Arizona Women Artists | Desert Caballeros Western Museum

Wilaha Gathering by Shawn Cameron. painting, southwest art.
Wilaha Gathering by Shawn Cameron

Arizona’s women painters, sculptors, and photographers have persevered under less-than-optimum conditions during the past 100 years to create lasting works of art.  While it is generally agreed that in some ways women in the Old West were more independent than many of their counterparts elsewhere, fulfilling one’s artistic yearnings was given a back seat to being a wife, mother, daughter, homemaker, cook, seamstress, farmer, pioneer, and general caretaker. Those women who did manage to create often found themselves taken less seriously than their male colleagues.

The Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg, AZ, honors these women with the exhibition In Celebration: A Century of Arizona Women, on display through April 29. The exhibit features more than 50 painters, sculptors, and photographers whose work has been largely ignored or undocumented.

These women were true pioneers, both historically and artistically. Many of them helped work the land and change the wilderness, living on reservations or running cattle ranches. Somehow they also found the time to capture the beauty of Arizona with paintbrushes, chisels, and cameras. As early as 1895 some of these women were part of the state’s first women’s club. They called themselves the Monday Club and made a point of holding their meetings on the day of the week traditionally set aside for such housewifery duties as laundry.

Tiger Lily Bud by Linda Ingraham. painting, southwest art.

Tiger Lily Bud by Linda Ingraham

Some of these pioneering artists were highly trained at eastern or midwestern art schools. Kate Cory [1861-1958] went to Arizona as a 44-year-old commercial artist educated at New York City’s famous Cooper Union. During the seven years she lived with the Hopi, she produced exceptional black-and-white photographs—which she developed in rainwater—as well as oil paintings of Indian life.

Many of these artistic women moved to Arizona seeking a less restrictive lifestyle than they’d had in the East; others went because of illness. Jessie Benton Evans [1866-1954] left Chicago for the desert to improve her health. She made frequent trips to Europe, where she exhibited at the Paris Salon. Her granddaughter, named after her, is a painter in her own right.

Ada Rigden [1886-1962] moved to Arizona when she was 19 to take a job as a schoolteacher and eventually married a rancher. Her daughter was a painter, and her granddaughter is a sculptor who also runs that same family ranch. Today Cynthia Rigden’s bronze ranch animals are in collections throughout the world.

Contemporary artists in the exhibit include landscape painters Lynn Taber-Borcherdt and Cynthia Bennett. Barbara Gurwitz treats landscapes abstractly, while Anne Coe uses them to convey powerful environmental messages. Painters like Linda Carter-Holman capture the West’s popular culture in a joyous and colorful fashion, while Annie Lopez, Cristina Cardenas, and Mary Morez celebrate Arizona’s cultural diversity.

An important artistic medium today, photography is used to explore the relationships between men and women in the work of Carm Little Turtle. Bobbie Goodrich photographs cowboys in traditionally masculine settings such as roundups and rodeos. Exploring the medium from a different direction, Judith Golden creates mysterious mixed-media images.

In Celebration chronicles the arrival of Arizona’s first women artists, the struggle of succeeding generations to gain professional recognition, and the emergence of their diverse and creative vision. It pays homage to the state’s spirited women artists from the Old West to the present.

Featured in “Museum Preview” April 2001