of many years past.  Are they soul fairies bred in chaos, demoted angels, nascent beings – what? Their exaggerated personalities are somehow persuasive to me. Why is that?

Both are wrought with a penchant for trickery. Maybe it’s because their armatures are made of spring wire. When I push one away, it comes leaning back at a nervous angle, as if were ordained to taunt me – or protect me. 

Look at their faces, each has an eerie diabolical grin as if is possessed by some unknown seminal moment. Their clothing is made of spangly materials, luscious forested vegetation, and woven woolen fabrics from around the world. Ancient beads adorn their necks while silent fetishes secret themselves beneath the understated colors.

Everything on their bodies is sewed in or tied down. Nothing can be removed, not even an ancient Afghani turquoise necklace that rests amid a cluster of old beads and precious amulets.

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Chaos Full Frontal                                                                                        photo by Lou Bruno

Doll 2

Chaos Full Back                                                                                                   photo by Lou Bruno

Doll 3

Chaos Front Bottom                                                                                                photo by Lou Bruno

Doll 4

Chaos Front Top                                                                                                    photo by Lou Bruno

Doll 5

Chaos Back Top                                                                                                     photo by Lou Bruno

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Embroidery Full Frontal

Have they been thrown out and are now suffering amidst the wreckage of failed marriages? I don’t know, but never mind, I like them as they are. I can relate somehow, especially now that I am past middle age and unwilling to postpone or subjugate any part of my life. Maybe they have the power to protect me and that’s why I keep them close. I hope so. f

 

 

 

Scrapbook Two Hundred Eight…

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October, 2019

 

Ode to a Friend

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Edard and friend

Edard has passed. 

We were close friends for about 83 years. He was my best man when Peggy and I were married in 1953, and I was his best man twice, again after his first wife died of cancer. 

In 1950, Edard and I joined the Air Force together. He was physically imposing, so they made him an Air Policeman. After 4 years he resigned from the military to get a degree in Hospital Management from Baylor University. The doctors at King’s Daughters Hospital in Temple were impressed with Edard so they hired him as their manager, a job his brother, Howard, held before him. 

When Peggy and I threw parties in Santa Fe, Edard would sometimes drive 12 hours to attend. He usually walked in with a smile that insinuated “You must have known I would be here,” a thought that did not underestimated the depth of our friendship.

In recent years Edard’s health fell into disrepair and I watched him slowly wither. He died peacefully in the Veterans Hospital in Temple, on whose golf course we used to play. He well understood that, at age 89, his tenure on this planet was finally fading. 

I shall not mourn the passing of my friend, but instead, will smile and remember the many good times we had, like when we both played big shots in a high school football game, and put plugs of Red Man chewing tobacco under our cheeks. After the first tackle we both were sick and had to leave the game. Our punishment was having to run 50 laps around the football field. We turned that penalty into a victory by running 55 laps. We sure taught that coach a lesson. Those were the good old days when our victories were small enough to match our egos. 

Keen are those whose eyes were used and saw the total fruit he bore, and remember yet, whose dyes were used to make the pride he wore. 

And now my life is a little emptier. 

An asterisk. 

Frank Harlan (RIP) was another close high school friend who joined the AF with me and Edard. His father, Dr. “Dipok” Harlan, delivered me in the King Daughter’s Hospital in Temple. That was August 22nd, 1930. I am told I was born to politically off-set George Soros, who came along 10 days before me. 

Now I think I will go out and water my trees. f

 

 

 

 

Scrapbook Two Hundred Seven…

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September, 2019

 

Absarokee Hut

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In 1982, I was writing The Beat of the Drum and the Whoop of the Dance, my first biography of the painter Joseph Henry Sharp (1859-1953). It was a wonderful and fulfilling experience for me. My friends complained that the story had consumed me. Maybe so, because a note written to myself at the time, reads “I am drawn to Mr. Sharp like smell is drawn to a daffodil.” (that unfortunate comment is the by-product of too much wine, and working too late at night). 

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Early Winter on the Crow Reservation by Joseph Henry Sharp

Sharp wanted to spend his winters at the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana where he could record a culture on canvas that he felt was fading from our national view. It was not uncommon for Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and Blackfeet Indians to visit the Crows, and Sharp wanted to paint all of them.

