Stewart Holbrook is the Pacific Northwest historian that I hate to love. But I can’t hold it inside anymore- I really, really love him. And it’s much more that just just a simple mancrush. I was exposed to a side of his character this weekend that firmly moved our secreted affair into just straight up, unconditional love.
[If you are unclear who Stewart Holbrook is, or maybe need a little refresher, the Oregon Experience program “Portland Noir” does a great job introducing Mr. Holbrook at the 26:53 mark.]
Now Holbrook was an accomplished historian – he wrote piles of popular historical books that were incredibly well received in his era. He worked nationally, but was more or less based out of Portland, Oregon, and his books on our region’s history and culture are engaging and well respected contributions to our canon. He was a contributor to The Oregonian, in addition to other periodicals. Furthermore, in his stories of Portland’s Old Town – famous whores, Erickson’s Saloon and recounting the tales of Shanghai days (editorial note: in which never once did he pen the term “tunnel…”), we find a deep connection with Holbrook. These are the stories we really love to read at Kick Ass Oregon History, for this is one of the aspects of Oregon History that we truly are immersed in – “Portland’s Naughty Bits” as The Resident Historian is want to say. So you see intellectually, we are connected too, but there is a stylistic slant that we appreciate as well. Professing his works as “lowbrow or non-stuffed shirt history,” there is a rustic, unassuming, one might say “accessible” character in Holbrook’s history that we definitely respect at KAORHST.
But he was also… I don’t know how to say it… not a bad historian – but he could have been a better historian. Maybe lazy is the word I am looking for? There are a few specific tales we have found in his record that are just straight up, not true. I’m not saying he made shit up – not at all. But if you’re hanging at Erickson’s Saloon, and you’re buying Spider Johnson drinks and he’s telling you that Bunco Kelly found 24 dead dudes in the basement of the Snug Harbor Saloon and sold them all to the Captain of The Flying Prince, it is your job as a historian to look into the matter and not just print it. But Holbrook didn’t do that – he just ran with this crazy story. And yes, he may have dropped a cursory “I’m not too sure on this…” but he also said the story was all over the news wires – and it’s just wasn’t. If you say “shit was on the wires,” you should really check to see if the shit was on the wires. And now, due to Holbrook’s laziness 80 years ago, this tale has been deeply thrust into Oregon’s heritage, and is now being propagated as “History.”
To sum it up: I have issues with Holbrook’s “History.” I am critical.
But this weekend, I saw a different side of Holbrook’s character. And it has made me step away from my seemily harsh judgement of him. I am fully enamored once again. That butterfly feeling in your stomach when you meet someone cute? It’s all smiles und sunshine, Baby! You see, while Holbrook was churning out these wonderful books and articles, writing anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 words a fucking day, he also found time to create some fantastic paintings, that were very well received, under the pseudonym “Mr. Otis.”
Holbrook supposedly never admitted publicly that he was Mr. Otis, but served as a sort of a spokesman for the recluse painter. One writer his called his style “a bizarre blending of Grandma Moses and Salvador Dali.” The paintings were shown fairly widely in such far off places as New York and New England. Locally, Mr. Otis had showings at Erickson’s Saloon and the Portland Library – but the Portland Art Museum refused to exhibit his work. But that didn’t stop his odd project from gaining recognition – Macmillian published a survey of his works in 1958, with a lengthy introduction by Holbrook (as in NOT by Mr. Otis).
The Portland Museum of Modern Art, located inside Mississippi Records at 5202 N. Albina avenue, has a wonderful temporary collection of works from Mr. Otis. The curator of this gem of a museum, Libby Werbel, has put together an exhibit of original selections on loan from the University of Washington special collections, and the collection of Brian and Gwyneth Booth. The gallery is an intimate, well lit space to enjoy these rarely seen works. In fact, Werbel thinks this is the largest showing of Mr. Otis’s work in the Portland area since his 1964 death. As much of the collection is kept in storage in the archive (and not open to public view) of the University of Washington, this is a very rare opportunity to see these pieces; an opportunity not to be missed!
Now, The Resident Historian is a Public Historian, NOT an Art Historian. Nor am I an art critic. So safe to say, there will not be much interpretation of the art pieces to be found in this missive. None the less, I enjoyed Holbrook’s playful use of color, and his folksy themes. There was much humor to be found in his work, and it seemed obvious that this whole project was very tongue in cheek. As a Pacific Northwest Historian, I very much enjoyed those themes that Holbrook placed into his paintings, such as can be found in The Logger Well- Content and The new Rigging Crew at Dosewallips, Washington. And for us history geeks, of course Holbrook’s, er, uhhh, Mr. Otis’s work has historical figures well represented, like Jesse James was Always Kind to His Horse and James G. Blaine makes several appearances in the gallery.
I was lucky enough to have Werbel take me around the exhibit and discuss some of her favorite pieces, and others that were indicative of Mr. Otis’s style, a school which he named the the Primitive-Moderne. OPB wrote a little on the show, but Werbel noted that The Oregonian hasn’t said much at all. Which is kind of a shame – considering that Holbrook was a frequent contributor to that rag for something like 35 years. This showing is significant for readers of one of the most influential Pacific Northwest historians in the last 80 years, and it should be visited by anyone who has ever enjoyed a Stewart Holbrook yarn.
Soooo…. to sum it up – It’s Free (although I HIGHLY encourage you to make a donation to the museum while there – Werbel is doing a Kick Ass job with that space!). You’re likely to not see an exhibit like this come around to P-Town again for decades. You have until November 24th, 2013. Be sure to check out the Mr. Otis showing!
Sources and Resources:
OPB’s Portland’s Pretend Picasso: Stewart Holbrook’s ‘Mr. Otis’ On Display
University of Washington’s Guide to the Stewart H. Holbrook Mr. Otis Paintings Collection, 1947-1962
Holbrook, Booth (Ed.), Wildmen, Wobblies & Whistle Punks, (OSU Press, Corvallis, 19992).
“Who is Mr. Otis” brochure from Portland Museum of Modern Art.
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