In Olive Rush’s garden
“One lovely thing about a garden is the way one’s friends enjoy it. And they shout with joy at this season of the year ... at the fragrance and color not of flowers but of fruit,” wrote painter Olive Rush in 1943, describing the remarkable environs of her house and studio at 630 Canyon Road, which she bequeathed to the Society of Friends. Rush (1893-1966) is called “the dean of Santa Fe women artists” by Jann Haynes Gilmore in her book, Olive Rush: Finding Her Place in the Santa Fe Art Colony (Museum of New Mexico Press). A muralist, illustrator, and influential pioneer in Native American art education, Rush forged a lasting legacy in New Mexico through her spare modernist sensibility and progressive themes. On the cover is her circa-1945 painting Picking Fruit in Garden, mixed media, photo James Hart, courtesy Museum of New Mexico Press.
The persona was placed on Olive Rush as a retiring, demure Quaker spinster . ... But in her own Quaker and gentle way, she was a fireball. — Jann Haynes Gilmore
ake a look in here,” historian David Giltrow said excitedly, swinging open the door to a cupboard cleverly built into a plastered living room wall. We stood in the Friends Meetinghouse at 630 Canyon Road, formerly the studio of Quaker painter Olive Rush, who died half a century ago. Inside the cupboard sat an array of carefully labeled vintage cans and jars (Granger Tobacco, MJB Coffee, Pond’s Cold Cream) filled with the brightly colored powdered pigments Rush used for her works. Giltrow speculated that while Rush didn’t smoke pipe tobacco, one of her dear friends in the Santa Fe art colony did — artist Gustave Baumann.
Rush — who was both the first independent woman artist to make a home for herself in Santa Fe’s early-20th-century art colony and one of the last survivors of that era — left scores of these historically significant traces around her house and studio, which are open to visitors on Sundays starting at 12:15 p.m. (after worship meetings). The Rush residence represents “one of the remaining authentic, basically unchanged artist studios in the country, and remarkably in the West, in the very heart of Santa Fe, on what Baumann called ‘the road where every artist traveled,’ ” according to art historian and author Dr. Jann Haynes Gilmore. Gilmore’s book Olive Rush: Finding her Place in the Santa Fe Art Colony was published in October by Museum of New Mexico Press.
When Rush settled in the house on Canyon Road, she was already a successful commercial illustrator. Born in 1873 in Fairmount, Indiana, she studied at Earlham College, a Quaker school, before moving to Washington, D.C., to attend the Corcoran School of Art. At the Art Students League in New York City, where she took classes on and off for a decade, she began her career in illustration, working for and the Her next academic venture, at illustrator Howard Pyle’s school in Wilmington, Delaware, put her in the company of fellow student N.C. Wyeth and advanced her career significantly; she began contributing to national publications like Scribner’s, Good Housekeeping, McClure’s, and Woman’s Home Companion. Her success allowed her to travel extensively in Europe, and in 1914, she made a trip to the Southwest, stopping in Santa Fe with her sister Myra and mounting a show of her work at the Palace of the Governors. Of the show, which included several new paintings inspired by Southwestern themes, the Albuquerque
Morning Journal wrote, “The pictures are so beautiful, so heart enchanting, that it is a wonder why Miss Rush’s fame as an illustrator has traveled so much farther than her genius as a painter of children, Madonnas, Indians and southwestern landscapes.”
Rush’s affinity for Santa Fe stayed with her, and in 1920, she returned to live and paint, buying a century-old adobe homestead that had been owned by the Sena and Rodriguez family for generations. The property stretched from Canyon Road to the Acequía Madre and had mud-plastered outdoor walls, on which Rush set to work painting at least three frescoes. “She moved to Santa Fe so she could paint on the ‘pink mud walls,’ ” Gilmore said. “She had become very interested in fresco, true fresco — painting on wet plaster,” and adapted the Italian painting technique to the Southwestern climate. One of those frescoes, The Water-bearers, is quite visible today, facing north at the entrance to the property, the Society of Friends having carefully covered it with Plexiglas to preserve it from the elements.
Rush joined a coterie of burgeoning and established artists in the city. Her milieu included painters Gerald Cassidy and Sheldon Parsons; artist William Penhallow Henderson and his wife, poet Alice Corbin Henderson; and artists Randall Davey and John Sloan. Writer Mary Austin lived nearby, along with poet Witter Bynner, Baumann, and the socialite sisters Elizabeth and Martha White. The intellectual and artistic stimulation of this company fueled Rush’s inspiration, as did her frequent exploratory trips to pueblos for dances and celebrations. She had an active social life, often giving lively garden parties wherein she hosted locals and visitors from the East alike. (In a reminiscence published in The New Mexican, Baumann admitted to having spiked the punch during at least one of these gatherings, unbeknownst to Rush.) She wrote to a friend of her 1924 Thanksgiving activities, “We had a turkey and a part of
half dozen or so of my artist and poet friends . ... That over, someone invited us to join an auto party to Zuni, to the Shalako dance, the ancient house blessing ceremonial of the Zuni Indians.” Of her oil painting Girl
on a Turquoise Horse, which was bought by future First Lady Mrs. Herbert (Lou) Hoover in 1924 and based on a Navajo legend, she wrote, “The other artists like it, and I have had a good time doing it. It is a picture I have carried in my mind since we drove to Zuni last winter when we saw so many Navajos. Am aching to do a number of others. But next must do a fresco on my studio mantel and chimney and get the house in some sort of decent condition . ... ”
The artist’s house received a good bit of media attention. An article for the Indianapolis Sunday Star about Rush’s idyllic property, illustrated with photographs of the frescoes she had painted on the vigas and fireplace, detailed “the two-foot-thick walls, the deeply recessed windows, the doors opening from the portal from the studio, and the placita where Olive grew hollyhocks, zinnias, and asters in the summer,” as Gilmore writes. Her prowess in the decorative arts led to commissions, including at Mary Cabot Wheelwright’s Los Luceros ranch in Alcalde, where Rush painted frescoes in 1927.
