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Shadows on the Mesa - Artists of the Painted Desert and Beyond

February 11 - May 28, 2012


A remote guest ranch south of Monument Valley was established in 1910 by John and Louisa Wetherill, and their partner Clyde Colville. Their business began the development of the town of Kayenta, Arizona and attracted a veritable who's who of prominent early twentieth century artists working on the Colorado Plateau who believed the land and people of northern Arizona had a profound influence on their work. The Museum of Northern Arizona's newest exhibit, Shadows on the Mesa - Artists of the Painted Desert and Beyond, is a tribute to the artists who stayed at the guest ranch from 1919 to 1941. The exhibit is open February 11 through Memorial Day, May 28, 2012. (right: James Swinnerton, Mittens at Sunrise, 1936. From the collection of Doreen and David Picerne. Courtesy of the Blue Coyote Gallery)

Fifty-seven paintings have been chosen for the exhibit by Museum of Northern Arizona Fine Arts Curator Alan Petersen. Among the featured artists are Louis Akin, Carl Oscar Borg, Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton, Kate Cory, Maynard Dixon, Lillian Wilhelm Smith, William Robinson Leigh, James Swinnerton, Gunnar Widforss, and others. These same painters are highlighted in Gary Fillmore's book by the same name as the exhibit, which will be available this March in the Museum's Bookstore.

Alan Petersen says, "The paintings and artists featured in Shadows on the Mesa are the foundation for what we now consider to be Southwestern art. Along with the artists associated with the Taos Society of Artists, those who frequented the Wetherill-Colville Guest Ranch were instrumental in establishing the visual vocabulary and artistic conventions for a region that was rapidly becoming a popular travel destination."

"These artists' romantic perspective, coupled with support from the Santa Fe Railway, found an audience eager for scenes of the landscapes and cultures of the Southwest. Shadows on the Mesa is an immersion into a land of mystery and beauty, and a bygone era."

Blue Coyote Gallery owner and exhibit co-curator Gary Fillmore adds, "Shadows on the Mesa explores the similarities and differences in the lives, artistic styles, and beliefs of the men and women who considered northern Arizona their favorite region."

"There are some traits they all shared," Fillmore continues. "All were attracted to the state for the geographic or cultural subject matter. None were part of any major colonies or schools. In the case of most, this was by choice rather than lack of opportunity. They chose to be defined solely by their work, instead of their associations or adherence to the latest "isms" or trends in the art world. From a commercial standpoint, their reluctance to do so was more often than not a detriment. But the result, in nearly every case, was the cultivation of a signature style and a reputation for being fiercely independent that has served their legacies well. To the end, they remained true to themselves and their visions."

Among the many fascinating aspects of the Wetherill-Colville Guest Ranch story is the history of its guest registers. Visiting artists established the tradition of creating often elaborate paintings and illustrations, as part of their signature in the registry. Many of the entries are completed works of art in their own right. Copies of two of the guest ranch registries will be part of the exhibit and accessible for visitors to page through.

Three Arizona Centennial lectures will accompany this exhibit: 

Saturday, February 11 at 1 p.m.
"Shadows on the Mesa - Artists of the Painted Desert and Beyond"
Gary Fillmore will talk about the primary stopover for many hardy individuals-writers, geologists, archaeologists, adventurers, and tourists?visiting Monument Valley and Tsegi Canyon. The list of artists who were visitors includes some of the most well known names in the American Southwest. Artist Maynard Dixon said the Wetherill-Colville Guest Ranch was "a long ways from anywhere, in any direction."
Saturday, March 24 at 2 p.m.
"Gunnar Widforss?The Artist and the Myths"
Alan Petersen will talk about Gunnar Widforss, the Swedish-American painter known for his remarkably realistic watercolor paintings of national parks in the western United States. Near the end of his life, Widforss called the South Rim of Grand Canyon home and it is his paintings of the Canyon for which he is best known. It is also his time at Grand Canyon that has become subject to loose interpretation and fabrication. What are the fabrications of Widforss' story and what is the truth?
Saturday, April 21 at 2 p.m.
"Parallels and Contrasts of Notable Early Twentieth Century Artists"
What did Maynard Dixon have in common with Ansel Adams and James Swinnerton? Gunnar Widforss and Carl Oscar Borg were born in Sweden in the same year, yet their lives and artistic careers could not have turned out more differently -- how and why? And how did the style of the traditional Navajo painters differ from the work of other tribes from the Dorothy Dunn School? Join Gary Fillmore as he describes the differences, similarities, and connections of several notable early twentieth century artists who considered northern Arizona their favorite region.

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For biographical information on certain artists referenced in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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