Renowned portrait artist (1878-1960), Frank Ashford grew up in the Stratford area, settled in downtown Aberdeen, and left a legacy of artwork waiting to be rediscovered.
Back in 2017, the Alexander Mitchell Public Library was moved into the brand new K.O. Lee Aberdeen Public Library. I was a board member at the time (still am, actually), and took interest in the library’s collection of original oil paintings by the late Aberdeen artist Frank Clifford Ashford. The new library included space for the collection to be permanently displayed.
In our January/February 2018 issue of Aberdeen Magazine, I wrote my first piece about Ashford and the Aberdeen collection. The Dacotah Prairie Museum has a small collection of paintings as well; however, they are typically not on display. They also have Ashford’s paint palette and other studio equipment from his apartment. I mention in that story that Frank Ashford has skirted Google search results for the most part, making modern-day researching about him a bit tricky. There were a few mentions of his paintings that sold at auction in recent years, and each auction house used the same regurgitated bio of Ashford. That told me that no one has taken the time to actually “put” Frank Ashford on the internet. Not even ten paintings showed up in image searches. Ten. That’s a shockingly low number considering the man painted continuously from 1904 to 1960. So, after my article, I convinced my team at McQuillen Creative Group to make me a basic website where I could digitally “store” all the paintings I find by Ashford. At this point, I have collected nearly 80 paintings.
I keep saying “I” in this story, but I have had help over the years. I’ve met Corey Schuh, who is a serious regional historian and desires to bring back home as many Ashfords as we can obtain. He and I believed that we would contact painting owners and relieve them of their paintings for a nominal fee. We held this sentiment because Ashford wasn’t well known, and had no current-day notoriety, thus people would not want their paintings. We were completely wrong. We have not found anyone willing to part with their paintings. Our goal was to add paintings to the collections at the library or museum so they would be preserved and displayed perpetually (we still have that goal). So far, we’re batting zero.
In the fall of 2021, South Dakota Magazine got wind of me snooping around the Human Services Center in Yankton. In the early 1920s Ashford was commissioned to paint 11 paintings for the Dakota Hospital for the Insane in Yankton (now the HSC) to help create a more calming environment for the patients. By 1990 there were five left. When I got there in 2021, there were only three. Writer John Andrews from South Dakota Magazine chatted with me about our research then wrote an extensive story about Ashford and our quest. However, none of our efforts would be possible if it weren’t for the previous research work done by the late Francis “Peg” Lamont. Andrews describes Lamont’s Ashford quest in great detail in his article, all based on a paper Lamont presented at Augustana College in the early 1990s. The paper is a literal treasure map of Ashford’s paintings. However, there are very few Xs marking the spots. Lamont passed away several years ago and I’ve been in communication with the Lamont family to try to obtain her research material and photos. I did receive probate material from a law firm that handled his affairs upon his death. There were photos of some paintings we had not seen before in the files, and we found many notes that Peg referenced in her paper (she did all her research way before the internet).
Ashford claimed to paint in the Impressionistic style. This style is characterized by distinct brush strokes that trick they eye into seeing the composition from a distance. Up close, Impressionist paintings often look like a mess of brush strokes and colors. Often shapes and forms were “indicated” rather than painted with precision. The faces of Ashford’s sitters are frequently done with a myriad of overlapping colors. He would not have had a “Flesh” paint color on his palette. This is a closeup of Lewis Crill, a former Secretary of Agriculture for South Dakota, painted by Ashford.
So what’s the big deal about Frank Clifford Ashford? Why is he popping up in our history from time to time? I guess communities (and states) love their heroes. Frank was a world-renowned portrait painter, and Aberdeen is right to claim him as an artistic master who lived here, worked here, and died here. Sure he was from a farm near Stratford; sure he studied all over the US and Paris; sure he painted President Coolidge and First Lady Grace; sure he commanded $1,000 per portrait in the 20s and 30s; but he always came back to Aberdeen. He had a studio in the Citizens Building, but ultimately settled down in the Boyd Apartments (the former Malchow Building at 5th and Main). He died of a heart attack in 1960 in his apartment/studio. He was 82. His apartment was full of art, including one on his easel still being worked on. All of these paintings were auctioned off, giving family first priority. All remaining pieces were purchased by the lawyers and donated to the library, museum, and YWCA.
Ashford had married for a short time. He had no children but did have siblings. Those siblings went on to have extensive families, and it seems everyone has at least one painting by “Uncle Frank.” Upon his passing, Ashford had no one in the region to carry on his legacy. All his relatives had moved to Oregon. So, Aberdeen sort of forgot about him. That said, the staff at both the library and museum are proud of their Ashford collections and his Aberdeen connection. Anyone who ever took a tour of the museum would have seen the Ashford portrait of Frank Hatterscheidt, the Aberdeen businessman who hunted all the animals mounted at the museum, hanging near the elephant.
In the last few years, Corey and I have gotten rather bold with our research efforts. We use newspaper archives (Frank was in the papers a lot), then a people-finder website to track down descendants of people who owned the paintings. These efforts have resulted in some great images of Ashford’s “lost” work. Technically his work is not lost. Much of it is safely hanging in people’s homes or tucked away in museums. I believe museums across the country that possess Ashfords are hesitant to display them because they have no provenance for the paintings. They don’t know who Frank Clifford Ashford was. Beyond the “Ashford” at the bottom of many of his paintings, no one knows anything more. So instead of rehashing his life story here (see the previous articles), we thought it would be interesting to share some specific paintings and how we came to find them. Corey and I maintain a Google Doc of every painting we’ve read about. We have nearly two hundred listed.
See all our found paintings at FrankAshford.com. You can visit the K.O. Lee Aberdeen Public Library and see many Ashford paintings in the Archive room. The portrait gallery at South Dakota’s state capitol includes many portraits of government officials painted by Ashford as well. //