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Einar Olstad, Artist


Today is the birthday of Einar Olstad, who was born in Lillehammer, Norway, in 1878. He was just a year old when his parents, Hans and Ida, immigrated to America. They settled in Sioux Falls, Dakota Territory, where Hans ran a blacksmith shop.

When Einar was about 14, his uncle took him through the National Art Gallery back in Norway, and when he came back home, he started painting. To get money to buy supplies, Einar sold rags, scrap copper, and lead. Then, in 1899, Hans became ill and died, leaving 19 year-old Einar to support his mom and six brothers and sisters. Einar took over his father’s blacksmith trade and ended up burning his brushes to overcome the temptation to paint instead of work.

As a blacksmith, Einar used his talents to design and forge ornamental pieces, but after 20 years, the clanging of hammer on iron started to affect his hearing. So, he and Bessie, his wife of seven years, and their son, Harmon, moved to Marmarth and bought a ranch on Garner Creek, between Medora and Sentinel Butte.

Olstad was in his 50s, now, and the dust storms of the great depression were upon them. One day, Einar’s sister, Olga and her daughter, Beatrice, sent Olstad a package. Inside were brushes and paints, and a note that read, “You always enjoyed painting when you were a boy. Why don’t you try it again?”

Olstad later said, “There was no sense in trying to ranch during the drought. You forget your troubles when you paint. There’s something about working with colors that takes you right out of yourself.”

Einar’s oil paintings mostly reflected the things he had grown to love: the Badlands, cowboys, cattle drives, flocks of sheep and people socializing. Then, in 1937, he was abruptly returned to his blacksmithing when he was hired through the WPA to create a wrought iron silhouette of a rearing horse and rider for the entrance to the south unit of the Badlands.

The National Park Service had hired landscape architect Weldon Gratton to come up with the design, which was to attach to sandstone. Gratton designed the silhouette to be flat, but Olstad talked him into letting him pound it into a raised relief format that would make it more realistic.

The project was successful, and later, Olstad and several other blacksmiths made two more horses for the entrance to the Park’s north unit.

Einar moved into his most creative period when he entered his 60s. In 1940, he traveled to Milwaukee, where he spent two months studying the art of painting murals at the Layton School of Art. Two years later, he went back for another 2-month stint, saying, “Honest criticism certainly helps; the ravings of friends don’t help a bit.”

Olstad was 64 before he had his first solo exhibit, which was at the St. Charles Hotel in Dickinson. But many shows and honors were yet to come. He was awarded an American Artists Professional League Citation, had a show of his work at the New York World’s Fair, and in September 1951, was one of two artists featured in a National Geographic story titled, “North Dakota Comes Into Its Own.”

Einar Olstad signed his paintings with a cowboy hat in a ring with the initials E.O. He died at his Sentinel Butte ranch one day short of his 77th birthday, on March 6, 1955.

Written by Merry Helm