Travis Souza, an expert at transporting fine art, has picked up many valuable paintings from mansions.
But two weeks ago, he hunched inside a cramped travel trailer at the Rose Grove RV Park in Forest Grove, carefully removing the tattered and stained bedspread Daphne Welhaven Kitchen had wrapped around two valuable portraits.
Thanks to money from the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo, Norway, the portraits were about to be driven to San Francisco, then flown to the museum, where Senior Collections Curator Nils Messer eagerly awaited them.
“I think it is just remarkable that they are still here after everything that’s happened,” said Daphne’s daughter, Charlotte Welhaven Lumae. “My parents have had a very unpredictable life.”
No one is entirely sure when the paintings first came to the U.S., but since 1988 they’d been traveling with Daphne and her husband, Frank Kitchen, as they adventured across the country, hopping from farms to communes to trailer parks.
Since June 17, the couple’s home has been a Monitor Fifth Wheel trailer. It’s a humble abode, to say the least.
Under the canopy, two lawn chairs sit on a concrete patio. Between them, a decorative waterfall trickles and adds an environmental ambience to the sounds of nearby Pacific Avenue. The smell of Nag Champa incense permeates the air.
“If it lasts the next 20 years — we’re 70, we won’t live to be 90 — we’ll probably go down in this trailer,” Daphne said.
It would be a surprising end for this descendent of a wealthy, well-known Norwegian family. The Welhavens have owned gold and mercury mines, numerous valuable works of art and property across the Philippines, Korea, Norway and the U.S. Her grandfather established a substantial trust fund for his heirs, allowing three generations to enjoy an aristocratic lifestyle with Ivy League schooling, lavish parties, nice homes, cars and other luxuries.
Then Daphne and her sister broke the mold.
While her sister led a wild life of motorcycle adventures, getting caught up in the counterculture movement in San Francisco during the 1960s, Daphne chose a vagabond life.
Except for the 159-year-old portraits of Johan Sebastian Cammermeyer Welhaven and his wife, Daphne detached from all interest in material possessions.
After her brush with death, she said, she had no other choice.
‘I was brand new’
“I heard a voice in my ears. It said, ‘What do you want, Daphne?’ I said, ‘Life.’ And then I woke up.”
That’s what Daphne remembers of the brain surgery she underwent after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage in 1965, shortly after her 21st birthday.
Though cutting-edge at the time, the surgery was experimental, expensive and practically medieval.
Daphne used hundreds of thousands of dollars of the family’s trust to pay for the surgery, which saved her life — but also changed it.
“Everything was so brand new,” Daphne said. “I was brand new.”
In the 1960s, the social services available to people recovering from brain damage were not what they are today.
While she remembered how to read, write and walk, Daphne had trouble speaking and remembering who people were — including herself — or what she should do at any given time. It was also easy to manipulate her, as some men did.
But in September 1967, Daphne’s life began to normalize again when she met Frank at a party. Frank remembers Daphne arriving in a sky-blue 1958 VW Beetle.
“I saw her as someone who needed help,” Frank said of that first encounter. “She was a very sick young woman for about three years … and she had few friends who were helpful.
“So I figured, if I could help her, I’d try.”
A California native, Frank did not come from money. His father was a carpenter for most of his life and his mother, a devout Christian, was a substitute teacher. Frank himself is an amateur photographer whose photos are on display at Red Bluff Art Gallery in California.
A humble, happy childhood gave him a perspective on life that he’s carried for 73 years. For Frank, money has never been as important or valuable as intelligence.
Daphne caught on quickly.
“I’m a happy-go-lucky person, and I’ve tried to bring some happy-go-lucky into her life,” said Frank, growing teary-eyed as he talked about their relationship. The couple officially began their Bohemian life together when they were married in March 1968.
Charlotte was born in 1972. As a family, they lived in a small homes and apartments. Daphne and Frank took odd jobs and at one point ran an arcade/bar/coffee shop but never had much money — even with the small monthly payments from interest on Grandpa Welhaven’s trust. Still, Lumae remembers being happy.
In 1988, Daphne’s mother died and left art that had been passed on for generations to be divided amongst her three children.
Daphne got a Norwegian Navy bejeweled ceremonial knife, a wooden desk intricately carved into the likeness of a dragon (which she is loaning to Pacific University for display in the anthropology department) and a ceramic dragon-dog from Korea that is glazed in a way that can no longer be replicated.
The knife was stolen some years back. The dragon-dog statuette might be in a box in a storage unit in Red Bluff. And the portraits had been wrapped in an old bedspread and leaned somewhat haphazardly against a wall of the fifth-wheel.
Daphne and Frank’s chosen life was simply not conducive for owning and caring for museum-quality artifacts.
That’s where Lumae stepped in.
Forefather was famous poet
Johan Sebastian Cammermeyer Welhaven isn’t a household name in the U.S. But in Norway, he’s a well-known historical figure.
He’s also Daphne’s great-great-grandfather — and Lumae’s great-great-great.
In 2001, with growing concern for the portraits’ safety and longevity, Lumae began trying to find a new, safe home where they’d be properly appreciated.
Three months ago, she got in touch with Nils Messer, who was immediately interested.
Welhaven “was one of the most important poets and art critics of his time,” according to Messer. He was also a professor of philosophy at the University in Oslo. “He married Josephine Bidoulac in 1845, to the grief of many a young girl in the capital,” Messer added. “Welhaven was good looking, intelligent, of good family and very popular among the unmarried ones.”
Welhaven died in 1873 after battling Parkinson’s disease for 10 years.
In addition to Welhaven’s fame, the portraits of him and his wife were painted by a female artist, Christian Schreiber, who produced only a few works due to lack of acceptance by her male colleagues — common for 1856, Messer said.
“This is the first time in the history of our museum that we can include Schreiber in the collection! Which means that this donation is of high importance to us,” he wrote in an email to the News-Times.
Ida Welhaven, the youngest child and only daughter of the celebrated poet, is thought to have brought the portraits to the U.S., where she passed them on to her nephew (Daphne’s grandfather), Alf Welhaven, who then gave them to his daughter, Lillebess Welhaven, who passed them on to her daughter, Daphne Welhaven.
After 100 years of criss-crossing the U.S., Johan and Josephine were sent back to Norway July 2.
Lumae felt some sadness as the portraits were wrapped in plastic tarp and strapped into Souza’s van, knowing she’d probably never see them again.
But Daphne felt the opposite: “I couldn’t be happier. People will love them, they will look at them … I’m happy they’re going back to where they belong.”
On a practical level, Lumae agrees with her mom, knowing the portraits risked random mishaps in the fifth-wheel. “They just seemed like something that should be in a museum,” she said. “They’ve gone through hard times. Someone could throw a cup of coffee on them by accident.”