Women Artist Pioneers of New Mexico
Image: Rebecca Salsbury James
"Earth and Water" 1950
Reverse Oil painting on glass
This work was part of the exhibition
From Realism to Abstraction -
Art in New Mexico 1917-2002
at the Museum of Fine Arts
located on Santa Fe Plaza.
Drawn from the Museum's Permanent Collection, these works are a record of the extraordinary
art of the Twentieth Century
in New Mexico.
Though Georgia O’Keeffe is the most famous woman artist to call New Mexico her adopted home, she is by no means
alone. In the first half of the 20th century, the state was a haven for such women, a place where they could escape the overcrowding and
social restrictions of more formal East-coast cities, don trousers and ride their horses across sage-dotted desert. Like their male counterparts,
these painters, sculptors, printmakers and photographers found a welcoming network of like-minded pioneers who drew inspiration from the
landscape and the spiritual life of the Hispanic and Native American people. But unlike the men, these artists' names are largely unknown.
"A tree dying next to a dazzling white yucca plant growing in the sun, the quick and the dead," is how Rebecca Salsbury
James (1891–1968) described Taos. "New Mexico imposes itself upon its people and they impose themselves on me." Born in 1891
in New York City, James was introduced to O'Keeffe by her first husband, photographer Paul Strand. It was James who lured O'Keeffe to
New Mexico in 1929 and who accompanied her on her annual summer pilgrimages to Taos. Eventually, both women relocated to New Mexico.
James' deeply felt response to the land and sky, churchyards and crosses, inspired O'Keeffe's paintings. In turn James was inspired, picking up O'Keeffe's habit of using a pane of glass as a palette. In this way, she accidentally discovered the reverse-glass painting at which she became a master. From a neighbor, she learned colcha stitching, a Spanish Colonial needlework style, and made it her own. During her lifetime, James' painting and embroidery were regular fixtures at Santa Fe's Museum of Fine Arts and the subject of a posthumous retrospective, in 1991, marking the 100th anniversary of her birth.
As Rebecca Salisbury James was settling in Taos, Olive Rush (1873–1966) was doing the same in Santa Fe.
A native of Indiana, Rush left home at 16 to study at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington D.C. and Art Students League in New York
City. Her work as a magazine illustrator financed several trips to Paris and, in 1914, she escorted her father on her first trip to New
Mexico. Six years later she returned to live. Citing Asian art and El Greco as major influences, Rush painted murals at the Santa Fe Public
Library and at La Fonda hotel on the plaza, taught mural painting to students at the Santa Fe Indian School and watched her adopted town
grow from what she called "a burro economy" into a modern city while she became one of its most treasured citizens. Though she exhibited
at the Museum of Fine Arts some 60 times and was the only woman to show with the 14-member group called the New Mexico Painters, Rush's
artwork has only recently received widespread recognition. A devoted Quaker, she willed her home at 630 Canyon Road to the Religious Society
of Friends where today it remains a Quaker meeting house.
A peer of Rush's in Paris and Washington was Catharine Carter Critcher (1868–1964). Born to a well-to-do
Virginia family, Critcher was already an accomplished portrait painter when she arrived in New Mexico. During a 1922 visit she wrote, "Taos
is unlike any place God ever made I believe and therein is its charm and no place could be more conducive to work, there are models galore
and no phones, the artists all live in these attractive funny little adobe houses away from the world, food, foes and friends." Though
never a permanent resident, Critcher was the only female member of the Taos Society of Artists.
Photographer Laura Gilpin (1891–1979) was born in Colorado Springs, a quintessentially Western woman. On
camping and picture-taking trips in the 1920s she discovered New Mexico and moved to Santa Fe in 1946. "A strong, stocky woman, five feet
seven inches tall, with clear blue-eyes, wavy sand-colored hair that later turned a brilliant white and a hearty laugh that suggested boundless
energy," according to biographer Martha A. Sandweiss, Gilpin toted her camera equipment hundreds of miles to photograph the landscape and
Navajo people of the Four Corners region. During her 60-year career, she authored four important photography books and was elected to the
Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain. Still, she often had to take commercial work, from publishing photographic postcards and lantern
slides on archaeological subjects to operating a turkey farm with long-time companion Elizabeth Forster. Only weeks before she died at
88, Gilpin shot her last photographs of the Rio Grande Valley while leaning out of the window of a small plane.
Such daring was commonplace among the women artists who came to New Mexico in the early 20th century. Just to make one's
way to what was then an outpost, a trip that involved a long train ride or a hair-raising drive over barely paved roads, took a certain
fortitude, as did the decision to assume the sacrifices of an artist's life. Making a living was difficult and artists did whatever it
took to support themselves. Agnes "Agi" Sims, for instance, (1910–1990) painted signs for Santa Fe's annual Fiesta and Barbara
Latham (1896–1989) designed greeting cards for a Ranchos de Taos outfit. Though she'd studied with Rodin in Paris, Eugenie
Shonnard (1886–1978) made furniture, textiles and ceramics to supplement her income from her sculpture.
The formula for their success was complex. Women who had established their reputations before arriving, such as the Taos
printmaker Gene Kloss (1903–1996), had an easier time building their careers, and those who exhibited outside the state achieved
greater recognition than those who focused on New Mexico. Those with well-connected husbands or families benefited from a form of support
not available to single women. Of these, Henriette Wyeth (1907–1997), the daughter of N.C. Wyeth and sister of Andrew, is
the best known. Already a recognized painter when she came to New Mexico as the young bride of artist Peter Hurd, Henriette fell in love
with Hurd's ranch in San Patricio. "The Southwest gave me a whole new language, new vistas to paint," she said.
That any of these artists thrived was extraordinary given the invisibility of women in the art world in general and their
geographic isolation in particular. It was a given that they support one another, as Museum of Fine Arts curator Dorothy Morang and patrons
Mary Cabot Wheelwright and Florence Dibell Bartlett did for many of the female artists of the era.
Then, as now, New Mexico was an oasis for women, the ground having been laid by Pueblo artists, such as painter Pablita
Velarde and potter Maria Martinez. The result was a place that offered, as Virginia Scharff put it in Independent Spirits:
Women Painters of the American West,1890-1945, "the possibility of social support balanced by freedom of movement . . . . Women found
that rare combination of sympathy and privacy necessary to make powerful art."
Thanks to Dottie Indyke, who lives in Santa Fe and regularly writes about
the arts and culture of the region.
Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque - Volume 16
RESOURCE LISTS UPDATED WHEN VIEWED | ARTICLE CONTENT REVISED
October 14, 2009