By Jann Haynes Gilmore, PhD, AWA Board Member
Sense of place is a phrase often associated with art colonies and this is especially true of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Difficult to define, place is an allusive combination of senses: taste, smell, sight, and hearing, and in Santa Fe, all these inducements have resulted in rare collective creativity. Known for its picturesque high desert topography that nestles at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo southern Rocky Mountain chain, Santa Fe is noted for its clear skies, moderate climate, and alluring light that falls brilliantly on desert flora, indigenous civilizations, and adobe architecture. Canyon Road is an ancient road that spills out of the mountains down to the plaza, the center of one of the oldest-planned towns in America. In earlier days, burros laden with fragrant pinón wood carried it down the canyon to winter stoves that warmed Santa Fe’s citizens. Until the mid-20th century, this trail was unpaved and bordered by ochre homes and artist studios. Today, Canyon Road is still known as “the heart and soul” of Santa Fe, characterized by closely aligned fine art and sculpture galleries and a few surviving residences, all leaning northeast into the historic mountain gateway. After settling permanently in Santa Fe in 1920, artist Olive Rush wrote to a friend about her friendship with a creative neighbor in the community: Lynn Riggs, a young writer from Oklahoma, who brought her “poems and eggs” each morning when he was working in the gardens at the McComb compound up the road. 1
Women artists were lured to this city’s qualities, as were a plethora of more well-known male artists. Santa Fe became an art colony after the plateaued-mountain town of Taos was settled by men artists. Santa Fe offered the same picturesque subject matter and was located closer to Albuquerque, the commercial hub of New Mexico. Before the second decade of the 20th century, several women artists had settled there with their more well-known male artist husbands: Ina Sizer Cassidy (1869-1965) was a writer and sculptor and married artist Gerald Cassidy in 1912. The couple soon moved to the burgeoning art colony. For more than thirty years Ina wrote a column titled “Art and Artists” in a New Mexico magazine and was Director of the Federal Writer’s Project (WPA) from 1935-1939. She was active in almost every cultural organization in the state including American Indian, Spanish and suffrage causes. Dorothy Morang (1906-1994), a painter (pastelist), married Alfred Morang in 1937 and the couple moved to Santa Fe because of his health. During her career she painted easel art for the WPA, had solo shows in New York, and served as curator of Santa Fe’s art museum from 1942-63. Grace Dunham Guest, “Gusty” (1872-1962) retired and moved to Santa Fe in 1948 after having served as Assistant Director of the Freer Museum, Smithsonian Institution for Charles Lang Freer. Guest, an expert in Asian Art [Shiraz miniatures], was one of the first women museologists in the US. Guest does not warrant even a Wikipedia biography as the Freer Gallery and the Smithsonian Institution have continued to overlook her professional legacy.
Although there is a lengthy list of forgotten women artists and writers associated with Canyon Road, I have highlighted here the most notable women artists who lived on the road and daily interacted over its adobe walls for decades: Olive Rush (1876-1966), Dorothy Newkirk Stewart (1891-1955), Agnes C. Sims (1910-1990), and Beulah Eisle Stevenson (1890-1965).Olive Rush was the first independent woman artist to join the Santa Fe art colony in the summer of 1920, first renting a studio on Canyon Road. A Hoosier and a Quaker, Rush had attended Earlham College, the Art Students League in NYC, studied art in England, Paris, and finally with the great American illustrator and teacher, Howard Pyle. After Pyle’s tutorage, Rush returned to New York to practice illustration for American magazines that offered income for women artists in the first few decades of the 20th century, before photography became a popular medium. Rush came to eschew her illustration training and practiced society portraiture for a short time in Indianapolis. She finally moved to Santa Fe to become a fine arts artist. Rush had visited Santa Fe as early as 1914 with her father and sister and was afforded the first solo woman art exhibition in the Palace of the Governors that spring. She fell under the painterly spell of Santa Fe and settled permanently there “…in order to paint on pink walls.”
