Online Artist Archive
b. March 7, 1878, d. March 6, 1955
Discipline: Metal, Painting
Einar Olstad was born in Lillehammer, Norway in 1878. A year later, he emigrated with his family to the United States. They settled in Sioux Falls in the southern Dakota Territory, where Olstad’s father established a blacksmith shop.
Olstad took up painting early in his teen years and used dogs and cats as his subjects. He sold copper, lead, and rags to buy his paints although he often had only four colors to work with.
He gave up on painting in 1898, when his father became too ill to work and Olstad had to run the shop. When his father died the next year, Olstad became responsible for his mother and siblings. He burned his brushes, which may indicate that his desire to paint was strong and could potentially distract him from his responsibilities.
In 1911, he married Bessie Johnson. To prevent hearing damage from the noise of blacksmithing, Olstad and his wife moved to the town of Marmarth in southwestern North Dakota. Soon after, they purchased a ranch on Carner Creek between Medora and Sentinel Butte.
Ranch life took up most of Olstad’s spare time and he was not able to paint again until 1935, when the Great Depression combined with massive drought to halt ranching in the region. Painting may not have even been on his mind until a package of brushes and paints arrived from his sister Olga and niece Beatrice. They were accompanied with a note that read: “You always enjoyed painting when you were a boy. Why don’t you try it again?”
So he did. He painted many scenes familiar to life in rural western North Dakota: buttes, cattle drives, dust storms, scenes of drought, and vast empty spaces with isolated ranchers, cattle, and grazing sheep. Additionally, he made many paintings of oceans, sunsets, still-lifes, street scenes, portraits of local settlers and American Indians, scenes of people working or socializing, and a number of religious paintings depicting Jesus Christ, among many other subjects.
As a former blacksmith, Olstad also produced several iron sculptures and other pieces of artistic metal work. By 1937, he had some renown as an artist and was hired by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA was a federal New Deal program designed to alleviate unemployment during the Great Depression. They, through the State Historical Society, hired Olstad to forge sculptures of a rearing horse and a rider to decorate the entrances of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which was then in development.
Self-taught up to this point, he decided that he needed some formal art training. In the spring of 1940, Olstad and his wife temporarily moved to Milwaukee so he could study (at the age of 62) for a term at the Layton School of Art. They would do this again in 1947.
Upon returning from Milwaukee the first time, Olstad’s work saw increasing exposure. Some of his work was on display at the 1939/1940 New York World's Fair. In 1942, forty of his paintings – out of the 200-plus produced by that time – were exhibited at the St. Charles Hotel in Dickinson. In 1949, in conjunction with the dedication of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, twenty-one of his canvasses and painted plates were displayed in the Congregational Church in Medora. In 1950, he had another major exhibit at the World War Two Memorial Building in Bismarck. 1952 saw two major displays: one sponsored by the Nature and History Association in Medora, the other by the Institute for Regional Studies at North Dakota State University. Additionally, articles about him and his work have appeared in Picture Roto Magazine (published by the Minneapolis Tribune) and National Geographic.
In 1951, he received the Citation Award, which added his name to the Honor Roll of the American Artists Professional League.
In 1953, he forged the brand-style letters for the east entrance to the park. Eventually, it was mandated that this style of lettering be used on all of the park’s informational signs.
When Olstad died one day shy of his seventy-seventh birthday in 1955, he left behind no unfinished paintings. He was interned at Sentinel Butte Cemetery and was survived by his wife, son Harmon, brothers Olaf and Harold, and sisters Anna Olstad and Maggie Bragstad.
Most of his work is now part of the permanent collection of the State Historical Society.
- Ben Nemenoff
Barr, Paul E. North Dakota Artists. Grand Forks: University of North Dakota Library, 1954.
“Einar and Bessie Olstad.” Golden ValleyCounty Pioneers. Sentinel Butte, North Dakota: Sentinel Butte Bicentennial Committee, 1976.
“Final Rites Held for Artist Olstad.” Beach, North Dakota: The Golden Valley Pioneer, March 17, 1955.
“Medora Artist Tells Story of His Life and Early Career.” Medora, North Dakota: BillingsCountyPioneer, No. 33, January 21, 1943.
“Rancher Artist: Einar Olstad Paints North Dakota People, Scenes.” Picture Roto Magazine. Minneapolis: Minneapolis Tribune, April 19, 1953.
“Rancher, Blacksmith, Artist Einar Olstad Paints Old West Scenes.” National Geographic, Vol. 10, September 1951.
Rolfsrud, Erling Nicolai. Extraordinary North Dakotans. Alexandria, Minnesota: Lantern Books, 1954.
Taylor, Edwin Mrs. Catalogue of Art Workers Within North Dakota. Bismarck: American Association of University Women (local branch), 1945.
State Historical Society of North Dakota