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Revisit the Old West at the Olaf Wieghorst Museum

An old find in El Cajon

A delightful monument to the Dean of Contemporary Western Artists.
A delightful monument to the Dean of Contemporary Western Artists.

As a rule, I drive slowly whenever I’m not on the freeway, slowly enough that it bothers even my patient wife a bit, But I need to drive slowly enough to allow for my persistent scanning of the scene around me — that’s part of the pleasure of driving.

Mostly, what I’m struck by is old stuff: neon, painted signs, historic markers of various kinds, architectural remnants of a neighborhood’s golden years, or pleasantly dilapidated buildings that have their own charm. So, as I drove down El Cajon’s Magnolia Avenue last weekend, I was delighted to spy a wall on a building down Rea Avenue reading “Olaf Wieghorst Museum and Western Heritage Center.” I’d never heard of the Museum, or of Wieghorst, for that matter.

The inviting little complex is made up of a museum, a garden, and Wieghorst’s preserved home, which has been moved to this site from its original location. Wieghorst was, I now know, a legendary, Danish-born painter of Western scenes, cowboy life, and horses — he was particularly wild about horses. He came to America as a young adult and, according to the brochure, “spent years exploring the West during the now-vanished era of endless range, roaming Indians, and vast, unpopulated spaces.” He came to be “recognized as the ‘Dean’ of contemporary Western artists,” and his paintings were hung in three different Presidents’ White Houses. Inside the museum, there are, of course, paintings, as well as some impressive saddles, an intricate miniature wagon, and a television that plays an informational video about the artist. It’s a pleasant, very manageable space, good for a brief visit. Only the friendly docent and two elderly visitors were inside when I arrived.

A little piece of the lost Old West.

But it was while walking outside to the garden abutting Wieghorst’s house that I was struck by the Museum’s poignancy, especially the domestic memento that his home had become. I actualy felt in touch with the lost Old West. Sure, some of the iconography might feel kitschy — the wagon wheels and the dinner bells and the cowboy hats — but that kitsch is now part of what the Old West means, too. And here is a little piece of it, so intimate that you can look into the windows and see what is still inside.

And then, when you look up at what surrounds you, you see that you are dwarfed by various harsh, pale, rectangular behemoths, the icons of the Much Newer West: the Marriott Courtyard, the Police building — building-block buildings, nameless and featureless. Wieghorst said of himself (on the back of the same brochure I’ve been sharing with you), “When the time comes for me to put away my palette and unsaddle my pony for the last time, I hope that my canvases will in some small measure add to the historical recording of an era… the cowpony, the cowboy, and the Great American West.”

He did. The Museum does. That’s where I am in my thoughts, as I keep my focus on this garden and the cacti, and walk out into the sunset with some free succulents, and a sheriff star and some stickers for my kids.

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A delightful monument to the Dean of Contemporary Western Artists.
A delightful monument to the Dean of Contemporary Western Artists.

As a rule, I drive slowly whenever I’m not on the freeway, slowly enough that it bothers even my patient wife a bit, But I need to drive slowly enough to allow for my persistent scanning of the scene around me — that’s part of the pleasure of driving.

Mostly, what I’m struck by is old stuff: neon, painted signs, historic markers of various kinds, architectural remnants of a neighborhood’s golden years, or pleasantly dilapidated buildings that have their own charm. So, as I drove down El Cajon’s Magnolia Avenue last weekend, I was delighted to spy a wall on a building down Rea Avenue reading “Olaf Wieghorst Museum and Western Heritage Center.” I’d never heard of the Museum, or of Wieghorst, for that matter.

The inviting little complex is made up of a museum, a garden, and Wieghorst’s preserved home, which has been moved to this site from its original location. Wieghorst was, I now know, a legendary, Danish-born painter of Western scenes, cowboy life, and horses — he was particularly wild about horses. He came to America as a young adult and, according to the brochure, “spent years exploring the West during the now-vanished era of endless range, roaming Indians, and vast, unpopulated spaces.” He came to be “recognized as the ‘Dean’ of contemporary Western artists,” and his paintings were hung in three different Presidents’ White Houses. Inside the museum, there are, of course, paintings, as well as some impressive saddles, an intricate miniature wagon, and a television that plays an informational video about the artist. It’s a pleasant, very manageable space, good for a brief visit. Only the friendly docent and two elderly visitors were inside when I arrived.

A little piece of the lost Old West.

But it was while walking outside to the garden abutting Wieghorst’s house that I was struck by the Museum’s poignancy, especially the domestic memento that his home had become. I actualy felt in touch with the lost Old West. Sure, some of the iconography might feel kitschy — the wagon wheels and the dinner bells and the cowboy hats — but that kitsch is now part of what the Old West means, too. And here is a little piece of it, so intimate that you can look into the windows and see what is still inside.

And then, when you look up at what surrounds you, you see that you are dwarfed by various harsh, pale, rectangular behemoths, the icons of the Much Newer West: the Marriott Courtyard, the Police building — building-block buildings, nameless and featureless. Wieghorst said of himself (on the back of the same brochure I’ve been sharing with you), “When the time comes for me to put away my palette and unsaddle my pony for the last time, I hope that my canvases will in some small measure add to the historical recording of an era… the cowpony, the cowboy, and the Great American West.”

He did. The Museum does. That’s where I am in my thoughts, as I keep my focus on this garden and the cacti, and walk out into the sunset with some free succulents, and a sheriff star and some stickers for my kids.

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