Within months Rush purchased a residence on Canyon Road, a 200-year-old Hispanic farmhouse with authentic straw-adobe walls and considerable property that stretched east to the Acquia Madre, the watering ditch that supplied the neighborhood. There she spent the rest of her life exhibiting annually at the Fine Arts Museum as well as in national venues in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and beyond. She was also frequently chosen (and unvetted) as a mural painter for the WPA’s public works initiative in New Mexico, Colorado, and Oklahoma. Rush is also recognized for her pioneering teaching at the Federal Santa Fe Indian School where she taught native youth mural painting methods that honored their heritage while ignoring the government mandate to mainstream Indian students into Western culture. She also undertook a project to take these talented youth’s works to the Chicago 1933 Century of Progress exposition and on to additional venues in Washington and New York. She judged an annual Native American exhibition at the museum. Rush was something of the ‘gatekeeper’ for visitors over several decades who experienced or lived on Canyon Road. She rented out a small ramada on her property and her orchard and gardens were legendary. There she entertained local clubs while supplying the neighborhood with her garden’s bounty.
As a lifelong Quaker, Rush organized a group of Quaker women to establish a Quaker Meeting and bequeathed her house, studio, and garden to honor her parents at the time of her death. The Quaker Meeting has recently vacated the property but the family of Olive Rush, at this writing, has saved the landmark and will establish an art center in the historic residence– one of the few remaining artist homes and studios that survive on Canyon Road–with a woman artist legacy, as well! In 1957, the Museum of Fine Arts honored Olive Rush with a retrospective exhibition and events that heralded her contributions to the arts and civic improvements both in Sant Fe and throughout the state. She was called the Dean of women painters in New Mexico, living for more than forty years in her adopted city and historic home. 2
Dorothy Newkirk Stewart moved from Philadelphia to Santa Fe in 1925, settling in the large Juan Jose Prado compound on Canyon Road with her widowed sister, Margetta Dietrich. Their home and El Zagúan, a large adobe structure that they opened as a residence for creatives still functions in that capacity today. Dietrich was a suffragist and in New Mexico she also became a strong advocate for Native Americans. The sisters lived practically across the road from Olive Rush. Adjacent to El Zaguán, Stewart built her own studio and soon acquired a printing press, one of the first women in New Mexico to own one. Her popular studio named Galeria Mexico held frequent exhibitions and programs and there Stewart printed private books on Mexican and adobe architecture, petroglyphs, Indian dances, and works by Shakespeare. Stewart was equally known for her fine art including her linocut prints and paintings which she executed on her retrofitted newspaper press. Stewart, having trained at the Art Students League in NY, was also a mural painter for the WPA at the Albuquerque Little Theater and a muralist at the two sisters’ Prado home on Canyon Road. Stewart, whose annual calendars I highlighted in a previous blog, was a beloved outgoing figure in Santa Fe and died too young in Mexico City in the company of another unique contributor to Santa Fe’s cultural scene, Maria Chabot. 3
Agnes C. Sims was a younger arrival in Santa Fe but quickly settled in the neighborhood purchasing a large compound on Canyon Road several doors up from Stewart and Rush. She had studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and had owned a textile and needlepoint design shop in Philadelphia as well as a traveling marionette theatre in the East. She also worked for the Index of American Design project that supported artists during the New Deal. After moving to Santa Fe in 1938, Sims owned a record shop and became a building contractor, restoring many Santa Fe historic residences. Rock art soon captivated her after she was introduced to the Galisteo Basin where thousands of ancient petroglyphs were located. Sims drew and photographed over 3,000 of them and collected them in a book called Cristobal Petroglyphs, printed by Dorothy Stewart.
