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Timeless Excellence: Honoring Museum of Northern Arizona's Fine Arts Collection

June 17, 2006 - April 22, 2007


Timeless Excellence: Honoring Museum of Northern Arizona's Fine Arts Collection is an exhibit of 52 compelling works by some of the most important artists to interpret the Colorado Plateau, from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. This new exhibit opened at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff on Saturday, June 17, 2006 through Sunday, April 22, 2007. (right: Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton, Edmund Nequatewa, 1942, 42 x 32 inches, oil on wood)

The MNA Fine Arts Collection has its origins in Native artwork collected by its founders, the Coltons. The Museum's Hopi and Navajo Festivals were also important occasions for early acquisitions.

Early Anglo artists came to visit and paint the region in the early years of the area's exploration. The earliest works in the exhibit are by Vincent Colyer in 1869 and Samuel Colman in 1870. They represent a growing number of artists from the East at this time who explored the Colorado Plateau. They were followed by Fredrick Dellenbaugh and William Henry Holmes, who worked for John Wesley Powell in his survey of the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon region and painted in 1880. These four artists gave easterners their very first glimpses of landscapes that would draw tourists to the West in ever-increasing numbers.

DeWitt Parshall and Louis Aiken were commissioned by the Santa Fe Railway to produce paintings for brochures and travel posters, advocating travel to "America's Wonderland." They both produced a number of works in exchange for travel and lodging expenses along the rail line.

Timeless Excellence includes a number of important works by some of the most prominent artists who worked in the Studio Style. Fred Kabotie, Robert Chee, and Harrison Begay represent a major shift for Indian art as prior to attending U.S. government boarding schools, Indian artists had no tradition of painting on paper or canvas. In the Studio Style, two-dimensional shapes are highly stylized and frequently depict Indian life in an idealized manner.

An additional highlight of the exhibit is a large number of paintings by Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton, a painter of great talent from the early twentieth century. Her paintings of dramatic southwestern landscapes, and Hopi and Navajo people, show influences from popular early-twentieth century Art Deco-style paintings and graphics, and from Japanese woodblock prints.

Later twentieth century artists like Michael Kabotie and Helen Hardin work with elements of traditional, even prehistoric, imagery, but are no longer bound by sentimental and or clichéd illustrations. And despite the influence of modern art movements, naturalistic work such as Earl Carpenter's and Wilson Hurley's are still among the most popular works, with the visual language of nineteenth century Romanticism still important to artists on the Colorado Plateau.


About Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton

It is an exciting homecoming for a sought after Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton painting. "Valley Little Colorado," a landscape of a red mesa under a cloud-filled sky, is now at Flagstaff's Museum of Northern Arizona. Colton, a professional artist who co-founded MNA in 1928 with Dr. Harold Sellers Colton, painted this landscape early in her career, around 1925. (right: Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton, Valley Little Colorado)

Museum Trustee Susan Olberding, who is engaged in a research and documentation project for Colton's artwork, discovered the painting for sale at an art gallery in Pennsylvania last fall. The Museum had a strong interest in adding this painting to its art collection and was able to accomplish this endeavor through the anonymous support of an interested group of donors who generously contributed its $13,000 cost.

"It is important to MNA to honor Mrs. Colton through this acquisition," said Museum Director Dr. Robert Breunig, "not only because she is one of MNA's founders, but also because she is a significant, if under-recognized, painter of the land and people of the West. Over time MNA hopes to acquire the strongest possible representation of Mrs. Colton's work for our collection."

Colton graduated with honors from the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in 1908 and became one of "The Ten" of Philadelphia, a progressive group of women painters and sculptors who worked and exhibited together. Colton exhibited with "The Ten" from the 1910s to 1940, and especially became known for her portraits of the Native people she met and the landscapes she visited in northern Arizona. Her work received critical acclaim in Philadelphia and New York City. The following mention appeared in the September 2, 1920 edition of The Christian Science Monitor:

"In her Arizona canvases, Mrs. Colton gives sway to her love of color. One is impressed by the sense of vast remoteness that she manages to capture for these western paintings that are bringing her ever-increasing recognition."

Colton was elected to the Arizona Women's Hall of Fame in 1981, its inaugural year. Her many contributions to the state of Arizona include a colorful artistic record of its natural and cultural heritage through her paintings, and a host of efforts that encouraged Arizona artists. Among these were the summertime Hopi Craftsman Exhibition and Navajo Craftsman Exhibition, which Colton launched through the Museum in 1931 and 1949 respectively, and which continue to this day as the Museum's Hopi Festival of Arts and Culture (in early July) and the Navajo Festival of Arts and Culture (in late July).

rev. 2/18/07

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