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Stewart Holbrook and Bernard DeVoto
"More than a year afterward a government scaler ran across the stump the actors had left. He broke down and cried."

Early in his career, Holbrook submitted his artwork to various lumber trade publications
(Courtesy of Brian Booth)

So in 1949 it was to be expected that, when an unusual painting signed "Mr. Holbrook-Otis" appeared on the office wall of Florence Millsaps at the Oregon Journal, the colorful work did not go unnoticed. Ms. Millsaps, who also edited the Portland Press Club newsletter, said the painting was a gift from Holbrook and Roderick Lull, both regulars at the Press Club. Lull eventually wrote an article about the painting and attributed it to one Pierre Mord Vandervaart, an impoverished artist with a formidable attraction to the bottle, who lived in the club during hard times in the depression.

Before long other distinctive paintings, now bearing the signature "Mr. Otis" and resembling a sort of bizarre blending of Grandma Moses with Salvador Dali, began to appear in Portland homes. The Oregon Journal said that "nothing within recent memory has struck Portland art lovers -- connoisseur and layman alike -- with quite the force of a brush and a palette knife wielded by ... Mr. Otis." Noting parallels between Otis and Holbrook and observing that Holbrook's attic was full of original Otises, the reporter asked if Holbrook and Otis were the same person or whether the artist was merely the alter ego of the author. Holbrook responded that he did not know what an alter ego was.

Gradually Holbrook disclosed more information about his relationship with the reclusive artist, who he first met in "the long grim winter of 1933-34," when Otis was given a free bed in the Press Club. He described Mr. Otis as a "frail, weak-eyed figure of shabby gentility," and said there was "no whit of Left Bank dash to [him] ... he wore neither a beret nor a beard ... [and] he commonly worked in vests and shirt sleeves, not even removing the high celluloid collar and ready-tied cravat he invariably wore." Otis lived on sardines and crackers, which he acquired by bartering his works, and he painted in his bedroom, which "was at best a dusky place." Holbrook said Otis was as used to twilight as a barn owl, which accounted for his bright colors. Otis told Holbrook that he was content "so long as he had a tube of coach vermilion, another of manganese violet, and a third of lemon yellow."

Fame or even recognition did not come to Mr. Otis until the late 1940s when Holbrook and his wife Sibyl allowed Otis to use the third floor of their large colonial home in Northwest Portland as a studio. With the greater visibility this provided, Otis works were acquired by some of the region's leading art collectors and patrons, as well as by other artists and literary figures throughout the country. Otis even painted a mural in the Holbrook home. Reportedly, his only other mural, Still Life: City Editor and Bowl of Cherries, in the bar of the new Press Club, led to a 15 percent decline in business at that end of the bar, while sales at the other end increased by 25 percent.

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