While cleaning out a garage in Clarion County, Don Keene, who operates a scrap metal business in Sligo, came across a large, old trunk filled with artwork and notebooks spanning the life and artistic development of a woman who called Oil City home.
The art spanned her life from drawings from when she was a teen, to art school studies, illustrations for a children’s book she wrote, various other drawings and studies, as well as studies for a series of paintings commemorating Oil City’s Centennial in 1971, which she was working on at the time of her death in 1969.
There were a number of notebooks, including ones showing the development of her lithograph signature, which incorporated the letters W, B, V, and A for her name: Wealtha Barr Van Ausdall. The lithograph mark also bears a resemblance to a cat, another love of hers.
“A number of professors there (Academy of Fine Arts) were nationally known artists. She may have learned from them or worked alongside them,” Carrow said.
During her time in Philadelphia, her art was characterized by bright colors and influenced by Fauvism, a movement that was cutting edge in the art world of the 1920s and 1930s, according to Carrow.
“She was way ahead of her time with that color scheme,” Carrow said as he looked at a number of Van Ausdall’s sketches in pastels that he pulled from the trunk.
Many sketches from her days in art school, including what could be several self-portraits, were found in the trunk.
Her work was featured in shows in New York City and Chicago alongside a number of artists who went on to become well known, Carrow said.
“I can tell by her art that she got good while she was out there (in Philadelphia),” Carrow said. “She was rubbing elbows with top-notch artists. Back then, women were just breaking into the art scene.”
As Van Ausdall was on the verge of breaking into the art scene and becoming well known, she returned to Oil City to take care of her ailing parents.
During these years, Carrow said, the family fortune was spent.
When her parents died, Van Ausdall moved to a house at the corner of Sixth Street and Central Avenue in Oil City, according to Carrow, where she supported herself by providing art lessons.
He said she had been his neighbor when he was a child growing up on Sixth Street, but he didn’t take lessons from her.
Van Ausdall was also one of the first females in the U.S. to do lithography, which requires using a heavy press and stones to make prints, according to Carrow.
“I remember seeing her working at the lithography press at night,” he recalled.
She was commissioned to make several paintings for the Oil City Centennial in 1971. She made several sketches, also known as studies, for the paintings before her death two years before Oil City’s 100-year celebration. Those sketches were among items found in the trunk.
After her death, the contents of her studio and house were auctioned.
Carrow recalled during his childhood he saw the crowd gathered for the auction and he then went there. He said Van Ausdall had little in the way of furniture in the house and slept on a cot.
“It’s really sad what happened to her,” Carrow said. “All these people didn’t buy from her while she was alive, but once she died they split up her artwork and profited from it.”
Keene said he would like to keep the collection of Van Ausdall’s work together and would like to see it end up in Venango County.