Cultural Network

Baxter Family Generation 2

The Young Painter

Ruth Gordon was born January 21, 1902, in Lexington, Dawson County, Nebraska, the eldest child to Jerome Emory Gordon and Ida Wilhelmina “Minnie” Anderson.

Ruth demonstrated talent as an artist early on and was encouraged at a young age. She was painting in oils from at least as early as 16 years old, and likely much earlier considering the skill demonstrated in her early works. Two paintings that hung in her living room until she passed away in December 1984 were signed by her and dated 1918. One showed a small Native American encampment along the shore of the Platte River. The second was cattle grazing in a pasture. Both works, she claimed, were painted from life. She was known to go out to the Platte River and paint the landscape, people, and encampments she saw there.

She had always said that her father Jerome had wanted a what he called a sophisticated daughter. He had been paying for her to go to art school and was upset when she quit her training to get married. Where Ruth received her training–and whom she trained under–is unknown, but her grandson Kevin, who she began training as an oil painter when he turned 13 years old, remembers those paintings of hers well, noting-I spent so many hours studying those paintings every summer we visited; I could almost reproduce them from memory.” He recalls her paintings as “very reminiscent of late 19th-century American Landscape Paintings. I can’t help but wonder where she was taught, her instructors’ background, or other art she had been exposed to.

Ruth set painting aside for domestic life, picking it up again many years later. She married Frank A. Baxter in 1919. The 1920 census shows they lived in Lexington, Nebraska for a while in the same household with her parents and Frank worked for her father in the wholesale grocery business. Records then reveal the young couple moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, where Frank found work as a telegraph lineman. They had a son, Charles Baxter, born March 30, 1921, but the young couple divorced in 1923 with Ruth and the baby returning to her parents’ place in Kearney, Nebraska. Ruth remarried on August 27, 1930, to Virgil Hubbard and they lived in Omaha for a few years while Virgil worked as a mechanic. Charles went to school there for some time, but the family settled back in Kearney according to the 1940 US Census.

Virgil was not an artist, but he supported Ruth’s interests and introduced her to traveling, fishing, and skeet shooting, and together they spent a good deal of time in outdoor sports. They were both members of the Kearney Gun Club where Ruth ran the concession counter for a while, and she won many trophies in women’s skeet shooting. Over the years, these influenced what she painted: rural scenes, hunting and fishing, ghost towns they visited, and natural landmarks like Chimney Rock in western Nebraska.

Ruth’s work had a fresh, simple beauty, and she painted the things she loved. Her art told a story of a simple life and reflected life on the plains. She shared many personal accounts with her artist grandson, Kevin Baxter, of places or situations in her life that influenced both her art and later his.

Kevin Baxter wrote-I remember asking her about that painting in her living room of the Native American encampment with tepees she had painted at 16 years old. She relayed that she often saw small encampments like that scene while she was growing up. The Native Americans were still expected to stay on reservations, but reservation life was so poor that many families left and returned to some aspect of the life of their early families living along riverbanks or inland trying to sustain themselves. She said her father Jerome would let them stay on his property. Some merchants wouldn’t sell to them, so her father helped by supplementing their food resources and trading goods they needed in return for occasional farm help. He knew they wanted to be independent, so it was a good arrangement. Later, in my early 20’s, I spent several years as a Western painter trying to accurately portray First Nations tribes of the Central Plains because of my grandparents’ compassion.

There is no evidence Ruth ever showed any of her work publicly. Her paintings are scattered locally and none remain with the family.

Categories: Art, History

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