Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on May 28, 2009 with permission of Robert Stragnell and Sue Willoughby. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Phippen Museum:


Pioneer Women: Arizona History Through Art

by Robert Stragnell & Jim Willoughby


In contributing so grandly to the hard-won opening of the West, pioneer women suffered pain and untold hardship. They raised crops and children, cooked, cleaned and defended against intruders. They weathered calamitous circumstances for the privilege of taking up residence in this new land and often died early deaths. In spite of this, they brought life and culture to the West.

Prescott, an Arizona community, primarily dependent on mining and ranching for its livelihood, developed an unusually high level of cultural discernment despite relative isolation. This may have resulted from the early awareness that the climate of the area was beneficial for individuals in poor health, particularly those with respiratory problems. Many, who had the financial ability to migrate to this healthy high elevation community, had more than casual cultural awareness and education. With their arrival they fostered music, theater, literature, and art, serving, perhaps, to soften the otherwise hard core of the growing mass of roughneck agronauts, cattlemen and frontier women who took up their homes in their mountainous domain.

Of particular cultural importance was the 1895 founding of Prescott's Monday Club, the first women's club in Arizona. The founding members named the association the Monday Club to denote their independence, in effect thumbing their noses at the convention that Monday was washday and women should be chained to their home responsibilities. Among the members of this club were artists Kate T. Cory, Mabel Lloyd Lawrence, Claire Dooner Phillips, Ada Eldred Rigden, and Lillian Wilhelm Smith -- often referred to as the "Five Ladies of Prescott."

Born in Waukegan, Illinois on February 8, 1861, Cory was an accomplished portrait and landscape painter and showed great originality in capturing the texture of the arid desert landscapes of Arizona. Her father, James Y. Cory, was an activist editor and newspaper publisher, as well as an ardent abolitionist, involved with the underground railroad which helped escaped slaves reach Canada. The direction that Kate took in her life and with her art, may have been influenced by this early social awareness of persons of a different color and culture.

Cory took classes at the Arts Students League in New York and Cooper Union. In the fall of 1904, she met Louis Akin, a well-known artist, at the Pen and Brush Club. He was enthusiastic about trying to start an art colony at the Grand Canyon. Cory was intrigued by this and left New York City in 1905 to spend her next seven years living with, studying, and photographing the Hopi Indians. Her photographs from this period, were later gathered into a book, The Hopi Photographs of Kate Cory: 1905 - 1912.

In 1912, Cory moved to Prescott to concentrate on her art. She shared her knowledge of art with the Monday Club's Fine Art Committee, and participated in local exhibitions and talks during the years she was active in Prescott. In 1913, Cory participated in the famous Armory Show in New York City where her painting, Arizona Desert, was sold.

During World War I, Cory became a member of the Women's Land Army, a garden project on Long Island where a colony of women worked to increase food production for the war effort. During this time, however, she continued to concentrate on her art, working on airplane designs and camouflage techniques. She also studied with the Students Art League and exhibited with the Society of Independent Artists. After the war, Cory moved back to her home in Arizona.

Ada Eldred Rigden was born in Twin Bridges, Montana on August 31, 1886, the eldest of four children. Shortly after her birth the family returned to Michigan where her father's family had settled in the community of Climax, near Battle Creek, in 1834. Ada and her brothers and sisters grew up and attended schools in Battle Creek; later she went to Kalamazoo Teachers College.

In 1905, when she was nineteen, Rigden moved to Arizona, possibly seeking a climate that would help her respiratory problems. She took a job for the school year 1905 - 06 as a teacher in Kirkland at a salary of eighteen dollars a month and rode her horse two-and-a-half miles to and from her home every day.

While in Kirkland she met Charles Rigden, a local rancher, whom she married on October 30, 1907. Although always busy as a rancher's wife, Rigden loved art, and through the years she continued to study art and painting.

In the 1920s the Rigdens lived temporarily in Prescott so their children could attend Prescott High School. Ada began studying oil painting and palette knife technique in 1923 with artist Claire Dooner Phillips, who had moved to Prescott in 1922 after the death of her mother.

Clara Dooner was born in Los Angeles, California on August 31, 1886. Her father was a native of Canada who came to the Arizona Territory and for awhile was the editor and publisher of the Tucson Weekly Arizonan. In 1872, he left Prescott for Los Angeles and became wealthy through real estate investments.

Claire attended Stanford University, later studied art with Arthur Dow at Columbia University, and upon returning home taught at Hollywood High School. She also exhibited with group shows of Painters and Sculptures of Southern California, Women Painters of the West, California Art Club, and was a co-founder of the Laguna Beach Art Association in 1918. Claire married Kervin Phillips in 1927 and through the years he made exquisite gilded frames for his wife's paintings.

Most of Phillips early work was in oil, but in her later years she taught herself to make etchings. During the 1940s and 1950s, many of the local newlyweds received Phillips' etchings as wedding presents. Claire died April 2, 1960, and two years later, when her husband died, the balance of their estate (almost $90,000) was bequeathed to Prescott College. These funds were used for the building of the Clara Dooner Phillips Memorial Fine Arts Center. It is of interest to note that her given name, used in the naming of this building, was Clara although she had been known as Claire throughout her years in Prescott.

Although not considered one of the "Five Ladies of Prescott," Lucy Drake Marlow was among the first professional women artists in Arizona. Marlow moved to Tucson, Arizona, in 1927, choosing to pursue a career as an artist in this sparsely populated, new state. Five years after moving to Tucson, she joined with Frederick Sommer, a well-known photographer, to open an art school. An academic painter by training, Marlow was equally at ease with charcoals, pastels and oil paint. Throughout the teens and early 1920s, she integrated aspects of Impressionism into her paintings, typical of many artists of the time. It was, however, her large impressive portraits of the 1930s, including Yaqui Woman and Parasol, that were included in major exhibitions throughout the country and won her special recognition from various clubs and salons.

Throughout the 1950s the paintings of Prescott artists were exhibited at the St. Michael Hotel, the Monday Club, and the Carnegie Library. In addition, The Monday Club spearheaded such organizations as the Carnegie Library and catalyzed programs involving the appreciation of literature, music and art.

About the authors

Robert Stragnell was born in Ossining, New York, and followed a career in medicine. He was a reader at the Huntington Library studying the history of early Southern California Ranches. Upon retirement Dr. Stragnell moved to Prescott, Arizona where his interest in western history continued at the Sharlott Hall Museum. Because of a long held interest in art, he volunteered at the Phippen Museum of Western Art and was the curator of two exhibitions there: Landscapes of the West (1993) and Five Ladies of Prescott and Their Art (1995). He now lives in the upper valley of the Connecticut River.

Jim Willoughby wrote and illustrated for several magazines including Arizona Highways and Southwest Art, worked as a cartoonist and storyboard artist for animation houses such as Disney Studios and Hanna Barbara, and authored several books including two books of cartoons that drew upon the folklore and legends surrounding cowboys.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on May 28, 2009, with permission from Robert Stragnell and Sue Willoughby, granted to TFAO on March 9, 2009, and April 15, 2009, respectively. It pertains to an exhibition, Pioneer Women: Arizona History Through Art, that was on view at the Phippen Museum through March 30, 1998. The exhibition included historic and contemporary sculpture and painting, historic photographs, artifacts and assorted memorabilia.

This article appeared in the March - April 1998 issue of American Art Review.

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

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