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Carl Oscar Borg: Artist of the Southwest

Carl Oscar Borg

Carl Oscar Borg

Founding member of the California Art Club

by Jeffrey Morseburg

Even though he was born in far-away Sweden, the artist Carl Oscar Borg (1879-1947)  became a son of the southwest. For fifteen years, he left his California studio to paint the Navajo and Hopi Indians and the stunning Arizona and New Mexico landscape that they inhabited.

Because of the regularity of his visits and the deep respect the Indians had for him, the Hopi gave him the name, Hasten-na-va ha-sa, or ‘The Man Who Comes in Spring.’ Borg  essentially saw himself as an artistic ethnographer, for he sought to document the tribal customs and spiritual lives of the people he described as ‘the real Americans.’

He was a strong, vibrant painter who had no formal artistic education, but the time he spent painting with William Wendt had a lasting influence on his work. He was a versatile craftsman, working in gouache, watercolor, and oil. Borg was one of the leaders of the California printmaking movement and became known for his drypoints, woodblock prints, and monotypes. In 1909 he was one of the founding members of the California Art Club, which grew out of the ashes of the Painter’s Club.

Carl Oscar Borg was born in 1879 in the rural faming community of Grinstad,  Sweden, where he learned the Scandanavian work ethic firsthand. In later years he said that it was an equestrian print of the King that hung in the family home that inspired his first artistic efforts. At  fifteen, he received his first training as an artisan when he was apprenticed to a painter who executed the decorative designs found in traditional Swedish homes.

Yearning for a fuller life, and at heart a wanderer, Borg left home at twenty, moving to Stockholm, where he found work as a ship painter, and through that work he sailed to France and then to England. Arriving in London without any knowledge of English and having been robbed of all his belongings, he was forced to live on the streets until he learned enough English to find work as a scenic painter in the theatre district. In 1901 he used his artistic skills to decorate a Norwegian sea captain’s cabin in exchange for passage to the United States.

For two years Borg lived a life of an itinerant artist, decorating houses and painting pictures from the deep South to Toronto, Canada. In 1903 he signed on a ship with a prophetic name- the S.S. Arizonan- and sailed for California. Earning his way as an able-bodied seaman, he arrived in Santa Monica at the end of September and few days later jumped ship in San Francisco. The adventurous young man walked back to Los Angeles, where he found work decorating buildings and doing odd jobs. Borg became partner in a photography and sign and began meeting the small group of painters who were active in the Los Angeles art scene. He started exhibiting his own easel paintings in 1905 and the following year met Charles Lummis, founder of the Southwest Museum. Borg became lifelong friends with Lummis and his wife Eva and the editor and scholar’s interest in the Southwest rubbed off on the young Swede.

Eva introduced Borg to William Wendt, Mary Gibson, and Phoebe Apperson Hearst- all of whom would play important roles in his career. He accompanied Wendt on sketching trips, which helped the young Swedish painter improve his work and find his artistic voice. Gibson, a leader of the influential Friday Morning Club, took him on a trip to Honduras and encouraged fellow collectors to buy his pictures. Hearst became an enthusiastic patron and sponsored Borg’s trips to Europe and North Africa, and after his return to California, his first trips to the Southwest.

Borg’s initial foray to the Southwest was through the University of California and the United States Bureau of Ethnology. Through paintings and photographs, the institutions wanted to document the vanishing life of the Southwest Indians. Borg exhibited his first Southwestern paintings in San Francisco in 1917, and from that point on, Indian subjects was paramount. His dedication and respectful attitude toward the Indians resulted in his adoption into the Hopi Snake Clan, allowing him access to sacred ceremonies never witnessed by outsiders.

In 1918 Borg married and settled in Santa Barbara, where he taught painting until he moved back to Los Angeles in 1925. He worked in the motion picture industry but continued to return to the Southwest each spring. When the Great Depression hit, the art market evaporated and his wife left him. Despite some success as a printmaker, the restless artist made a number of trips home to Sweden, where he remarried and settled for a time in Gothenberg. Back in Sweden, Borg was honored for his artistic contribution and donated his large collection of Southwestern Indian artifacts to the National Ethnological Museum along with a collection of his watercolors and etchings. Trapped in neutral Sweden by the outbreak of World War II, Borg longed for California. He was finally able to return to his beloved Santa Barbara after the war, where he died in 1947.  Copyright 2001-2011, Jeffrey Morseburg, not to be reproduced without specific written permission of the author.

Storm Over the Grand Canyon by Carl Oscar Borg

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