Looking Back

A Firestone Gallery exhibit features depictions of Arizona before the developers came.

In 1905, artist ARTIST Kate Thompson Cory boarded a train bound for Arizona Territory.

Her destination was Oraibi, on the Hopi mesa. Cory had met up with the painter Louis Akin back east, and he enthralled her with his plan to start an artists' colony on the Indians' rocky outposts in northeastern Arizona. At 44, Cory had lost both her parents and was eager to trade East for West. She signed right up, but Akin's highfalutin plan failed to materialize. Cory went to Hopi anyway, and lived there for seven years.

She made a name for herself as a photographer of the Hopi (her work is collected in an out-of-print book, The Hopi Photographs: Kate Cory, 1907-1912), and she became the first woman to paint the Grand Canyon, according to research by gallerist Eric Firestone. She lived to be 97 years old, dying in 1958. She moved to Prescott in 1912 and kept painting; she even worked on designs for airplanes and camouflage. She's little known nowadays, but one of her paintings has fortuitously turned up in a show at Firestone's new space in the old Josias Joesler studio at River Road and Campbell Avenue.

Her "Hopi Land Wash," an oil on canvas dated 1931, owes much to 19th-century ideas of the sublime in the Western landscape. Dominated by a large rock outcropping and a deeply etched crevice, the painting provides a somewhat romanticized view of the mesas, which Cory rendered in delicate pinks, yellows and blues. The Cory painting is just one of many sterling finds in the exhibition, titled Arizona: 1920-1960.

The show's 71 works are mostly oil paintings, but they also include a good number of etchings, particularly Marilka Modjeska's little gem, "Pusch Ridge," from 1927. Naturally, landscapes dominate, and one of the exhibition's greatest charms is its pictures of early Tucson's unmolested natural beauties.

Inside the gallery, you can look at a painting like Lavaun B. Curtis' 1950 "Ironwood Ridge," of the craggy Catalinas, colored in their perennial hues of pink-beige and blue, then catch a glimpse through the windows of the same real-life mountains in all their 3-D glory. They're still the same shapes and colors, of course, but nowadays they preside, lamentably, over a much degraded city.

You can track down a number of favorite Tucson haunts in fine little oils by Willard Page (1885-1958). He deftly painted "Sabino Canyon" around 1930, "Rincon Pass" circa 1935 and "Catalinas at Sunset" the same year. An unidentified artist of the "Arizona School" painted another "Pusch Ridge" around 1930: It offers a fine view of what is now Catalina State Park, sans today's chain drugstores around the edges.

Though his gallery is best known for fine arts-and-crafts furniture, Firestone has long dealt in early Arizona art. He acknowledges one of the appeals of early Arizona painting is its preservation in paint of a desert Eden that later Arizona has done its level best to destroy. Early 20th-century Tucson, he said, was home to a number of fine painters, including the women of the Brush and Palette Club. Many of them, like Cory, were Easterners who fell head over heels with the monumental West.

"This show highlights the really good representational work done here two or three generations ago," he says.

It also represents the prodigious research Firestone did to track down the artists. For instance, in putting together his fine little grouping of Willard Page landscapes, he located "Sabino Canyon" as far afield as Tennessee. (Originally from Kansas, Page and his wife were in Prescott and Tucson in the '30s and '40s; Page's small paintings were one-of-a-kind souvenirs tourists could carry home.) Biographical tidbits like these turn up in a fine booklet by Firestone that's available for sale at the gallery.

The exhibition celebrates the expansion of his gallery into the old Joesler adobe, which, until recently, was occupied by a satellite operation of the downtown Etherton Gallery. Firestone says his new gallery will offer a mix of visual art shows, including December's look at 1930s Mexican art and a solo show by current Tucson painter James Cook.

The original gallery, still full of furniture, is in another historic building just to the north of this one. It's the former studio and home of one of the show's painters, Hutton Webster (1910-1956), whose 1950 "Saint Philip's Doorway" gives a close-cropped view of the Joesler church that, mercifully, still stands across the street. (County officials, in their wisdom, lopped off a good chunk of its historic walled garden to make way for--what else?--a road widening.) Still intact in this half-century old painting, the church and its garden shelter an enigmatic woman dressed in flame red.

Other architectural images of earlier Tucson include Don Cowen's loose, shadowy watercolor of "Washington and Court Street, Tucson," 1960, painted just before the devastation of urban renewal. Leon Pescheret (1892-1971) did a pair of fine colored etchings in the 1940s of San Xavier and St. Philip's, pictured darkly beneath storm clouds. "Pioneer Hotel Lobby," by John Falter, was painted in 1950, before the great fire.

"Strawberry Roan," 1942, takes viewers back out on the West's mythological range. A rare portable painting by Lew Davis, a WPA painter known for cowboy-themed murals in post office lobbies from California to Oklahoma, it's a large and muscular image of a cowpoke at work. Its monumental figures are reminiscent of Depression-era murals, but they also evoke Thomas Hart Benton's regional paintings of the same era, with their roiling landscapes and undulating buildings, and the realistic wranglers of Steinbeck's 1937 Of Mice and Men.

Not yet trapped in the rigid clichés of today's tiresome "Western" art, Davis' cowboys--and Cory's cliffs and Page's canyons--glow in the light, still fresh, still energetic, still evocative of a new land.

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