Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on February 28, 2009 with permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author directly at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art:


A Century of Arizona Women Artists

by Carolyn C. Robbins


In a 1971 essay, respected art historian Linda Nochlin asked the provocative question, "Why have there been no great women artists?"[1] On first hearing, such a question seems absurd, but a cursory inspection of traditional art historical texts finds no great women artists. Indeed, it reveals a stunning absence of women artists.[2] Statistics compiled by activists in the feminist art movement, as well as a U.S. conducted study on gender discrimination in the art field, point toward a possible cause and shed light on a question that demands attention today.[3]

The Guerilla Girls, a still-functioning group of feminist activists who formed in 1984 and maintain anonymity by wearing gorilla masks in public appearances, report a disparity in gallery and museum representation. In 1985, New York galleries showed no more than ten percent women artists or no women at all. In 1986, only four of the forty-two artists in the Carnegie International were women, and a Guerilla Girls poster of the same year screams, "The Guggenheim Transformed Four Decades of Sculpture by Excluding Women Artists."[4] In addition, only four percent of museum acquisitions are work by women artists; and in curated exhibits, museums average fifteen percent women, and minority women only .003 percent.[5]

At the turn of the twenty-first century, the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg, Arizona, has seized the opportunity to examine the work and delve into the experiences of Arizona women artists over the past 100 years -- the first institution to tackle this enormous task. In Celebration primarily explores painting, sculpture and photography, presenting the work of a select group of accomplished artists who demonstrate a richness in geographic and stylistic diversity.[6] It traces the explosive growth in artistic activity in Arizona during the twentieth century, including early descriptive paintings and photographs by territorial artists. The exhibition covers abstraction that swept the art world mid-century, as well as feminist art of the late 1970s and 1980s. Contemporary realistic depictions of the West in paintings and bronze sculpture juxtapose with exquisite still life paintings. Finally, technology is represented in traditional and non-traditional photography, and in examples of new media.

Earlier in the century, society often forced women to choose between living out their expected roles as wife, mother, and homemaker, or fulfilling their artistic impulses. Society either categorized women's artwork as a hobby or placed it in a submissive position with minor arts and crafts. Along with female artists over hundreds of years, Arizona's women artists have fought to be recognized and publicly legitimized as accomplished, creative, hardworking players in a highly competitive, male-dominated field. As early as 1895, the tenacious group of women in Prescott thumbed their noses at tradition when they founded the Monday Club, the first women's club in Arizona,[7] insisting on conducting meetings on the one day of the week typically set aside to clean house and do laundry. The club had an active Fine Arts Committee.

Art historian Sarah J. Moore concludes in her essay "No Woman's Land: Arizona Adventures" in Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890 - 1945, that while common denominators exist among the numerous women artists working in Arizona between 1890 and 1945, "any assumption of a shared motive, agenda, or style is both reductive and overly simplistic."[8] Indeed, that statement is even more true at the turn of the twenty-first century with the myriad styles and modes of aesthetic expression that emerged after 1945.

Just before the turn of the twentieth century, women of great independence and courage began to make their way west to the Arizona territory to forge a new life in a largely inhospitable land, free from conventional roles and social constraints. Often highly trained at eastern or midwestern schools of art, they immediately began to capture and interpret this new land -- a land of awesome beauty and strangeness. Not only did the never-ending vistas, enormous bright sky, and unfamiliar, prickly flora captivate them, but the exotic appearance and traditions of Native American inhabitants fascinated them as well. Following in the footsteps of male artists who preceded them, the women rendered images of the landscape and its people in a traditional, realistic, Western European style.

