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Joseph Henry Sharp: “Absarokee Hut”
(1859 – 1953)
The studio-cabin of artist Joseph Henry Sharp resides in its own landscaped garden at the Center of the West. Named by the artist as “Absarokee Hut,” the cabin served as the home and work environment for Sharp during his years on the Crow Indian Reservation of Montana, in the early twentieth century.
“I have built…my ‘hut’ in just this spot because I wanted to paint the winter landscape here as well as the Indians,” Sharp stated, “to paint them day after day and month after month.”
In building the log cabin, Sharp chose to harken back to the form of architecture used by the first white settlers coming into the West. In choosing the log cabin, he selected a type of architecture that had come to symbolize the pioneer spirit and an American identity. Sharp himself designed the home as a one-room log cabin, with a “lean-to” for the bedroom and kitchen.
Sharp had very definite ideas about how the interior of the cabin should look. “From the start we planned our house for comfort and for roominess, yet with the utmost simplicity and always with a view to harmonious effects so far as color and line were concerned.” He wanted a warm cozy atmosphere and decorated with a palette primarily of browns, gray, and green.
The small cabin (about 15 ½ by 24 feet on the interior) was 16 ½ feet high to the ridgepole, allowing height enough for a balcony at one end. Indian blankets and animal hides draped over the railing created privacy, so the balcony could serve as a guest bedroom.
In planning the appointments on the interior, Sharp chose an Arts and Crafts style. In a return to the virtues of earlier ages, the Arts and Crafts movement sought to promote good design and good craftsmanship.
Sharp’s cabin was highlighted in the Craftsman magazine, the leading periodical of the Arts and Crafts movement. The editor and owner of the Craftsman shop, Gustav Stickley, was the movement’s foremost American proponent. What Sharp refrained from telling Stickley in his letters was that most of the furniture in his cabin came from a rival firm, the Roycrofters, founded by Elbert Hubbard. Sharp had helped steer Hubbard around the Crow reservation for a couple of days, and managed to make some good trades—furniture for paintings.
Sharp’s letter to the Craftsman emphasized the collection of Indian artifacts that he used to decorate the cabin, including a buffalo robe, shields, skins, Navajo rugs, pottery, and baskets. Sharp’s Native arts collection correlated with those ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement in America that looked to Native American works as sources of inspiration.
Sharp considered himself the owner of the cabin he and his wife Addie had built, although in reality the land and the cabin were government property. Because of the unique circumstances—building a cabin on government land with government materials and labor—a number of people have presumed that President Theodore Roosevelt had the cabin built especially for Sharp. This was not the case. The whole affair seems to have been a private arrangement between Sharp and Samuel Reynolds, the Indian agent on the Crow Reservation. Thanks to Reynolds, Sharp was able to live and work there rent-free, and not until 1922 was he at last able to buy the property at auction. Reynolds supervised the construction of Sharp’s cabin and made arrangements for acquisition of much of the labor and materials. Sharp and Addie both worked on the cabin, but for the most part, the labor came from the reservation jail.*
Health concerns for both Sharp and Addie led to a gradual separation from the cabin, and they established other residences in Pasadena, California, and in Taos, New Mexico. Absarokee Hut itself remains a tribute to the idealism of the artist.
Except where noted, the text is taken from the book Absarokee Hut: The Joseph Henry Sharp Cabin by Sarah E. Boehme, Ph.D., former curator of the Whitney Western Art Museum.
*Forrest Fenn. The Beat of the Drum and the Whoop of the Dance (Santa Fe: Fenn Publishing Co., 1983.), 171.
The “Absarokee Hut” and its furnishings are the generous gift of Mr. & Mrs. Forrest Fenn.
Restoration of the cabin was funded by donations from Mr. & Mrs. Joseph Sample, Mr. Thomas J. Watson, and IBM Corporation.