Thank you for the gifts, Dorland
“Life was not a valuable gift, but death was. Death was sweet, death was gentle, death was kind. When man could endure life no longer, death came and set him free.”
— Mark Twain, “Letters from Earth”
Regina Dorland Robinson was born Nov. 5, 1891, and committed suicide April 7, 1917. In those 25 years, with the help of loving parents, she grew to be a beautiful and gifted young woman, poised to take advantage of her artistic potential.
We, who didn’t live her life, never knew her pain and never felt her joys. Instead, we see her talent and are left to wonder why. Why was death more valuable to Dorland than life?
Thousands of art lovers continue to marvel at Dorland’s paintings and sketches. Her gifts are so obviously valuable to us, how could she not see the value herself?
As a young girl, her father and some of his friends informally schooled Dorland in art. Her first formalized instruction came from the nuns of Jacksonville’s St. Mary’s Academy. The Robinson family wasn’t Roman Catholic, but her father, Dr. James Robinson, and wife, Tillie, wanted the best education available for their only child.
At St. Mary’s, Dorland learned more than art. There was music, literature and cultural experiences that would prepare her to become an enlightened and intellectual adult. Except for violin recitals, plays and other activities, most of Dorland’s day-to-day school life is lost. If it had not been for a lucky accident, we probably would know nothing at all.
In 1978, an old building that had once been offices for St. Mary’s Academy was being remodeled. Within one of the building’s rooms, in an old dusty filing cabinet, a few papers still remained — school assignments from an early eighth-grade class. A worker could have thrown them away, but didn’t, preferring instead to donate the find to the Southern Oregon Historical Society.
While evaluating the papers, an astonished society archivist realized that some of these assignments had been completed by Dorland Robinson, and a few of them were hand illustrated by the fledgling artist. These papers, and papers completed by her classmates, had hidden in that drawer for over 70 years.
On one paper, hundreds of lines shade a precise drawing of a metronome, while Dorland’s carefully formed and graceful handwriting describes tempo for her music class. There is a finely crafted drawing of a fish that helps illustrate arithmetic problems. For Dorland’s nature studies class, on one paper she sketched a dainty rendition of a massive oak, and for her art class a carefully hand cutout silhouette of a woman seated on a stool.
“Leaving aside the soul, the most wonderful, the immortal part of man,” Dorland writes, “let us consider today only the bony frame work of his human body.” Covering nearly a half page, and titled “The Skeleton,” is an unbelievably detailed depiction of a full human skeleton.
Perhaps most unusual is a rough sketch of a Dutch-style windmill. Cemetery headstones surround the windmill with flowers decorating mounded graves. Did Dorland copy from a drawing that included this graveyard or did she add it herself?
The questions surrounding Dorland Robinson’s life and death have no answers and likely will be just as bewildering 100 years from now as they are today.
The valuable gifts, which began with those schoolwork drawings and led to the flowering of her artistic talent as an adult, were never enough for Dorland; never enough to calm her troubled mind.
In the end, we are left with her art — her gifts — and maybe that should be enough. Instead of asking why, perhaps it’s time to simply say, “Thank you, Dorland.”
Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at email@example.com.