Kate Cory (1861 - 1958), an early arrival, came to Arizona as a forty-four-year-old commercial artist educated at Cooper Union and the Art Students League in New York City. Cory stepped off the train at Canyon Diablo in 1905 at the invitation of artist Louis Akin, who had great hopes of forming an artists' colony that never materialized. Nevertheless, Cory stayed and became fast friends with a few Hopi women who invited her to live among them. During the seven years she spent at Oraibi on First Mesa prior to moving to Prescott, Cory produced exceptional black and white photographs, which she developed in rainwater, and engaging oil paintings that recorded Hopi life and customs in a remarkably accurate fashion.[9] Return of the Kachinas provides a vivid glimpse into an important, sixteen-day rite associated with the summer solstice. Cory depicts not only the colorfully dressed Hemis Kachinas, but their ethereal return to the spiritual realm in the golden sky above the pueblo.[10]

Lorette Lovell (1869 - c.1920) arrived in Tucson with her family from California at the age of thirteen. The budding artist responded positively to the vastness of the landscape and the richness of the desert flora, as well as the romantic Spanish missions, Papago women and Apache warriors. In 1893, Lovell was appointed Lady Manager from the Territory of Arizona for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which included a Women's Pavilion housing examples of women's artwork from around the world.[11]

After visiting Arizona periodically for fourteen years (the first time was on her honeymoon in 1912, the year Arizona became a state) Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton (1889 - 1971) permanently settled in Flagstaff. The 1908 graduate of the Philadelphia School of Design for Women found a region rich in native cultural arts and crafts. With great concern for preservation of local Indian culture, Colton staged exhibitions of native crafts and recorded the exotic physical appearance of her newfound friends in stunning portraits. Just two years after their arrival, Colton and her husband, Dr. Harold S. Colton, cofounded the Museum of Northern Arizona to advance their strong pastime in archaeology and ethnology.

Other fearless artists migrated to Arizona for a variety of reasons -- adventure, a more casual and less restrictive lifestyle, a climate perceived to be beneficial to health, and opportunities for a new start in life. They brought skills, connections and traditions of eastern society that helped the territory grow and flourish into a vibrant, diverse state. After studying at the Art Students League in New York and the Pennsylvania School of Fine Arts, Lucy Drake Marlow (1890 - 1978) was encouraged to come to the Southwest by Taos artist Ernest Blumenschein. She became Tucson's best known portraitist of the 1930s.[12]

Jessie Benton Evans (1866 - 1954) reluctantly left Chicago in 1913 for Arizona in an effort to improve her health. After becoming intrigued with the desert, she and her husband made their home on forty acres of what today is a part of the grounds of the Phoenician Hotel in Scottsdale. Evans made frequent trips to Europe and even exhibited at the Paris Salon, but became known for the regular salons she held in her home.

Marjorie Helen Thomas (1885 - 1978), a graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, became a homesteader when she moved west for her brother's health. Calling herself an "artistic pioneer," Thomas recorded the changing life and landscape in the Salt River Valley.[13] These and other women artists had a profound influence on growing communities in Prescott, Flagstaff, Tucson and Phoenix. The women's clubs they founded, such as Prescott's Monday Club, nurtured artistic endeavors by providing art lessons, encouraging participation in state fair exhibitions, and purchasing of women's artworks.

In several instances, the artistic legacy of older-generation artists is being carried on by their offspring. The Rigden clan contains three generations of artists. The matriarch, Ada Rigden (1886 - 1962), moved to Arizona at nineteen from Michigan where she was educated at the Kalamazoo Teachers College. She found employment as the teacher in the one-room schoolhouse in Kirkland, riding her horse to and from work every day. In 1907 she married a local rancher, Charles Rigden.

While raising a family on the 8,000 acre Kirkland ranch, Ada maintained her love of art and continued to paint, skillfully rendering the surrounding landscape and buildings in watercolor and oils. She also became a member of Prescott's Monday Club.[14] Ada gave painting lessons to Margaret Hays, a thirteen-year-old girl from the adjacent ranch. As a young adult, Margaret studied art at the University of Arizona, but eventually married Tom Rigden, the son of Charles and Ada.

Cynthia Rigden, the daughter of Tom and Margaret, carries on the family ranching and artistic legacy.[15] In addition to being a highly accomplished artist, both in painting and bronze sculpture, Cynthia runs the spread where she raises Texas longhorns. Her childhood experiences in branding, driving cattle and breaking horses left her well prepared for her responsibilities today.[16] The ranch animals she has loved and cared for all her life have become the subject of her artwork. Cynthia has participated in the Prix de West Invitational since its inception, and was involved with the now-defunct Texas Cowboy Artists, which awarded her a gold medal for sculpture and two silver medals for painting and sculpture.

