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Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton: Artist and Advocate in Early Arizona

June 17 - October 28, 2012


Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton was an independent spirit. Her creative drive and tenacious temperament led her to become an artist, educator, ethnographer, curator, and writer. And her love of art, nature, and Southwestern cultures played a major role in the creation of her artwork and the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, with her husband, Harold Sellers Colton. (right: Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton, Navajo Shepherdess, c. 1916. In this early, major work, the Navajo girl is enveloped in a sky filled with towering cumulous clouds, the kind regularly seen moving across the Arizona sky during summer monsoon season.)

Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton: Artist and Advocate in Early Arizona, the first major retrospective of her work, pays tribute to this multitalented artist and marks the Arizona Centennial, as well as the Coltons' honeymoon visit to Flagstaff in 1912. The Museum of Northern Arizona exhibit of 50 paintings and drawings opens Sunday, June 17, in conjunction with the 6th Annual Gala Weekend, and continues through October 28, 2012, chronicling a life of adventure and artistic success.

Deeply committed to these pursuits, Colton played a vital role in the cultural and intellectual life of northern Arizona. Museum of Northern Arizona Fine Arts Curator Alan Petersen observed, "Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton's life and artwork echoed the optimism and modernity of the early twentieth century. Like many other artists and writers during this period, her work reflected the popular romantic perspective of the Southwest. That, and her sense of wonder at the natural world, defined her as an individual and as an artist."

Throughout her career, Colton painted landscapes, figures, still lifes, and genre scenes. With landscapes outnumbering her other works two to one, they became the basis of her artistic reputation. In her work, the bright palette of impressionists is tempered by the more restrained color and simplified values of Tonalist works.

Tonalism was a popular style in American painting between 1880 and 1920, emerging from the work of a broad range of late-nineteenth century painters. The style emphasized simplified forms; harmonious, muted colors; atmospheric space, and often an element of mystery or melancholy. Colton's artistic style throughout her creative life ranged from a brighter, more intense palette to a more simplified and muted tonalist one.

"As an ethnographer, curator, and writer, Colton made significant contributions to the progressive education movement, the Indian arts and crafts movement, and the field of museum education. She fostered Native arts, especially among the Hopi and Navajo, she encouraged Arizona's Anglo artists, and she brought outside art influences to the Colorado Plateau, seeking to establish Flagstaff as a significant cultural center," says W. James Burns, Ph.D., exhibit cocurator and director of the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg, Arizona.

Burns added, "The landscapes and peoples of the Colorado Plateau resonated deeply with Colton, who firmly believed that the arts enrich peoples' lives: that they provide a living, that they are a refuge from the struggles of daily life, that they make a person well-rounded, and that they teach about the world around us and how it works. She understood that the arts are essential, not just a luxury, that they get to the core of what it means to be human, defining us as a society."  (left: Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton, In the Valley of the Painted Hills, 1928. Painted two years after the Coltons moved to Flagstaff, in this piece Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton's vibrant colors reveal her enchantment with the landscapes of northern Arizona and the greater Colorado Plateau.)

After Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton: Artist and Advocate in Early Arizona leaves the Museum of Northern Arizona in the fall, it will travel to the Desert Caballeros Western Museum from December 14, 2012 to March 3, 2013.

Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton enjoyed a long and successful career as a painter, an arts educator, and a curator. Her adventurous spirit and love of nature was reflected in her art and guided her throughout her life. She did much to foster the nascent Arizona arts community and her legacy remains the finest expression of a resourceful individual, who enthusiastically embraced the American West.   


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