My preface to “Beat of the Drum” reads, in part:

I journeyed four times to Crow Agency, Montana, where the artist spent the happiest part of his life. I swam the Little Big Horn River, and walked the Custer Battleground as Sharp had done. I saw many of the things that he had seen, and thought many of the thoughts he must have thought. Present reality faded as I saw hundreds of teepees that populated the valley while painted ponies grazed along the river. 

As my knowledge of Sharp expanded, I found a growing parallel in our personal philosophies and interests. We both revered the life the old-time Indian lived, and bemoaned the bureaucratic overcast that suffocated the very spirit of his dead. 

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In 1905, with the blessing of the Indian agent, Sharp built a log cabin on the reservation adjacent to the battleground. Seventy-nine years later, I purchased the cabin for $15,000.

The problem was that an Indian school teacher was living in it, and I certainly wasn’t going to throw her out. We made a deal, she could live in the cabin, rent free, as long as she wanted to if she would notify me when she moved out. I was told it would be vandalized if it stood empty. 

A few months later she called to say she was leaving, and I flew up to look at the cabin I had never seen on the inside.  

In 1926, it had been the headquarters for the 50th reunion of the Custer Fight. A few of the old battle-hardened troopers and Indian warriors who had fought in the fight, signed the guest register in the cabin. That number included General Edward Godfrey, who was with Captain Benteen in the fight and later received the Medal of Honor for his action in the Indian skirmish at Bear Paw Mountain. I was thrilled to own such an important piece of history. 

Soon after, I gifted the cabin to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, 164 miles away.

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I knew it would safely rest there in perpetuity.

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The Cabin Inside the Historical Center

But there were two rules. They had to go pick it up intact, and install it within the museum complex. And if there was anything under the floorboards, it had to stay under the floorboards. I had learned from a Montana old-timer that tradition required the builder to leave some kind of “thank you” token under the floor, a talisman of sorts.

 Sure enough, when the cabin was lifted, there was a claw hammer laying in the dry dirt among a host of spider webs and doodlebug swirls. It was vintage-old, but in good condition. I thought that was pretty well-ordered because an interesting footnote to history had unfolded right there in front of me. 

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Cabin Interior

A few years later, when I was a trustee of the museum, I enjoyed touring the many artifacts in the basement storage areas. 

Well, there on a shelf was the hammer, horribly out of context, forlorn looking, and totally forgotten. To make matters worse, someone had affixed an ugly, sticky label to the hammers handle. I was sure that both the cabin and the hammer felt maltreated. 

I asked the curator to gather up a shovel and the two of us headed to the museum alcove where the cabin was installed. It didn’t take much effort to dig a small tunnel below the footing and slide the hammer in under the floor. 

The curator and I were joking as we walked back to his office. At the next board of trustees meeting he made an announcement about what we did. They all smiled. 

Sometimes you have to just grab a misplaced tradition by the tail and rearrange it back like it’s supposed to be. f 

Author’s notes: 

*There is some reason to believe that the hammer was later retrieved and placed inside the cabin. I don’t know. f

*My treasure chest is not associated with any structure, and it has not been retrieved or moved since I first hid it. f

*The email below confirms my story about the hammer at the Sharp cabin. Maybe it is time for me to give another hint. The Fenn Treasure chest is not hidden at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, or any property owned by them. f

 

10/14/19
Dear Forrest,

I wanted to make you aware that lately several people looking for the Fenn Treasure came by/contacted the Center of the West hoping to gain access to the Joseph Henry Sharp Cabin to view the hammer kept in the crawlspace under the floorboards. One gentleman spoke to several staffers on the phone and then proceeded to misrepresent our conversations in a YouTube video.

I wonder if we can request your help with this and other inquiries by confirming to the public that the treasure is not buried at the Center? And/or, may I make an image of the hammer available to the public, and explain that the hammer resides below the cabin at your request, by verbal agreement?

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Thank you in advance.

Sincerely,

Karen

Karen B. McWhorter
Scarlett Curator of Western American Art Whitney Western Art Museum
centerofthewest.org
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