Likewise, Jessie Benton Evans' namesake granddaughter, Jessie Benton Evans Gray, began artistic training at the tender age of five under her grandmother's tutelage. The elder Evans stressed looking carefully and painting from nature, practices the granddaughter still follows today. After completing her formal education, Jessie lived in New York City where began to paint and show with a group of street painters. After moving to a farm in upstate New York, her landscape painting simply "exploded" in the inspiring rural environment. Now a resident of Scottsdale, Evans continues to paint in plein air.

Hauling large canvases outdoors and strapping them to the side of her van or lashing them to a tree for stability, Evans slathers on high keyed color in response to sun rays bursting through clouds and captures the drama of incoming storms. Evans states that she almost feels the shapes and colors of nature.

Over the past five decades, women artists in Arizona have fully kept pace with larger art world developments. The great influences of the Abstract Expressionist, Minimalist, Pop and Feminist movements may be seen in the complex and eclectic variety of styles, media and subject matter of their work today. At mid-century in Tucson, Berta Steglitz Wright (1921 - 1997) focused on making abstract, geometric woodcuts while founding a gallery featuring arts and crafts from around the world. Around the same time period, Ann Simon Spencer (b. 1918), daughter of the early twentieth-century American impressionist, Robert Spencer, and Margaret Fulton Spencer, an architect who built the Rancho de las Lomas complex in the Tucson Mountains, returned to Tucson. Her oil paintings of the 1960s include whimsical, surrealistic satires on the foibles of modern life, based on T. S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Cats.[17]

Color is everything for Dorothy Fratt, the recipient of the Arizona Governor's Artist of the Year Award in 2000. Working in a non-objective style that developed out of the abstract expressionist movement of the1950s, Fratt intuitively and strategically arranges forms and colors on large canvases in endlessly fresh and new ways. Using strong contrasts of value and intensity, the surfaces sometimes evoke landscape imagery. She develops her ideas in hundreds of working sketches that may result in only one painting, and sometimes the end product is a total surprise to the artist. Fratt explains, "Each painting is a journey and an adventure. I don't understand the process completely. Perhaps no one can."[18]

The strong landscape school so prevalent in the early part of the century still exists in Arizona, exemplified in the work of several artists. Lynn Taber's lush and luminous pastel images and Helen Shackelford's huge cloud-filled skies speak to the realistic tradition. Barbara Gurwitz, on the other hand, approaches her subject in the tradition of the Fauves, applying wildy vibrant, non-descriptive color.

Although Shawn Cameron's ranching family first came to Arizona in the 1860s after traveling the Oregon trail, she chooses not to depict the Old West but rather the modern day cowboy doing real ranch work. Cameron considers her husband and son two of the best cowboys who ever worked the family ranch. Her light-filled plein air paintings record a life that is rapidly disappearing, one her grandchildren may never know.

Anne Coe on the other hand utilizes the landscape to express a strong environmental message. A fourth generation Arizonan, Coe shares her home and studio in Apache Junction with her pet hybrid wolf, Virginia Woolf. Her love of the desert grew from her early years in a small Arizona town, and as she matured, Coe became dedicated to preservation of the environment. Her profound concern is reflected in her painterly, sometimes humorous, narrative depictions that explore the relationship between the wild desert and urban life. Her imagery ranges from destructive mutant gila monsters to bright yellow bulldozers that plow through desert vegetation, uprooting cacti and Indian pots and sending wildlife fleeing. Coe has been a major force in the arena of environmental activism for many years, and is co-founder of the Superstition Area Land Trust. Exhibitions of her work throughout the United States have brought her recognition, but Coe gives much of the credit to a feminist activist and her former art instructor at Arizona State University, Muriel Magenta. During the late 1970s, Magenta brought Miriam Shapiro and Judy Chicago, giants in the development of the feminist art movement, to Arizona State University to speak to her students. It was then that, for the first time, Coe realized she actually could have a career as an artist.

After acknowledging the high level of training, quality of work and productivity of Arizona's women artists, a consideration of recent statistics on gender bias is imperative. The study Gender Discrimination in the Artfield reveals that 50.7 percent of all visual artists are female; and women hold 53.1 percent of the degrees in art, yet eighty percent of art faculty are males. In addition, male artists make 68.6 percent of the total art income, and male artists receive seventy-three percent of grants and fellowships.[19] In general, men have greater sales and their artwork commands higher prices.