A unique modernist in the artist community, Sims painted and created sculptural works influenced by rock art, often using mixed media that included terra cotta, earthen and stone materials, fiberglass and resist methods. Her life partner, Mary Louise Aswell, a NY literary editor at Harper’s Bazaar, retired to Santa Fe and the two hosted such luminaries as Eudora Welty and Truman Capote. Olive Rush’s letters record that Canyon Road neighbors often gathered outdoors at the Sims property to enjoy cutting-edge cultural events such as dance, musical performances, literary readings, and films. Sims encouraged young artists and offered them studio space on her property. Olive Rush considered “Agi”, a lover of good food and Scotch, a breath of fresh air when Sims joined the neighborhood. 4
Beulah Stevenson was a lifelong resident of Brooklyn, NY where she maintained a studio and was associated with Pratt Institute. She also was a social reformist. Stevenson studied at the Art Students League and then with Hans Hoffman in Provincetown after which she adopted modernism. Stevenson was a curator at the Brooklyn Museum at one time as well as president of the New York Society of Women Artists, one of several memberships she held in professional women’s arts organizations. Her artwork mediums were printmaking, painting, and illustration and she also taught art. Critics observed that her work was a combination of realism and abstraction in a style that showed her to be “an experimenter in originality” and a “Happy Modernist.” 5 Stevenson studied with John Sloan in New York, a well-known artist of realism who began spending time in Santa Fe in 1919 and invited her to visit one summer. Stevenson quickly became enamored with the city, visiting frequently as recorded again in Olive Rush’s letters. In the late 1950s, Stevenson bought a second residence just off Canyon Road, on the Acquia Madre, well within the social milieu of the art community. 6
Along with Stevenson, Ohioan artist Alice Schille, Chicagoans Helen Stevens and Laura Van Pappelendam, Easterner Miriam Winneck, and Louise Morris, from Cleveland, spent considerable time on Canyon Road. Sculptor and furniture maker, Eugenia Shonnard, lived within walking distance, while philanthropists Amelia and Elizabeth White, Alice Howland and Eleanor Brownell, and Leonora Curtin Paloheimo and her family all lived permanently nearby. Other women philanthropists, Mary Cabot Wheelwright and Florence Dibell Bartlett lived north of Santa Fe along the Rio Grande and were also close to Canyon Road residents. Between America’s twentieth-century wars, it is possible that no other community in this country attracted more diverse women creatives than Santa Fe, New Mexico, all connected to historic Canyon Road. In 1914, as Olive Rush departed from her first visit to the city where her work had been well-received, she, too, had fallen in love with the city. She wrote that Santa Fe is “the quaintest place I ever saw.”7
Lynn Riggs (1899-1954) became a playwright and wrote Green Grow the Lilacs that became the musical Oklahoma! in 1943. Other writers who lived or spent creative time in the neighborhood were Haniel Long, Witter Benner, Laura Gilpin, Alice Corbin Henderson, Harriet Monroe, Mary Austin, Willa Cather, Peggy Pond Church, Helen Keller, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Vachel Lindsay, and Carl Sandburg, to name just a few.
Jann Haynes Gilmore, Olive Rush: Finding Her Place in the Santa Fe Art Colony, Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2016. This biography is the first scholarly treatment of Rush and won the New Mexico Historical Society Award in 2016 for contributing to the history and culture of the American Southwest.
Margretta Dietrich (1881-1961) became an avid promoter of indigenous Americans’ rights and headed the New Mexico Association of Indian Affairs for more than 20 years. Maria Chabot (1913-2001) was also an advocate and promoted both Native American and Spanish Colonial arts in the Southwest. Chabot initiated marketing of Native American arts and crafts on Santa Fe’s plaza which elevated Native artwork in the public eye and which is now showcased in the world-renowned annual Indian Market in Santa Fe.
Regrettably there is no biography of Agnes C. Sims, a talented artist and mover-and-shaker in Santa Fe. Bits and pieces of her life have been gathered by several sources and her compound has been left largely unchanged on Canyon Road
Beulah Stevenson biography, keithsheridan.com
Beulah Stevenson is lesser known than the other artists mentioned here and warrants a thorough biography as well. A friend of Olive Rush, Stevenson began to rent the small ramada in Rush’s garden during summers, after World War II in 1945 through the early 1960s. Rush recorded in a letter: “Artists are always floating in and filling the little cute space….”
Olive Rush letter to Ethel Brown, May 18, 1914, Olive Rush Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, quoted in Gilmore, Olive Rush: Finding Her Place in the Santa Fe Art Colony, p. 54.