Olds, Elizabeth (1896–1991)

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Olds, Elizabeth (1896–1991)

American artist, known for her Depression-era lithographs and silk-screen prints. Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in December 1896; died on March 4, 1991; studied at the Minneapolis School of Art (1918–20), and the Art Students League, in New York (1920–23); never married; no children.

Born in 1896 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Elizabeth Olds attended that city's School of Art and then won a scholarship to New York's Art Students League, where she studied under George Luks of the Ash Can School. She often accompanied Luks on sketching expeditions into the poor neighborhoods of New York, and was strongly influenced by his grim renderings. After three years of training, Olds embarked on a journey to discover her own form of expression, a quest that first took her to Paris. In 1926, she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to study painting in Europe, the first woman to receive that prestigious award.

Finally convinced that her path lay in her American roots, Olds returned to the United States in 1929, at the onset of the Depression. She settled in Omaha, Nebraska, where she began producing the socially conscious works for which she would become known. Her early "Stockyard Series" of lithographs, depicting the workers and the grim activities of the city's stockyards, won critical acclaim and a silver medal from the Kansas City Art Institute. Art critic Emily Genauer commented on the abstract quality in these early works. "She attacks [the slaughterhouse scenes] as problems in design, seeking to achieve something of the violence and grossness and at the same time, matter-of-factness of the whole procedure through sheer pattern carried out in black and white."

In 1935, Olds returned to New York, where she went to work for the graphics division of the Federal Art Project. She continued to create lithographs extolling laborers. Her work 1939 A.D., in which capitalists are being driven from the Stock Exchange by a group of workers, sent a strong political message, as did Scrap Steel (1935–39), in which the workers toiling to erect a building are dwarfed by enormous cast-off shapes that dominate the foreground of the print. In 1937, Olds had her first of many solo exhibitions at the American Contemporary Artists Gallery in New York. It was comprised of her drawings of life in the steel mills, which later became a series of lithographs.

Olds believed deeply that art belonged to the people, and she wanted to produce her prints and silk screens in large quantities to reach the widest possible audience. In 1938, she became a founding member of the Silk Screen Unit of the Federal Art Project, a group of artists who helped transform the silk-screen process so that it could produce large editions to be sold at reasonable prices. Like many artists of the day, Olds created political illustration for the left-wing magazine The New Masses, and beginning in 1940, she became a frequent contributor to The New Republic and Fortune magazines. She

also wrote and illustrated six children's books, three of which were chosen as Literary Guild selections. Olds died in 1991, at age 95.


Bailey, Brooke. The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Artists. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1994.

Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Artists. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1982.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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