Medford historian Ben Truwe was poring over newspaper microfilm when an old photograph caught his eye.
"I spend an awful lot of time going through microfilm," he said. "I don't recall what led me to 1959, but the Mail Tribune, in the good old days, always had a big photo feature.
"This feature was about family treasures," he said of the March 1 issue. "One of the pictures was of the Colvig papers I was looking for. But another was of the Ulrich family treasures, which included a Dorland Robinson painting. That told me there were more paintings out there."
The history sleuth, who gave a presentation Saturday night in Portland on the story of Jacksonville native Vance "Pinto" Colvig, alias Bozo the Clown, knew finding a painting by renowned impressionist artist Regina Dorland Robinson was significant.
However, he wasn't able to contact descendants of the pioneer Ulrich family to find out what happened to the paintings. The artist took her life in 1917 at age 25.
"But the history god smiled a couple of months later," he said. "Sharon Hawley came into the Southern Oregon Historical Society (Medford headquarters) to look for information on her Ulrich ancestors. I happened to be there doing some research at the time. Bells went off in my head."
That's when he told Hawley-Crum, who is retired from a career in education, about the art treasures her family likely had.
Sure enough, Hawley-Crum of Escalon, Calif., knew her distant cousins had four works believed to have been painted by Robinson. Three of them are signed, while the fourth, a landscape, is not.
"My great-grandmother Lillie Ulrich and her husband had the Dorland paintings in their home when they lived in Medford," Hawley-Crum told the Mail Tribune, noting her great-great-grandparents had lived in Jacksonville. The paintings included the landscape, a picture of roses and still lifes of a double-handled pitcher and a copper jug.
"The paintings are very beautiful," she said. "I especially like the one of the roses that were kind of faded."
The paintings brought her together for the first time with her distant cousins, sisters Susan McGrath and Catherine Carle, who now own the paintings.
"When you enter the house, the first thing you will see is Dorland's still life of a copper pot, glass bowl and candlestick with satin draping," said McGrath, 67, of her home in Napa, Calif.
"It is very special to me," added the landscape designer who also has the Robinson roses painting. "I've always had a real strong connection to Jacksonville, Medford, Ashland, the Applegate. As a child, going to visit my grandmother's house on Minnesota in Medford was really special."
Her grandparents were Lewis and Marie Nickell Ulrich, who also hung the Robinson paintings prominently in their Medford home, she said.
"My mom was fascinated by the story of Dorland," McGrath said. "She always honored the paintings so much. They were always in an important place in the house."
She has no idea when or how her ancestors acquired the paintings. The Ulrich family has a plot in the Jacksonville Cemetery.
"My grandmother was born in 1884, so she was eight years older than Dorland," she noted. "I would guess that they knew each other since both were Jacksonville natives."
In little more than a decade, Robinson produced an impressive body of work that includes oil, charcoal, watercolor and pastels, much of which captures life in the Jacksonville area. Her art, including her portraits and landscapes, tend to reflect the impressionism born in France in the 19th century.
Her life story can be found in "A Lasting Impression: The Art and Life of Regina Dorland Robinson," a 100-page, coffee-table book published by the Southern Oregon Historical Society in 2007.
It was written by historian Dawna Curler with research provided by fellow historian and writer Sue Waldron. Copies of the book, chock full of photographs of Robinson's work, are available at the SOHS library.
"Anytime we find another Dorland Robinson we didn't know about is significant," said Curler, who works in SOHS' collections section.
SOHS has nearly 100 of her art pieces, while another 50 or so are believed to be in private collections.
"This is not the first time something like this has happened," Curler said. "We've had about nine images surface we didn't know about. But there are about 12 of her works of art we know existed at one time that we have never seen. So it's very exciting when we learn about any new ones."
Those yet-to-be-discovered works of art were photographed decades ago or have been mentioned in newspaper articles, letters or other historic documentation, she said.
Although some of the Robinson pieces owned by SOHS are unsigned, they came with the collection given to the society by the University of Oregon, Curler said.
"We have their provenance," she noted.
While the recently discovered landscape is unsigned, the oil painting reflects Robinson's style, she said.
For her, it is the painting of the roses that stands out.
"It has this liquid, ethereal feel to it," Curler said. "It has a special quality. If I were to choose any of her styles, that would be it."
Waldron, who spent three years researching the artist before the book was published, is also impressed by the painting.
"The roses are classic," she said of the watercolor. "The other three were done earlier when she was experimenting. The roses are one of her best. It was done when she was a finished artist."
She also believes the unsigned landscape, given the artist's texture and technique, is very similar to Robinson's early paintings.
"It could very well lend itself to being a local landscape around Jacksonville," she said.
With the exception of the roses, all the paintings likely came from her earlier work, Waldron said.
Dr. Robinson had to part with many of the paintings after both Dorland and her mother had died, she said.
"Her father had to retire from his practice because of a heart condition," she said. "He would take some of the paintings that were still in the studio and trade them for a service or use them to pay bills."
However, since the paintings aren't dated, it is difficult to know when they were done, she said.
Regina Dorland Robinson died of what was determined to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1917.
"I've always wondered what would have happened with her art had she let herself live," Curler said. "She was on the tail end of the impressionist movement. Would she have done post impressionist? How would she have expressed herself when she was 30 or 40? What would have happened?"
Both Waldron and Curler believe she would have loomed large nationally in the world of art.
"If she had let herself live, she had the talent to be of national prominence," Curler said. "She had the promise and was getting recognition. She was on the cusp."
While cautioning that he is not an art critic, historian Truwe was also impressed with Robinson's work.
"The word 'evocative' describes a lot of her paintings," he said. "She was quite an artist. I don't think there were any other fine local artists like her from that era."
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at email@example.com.