Nevertheless, the picture seems brighter at the present time, in part due to the legacy of the feminist art movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Acting on their convictions, women formed organizations, did research on women artists of the past, published their findings, and conducted demonstrations. In short, they made the world take notice and helped pave the way for women artists of the twenty-first century. Carrie Rickey's admittedly selective chronology in The Power of Feminist Art records women artists' struggle to gain parity with men artists in the Whitney Museum Biennial, which has a seventy year history. In the 1977 Biennial, nine of forty artists were women; in 1983, thirty-three of 128 were women; but by 1993, thirty out of forty-two artists were women.[20]

Without question, women artists today are highly educated, skillful and creative. While some Arizona women report being advised to sign their works in a gender-disguising manner, they fully expect the work to speak for itself. Arizona's community of women artists is vital, vibrant, and growing, and their body of work deserves to be celebrated.


1 Linda Nochlin, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?," ARTnews, January 1971.

2 Before 1986, all editions of H. W. Janson's History of Art (the standard text used in introductory college art history classes) included 3,000 male and no female artists. In the latest version, published in 1991, only 19 women are represented. "Facts About Women in the Arts," Women Artists Archive, Ruben Salazar Library, Sonoma State University.

3 "Reclaiming Our Art," by Kimberly O'-Donogue, www.u.arizona.edu/ic/mcbride/ws200/reclaimingourart.html.

4 Mira Schor, "Backlash and Appropriation," The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact, Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, ed. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1994), p. 253.

5 "Facts About Women in the Arts," Women Artists Archive.

6 Arizona's Native American women have created stunningly beautiful, traditional artwork for thousands of years. The scope of this exhibition is work in the Western European tradition.

7 Robert Stragnell and Jim Willoughby, "Pioneer Women: Arizona History Through Art," American Art Review, Vol. X No. 2 1998, p. 154.

8 Sarah J. Moore, "No Woman's Land: Arizona Adventures," Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890 - 1945 (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: Autrey Museum of Western Heritage in association with the University of California Press, 1995), p. 132.

9 Ginger Johnson, Kate T. Cory, Artist of Arizona 1861 - 1958, (Prescott, Arizona: Privately Published, 1996).

10 Moore, p. 135.

11 Bruce Hilpert, "Laurette Lovell: Frontier Artist," American Art Pottery, No. 47, April 1980, pg. 1 and 4.

12 AskART.com, Artist Biographies.

13 Ibid.

14 Robert Stragnell, Five Ladies of Prescott and Their Art, (Prescott: Phippen Museum of Western Art, 1995), p. 10.

15 Interview with Cynthia and Margaret Rigden, August 6, 2000.

16 Nancy Gillespie, "Magic in the Air," Art of the West, May/June 2000.

17 Peter Bermingham, Tucson's Early Moderns 1945 - 1965, (Tucson: The University of Arizona Museum of Art, 1998).

18 Dorothy Fratt Many Voices: Paintings from the Nineties (Scottsdale: Riva Yares Gallery, 1995).

25 "Facts About Women in the Arts," Women Artists Archive.

26 Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, ed., The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1994


About the author

Carolyn C. Robbins has served as curator of education at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art [SMoCA] since 1999, and was director of education at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts for twelve years. Ms. Robbins holds a Master of Arts degree in art history from Arizona State University. She is past-president of the Arizona Art Education Association and past-president of the Arizona Alliance for Arts Education. Ms Robbins curated the exhibition In Celebration: A Century of Arizona Women Artists for the Desert Caballeros Western Museum, Wickenburg, Arizona, and is co-author of the book Linda Carter Holman: the Evolution of a Self-Taught Painter (Red Shoe Studio, 2006).


Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on February 28, 2009 with permission of the author, which was granted to TFAO on February 5, 2009.

This article appeared in the January - February 2001 issue of American Art Review and pertains to an exhibition, In Celebration: A Century of Arizona Women Artists, which was on view at the Desert Caballeros Western Museum February 3 ­ April 29, 2001.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Shana Herb Johannessen for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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