Between jobs, she continued her own explorations in oil and watercolors, frequently inspired by the Pueblo Indian customs she observed. Tenacious and ambitious in expanding her reach and experimenting with new styles, she was ever mindful of the Quaker inner spirit she trusted as her compass. In a 1926 letter, she detailed this vision to a friend: “Forget everything — reject everything we have ever been taught or heard or seen and work as though this were the first day on earth and our eyes new opened to the world. Let the spirit guide — all the time — for every move of the brush and every thought that we follow out.” Rush’s steadily improving and increasingly striking body of work demonstrated this philosophy in action. At the time of her 1927 alcove show at the Art Gallery of the Museum of New Mexico,
El Palacio had taken notice, writing, “It is apparent that she has taken a foremost place among America’s women painters. It is a far cry from the covers she used to do for the American Magazine and other publications years ago. She has turned her face entirely to the modern, not in its extremes but in its more rational aspects.”
Rush dabbled so broadly in different styles and mediums — and so excelled in seemingly every one she tried — that it can be tough to pinpoint a signature mode in reviewing her body of work. But her most identifiable hallmarks emerged after she moved to Santa Fe, when her works began to be characterized by soft figuration, gently sloping forms, and a spare, increasingly modernist sensibility.
In the early 1930s, Rush began teaching mural and wall decoration at the Santa Fe Indian School, hired by a Quaker superintendent who had admired her paintings on the walls of the New Mexico Room at La Fonda, which are now lost to history. Among her students were the notable artists Pablita Velarde and Pop Chalee. In 1933, she brought Indian School students’ paintings to the Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago, where the art panels were displayed as part of the social sciences exhibitions. According to Gilmore, her advocacy of Native American artists is a lasting part of her legacy: “So many others get the credit, like Dorothy Dunn, but she was working side by side with Dunn and took this work to a national audience and gave these artists springboards for their careers. … She taught students not just to paint on walls, but to paint on canvas so that it could be rolled up and shipped. She really had another motive — getting it out there, teaching them that they could be independent.”
Rush herself did her most visible and prolific murals in the 1930s, well past her middle age. Under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Project Administration (WPA) Public Works of Art Project, she was invited to paint murals in the Santa Fe Public Library — now the Fray Angélico Chávez History Library at 120 Washington Ave. The murals are viewable today by appointment only. Her lightly colored frescoes span the entrance wall of the doorway, showing the myriad ways in which books reached the people of New Mexico in the ’30s, including scenes of people reading on a ranch, at a mining village, and in country schools. One WPA commission led to another, as she undertook works in Colorado and elsewhere in New Mexico, concentrating on themes of social realism and progress. In 1936, she completed her most complex New Deal murals on the biology building entrance at the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in Las Cruces. Three years later, she invited Native painters Awa Tsireh, Narciso Abeyta, Harrison Begay, Chalee, and Velarde to help her paint murals at the John Gaw Meem-designed Maisel’s Indian Trading Post on Central Avenue in Albuquerque. Often painting in heels, “she literally was on scaffolding for ten years,” Gilmore said, citing one critic’s observation that at the end of the New Deal era, Rush “stepped down to her age.”
Still, she continued to paint well into her dotage, settling into her status as “the dean of Santa Fe women artists,” as Gilmore calls her. “Olive Rush was the gatekeeper,” Gilmore said. “She was right there on Canyon Road. An enormous number of very important and secondary contributors to society stepped through her gates, and [the house] is really a remarkable record of the first half of the 20th century.” Though Rush was a well-known artist in her time, she has largely been forgotten by art historians, something Gilmore partially blames on “poor branding. She allowed herself to be photographed in her maternal grandmother’s Quaker clothing around 1918, and for decades she used that photograph for publicity purposes. That set the stage for the persona that was placed on her as a retiring, demure Quaker spinster. … But in her own Quaker and gentle way, she was a fireball.”
Today, Rush’s house and studio are a prime example of an artist fully integrating her life and her work. Her fading hand-painted flourishes decorate most available surfaces: fireplaces, cupboards, counters, walls, vigas, and closets. On a fall afternoon, a spot on a garden bench under the bountiful crabapple tree yields a splendid view of flowering pink cosmos. Here, it is evident that Rush paid close attention to the idea, as she once wrote, “of giving something to the world that will lift hearts to a cloister — a retreat of the spirit.”
“Olive Rush: Finding Her Place in the Santa Fe Art Colony” by Jann Haynes Gilmore is published by Museum of New Mexico Press.
Clockwise from top, detail from Rush’s fresco in then-Santa Fe Public Library, 1934, courtesy Hannah Abelbeck/Palace of the Governors Photo Archives; wall decorations for New Mexico Room, La Fonda, 1929, courtesy Smithsonian Institution; Rush painting fresco at New Mexico State University, 1936, photo Ina Sizer Cassidy, courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), Neg. No. 091578