By Joan Fudala
Scottsdale’s climate has always been a draw for visitors and relocating residents; the natural environment and breathtaking Sonoran Desert landscape have particularly attracted and inspired scores of visiting or resident artists for well over a century.
Scottsdale’s signature landmark, the McDowell Mountain range, is depicted in numerous works of art and is celebrated each October during McDowell Sonoran Preserve Month.
Here’s a look at just some of the artists who have captured the majesty of Scottsdale’s geology, flora, fauna and colorful desert denizens:
Scottsdale’s first resident artist, Marjorie Thomas, created an historic record of Scottsdale’s pioneer days that is unduplicated. She opened the settlement’s first art studio in 1909, launching Scottsdale’s reputation as an art center and haven for artists that continues to thrive today. A graduate of Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts, she had planned to continue her art career there, but family obligations intervened. Her brother Richard had tuberculosis, so 24-year-old Marjorie, her mother Emma and brother—like so many others at the time—moved to the healthy climate of the Arizona Territory. Town namesake Chaplain Winfield Scott gave the Thomas family a welcome tour of the area in his horse-drawn wagon. Scott brought his mule, Old Maud, over to Marjorie’s cottage and asked her to do a painting of the animal he brought home from service in the Army. She remembered decades later that Scott told her if she painted Old Maud she would “put Scottsdale on the map.” She donated the Old Maud painting to the Scottsdale Fine Art Collection in the 1970s.
Although Scottsdale had become Marjorie’s home, and the animals and desert landscape her inspiration, the area lacked galleries and museums. She became a frequent exhibitor at the Arizona State Fair’s Fine Art Expo and had shows at the Arizona Biltmore and the Phoenix Women’s Club during the 1920s and 1930s. Marjorie created the artwork for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair Rodeo program and was commissioned by the New Deal’s WPA to do a painting that hung in Sen. Carl Hayden’s office for many years. Embracing the rugged outdoor life in Arizona, Marjorie often ventured into the mountains or desert to make sketches for future paintings. She met Western writer Zane Grey through Scottsdale acquaintances, and in 1929, he invited her to join a pack trip to Rainbow Bridge in Northern Arizona. Her work illustrates one of Grey’s books, and the Scottsdale Fine Art Collection acquired one of her paintings from the Zane Grey trip, “End of the Rainbow Trail.”
Jessie Benton Evans migrated to Scottsdale in the 1910s for the same reason—family health concerns. Schooled at the Chicago Institute of Art and in Italy and France, she had shown her work at several Paris salons. She and husband, Denver, bought land on the southern slope of Camelback Mountain circa 1913 and built an Italian-style villa they named Casa Del Deserto, which became a focal point of cultural activities throughout the coming decades. She quickly adapted to desert living, painted numerous local and Arizona landscape scenes and mentored many young artists. The McDowell Mountains east of her home are featured in several of her oil paintings. She was also a judge at the only large-scale art event in the Salt River Valley during the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s—the Fine Art Exhibition at the Arizona State Fair.
At the time of its statehood in 1912, Arizona was perceived as the scenic Wild West, an image created in part by nationally renowned artists like Thomas Moran, Frederic Remington and Charles Russell and novelist Grey. Folks “back east” fantasized about the rough-and-tumble frontier lifestyle of Arizona and the West, creating a market for Western art, literature, and Native American art and crafts.
Trained at the National Academy of Design in New York City, Lillian Wilhelm Smith came to Arizona to accompany her cousin-by-marriage Grey on one of his expeditions. Her illustrations from that trip were used in Grey’s 1915 book, “The Rainbow Trail.” She lived on the northeast corner of what is now Indian School and Miller roads in Scottsdale until circa 1960, when she moved to Prescott. Beyond oil paintings and book illustrations, she designed the “Whirlwind” pattern for fine china sold at Goldwater’s department store.
Bertha Menzler Dressler Peyton, trained at the Art Institute of Chicago and in Paris, was a frequent visitor to Arizona in the early 1900s. She was entranced by the Arizona landscape and received commissions from the Santa Fe railroad. Among her paintings were those with titles such as “Evening in the Desert,” “Desert Effects” and “Sunshine and Shower.”
George Elbert Burr was praised in his November 18, 1939, Arizona Republic obituary, “An artist who glorified the southwestern desert country with etchings which were famous for their deft, sure touch and their delicacy of expression, Mr. Burr had been given international recognition. While he had produced many beautiful etchings of other than desert vistas, it was his interpretations of such familiar Arizona scenes as the mystic Superstition mountains, the desert when the saguaros and candles of God are blooming, that won him his greatest renown.”
In 1937, the local art and architectural community received an unexpected boost when one of the most famous architects in the world, Frank Lloyd Wright, established his winter home and School of Architecture at the southern foothills of the McDowells. After several winter trips to Scottsdale’s Jokake Inn, Wright and his wife, Olgivanna, built a winter home and school of architecture they called Taliesin West. The grounds overlooked the entire Valley of the Sun, and the architect taught his apprentices to follow his concepts of organic architecture, creating buildings from and in harmony with their natural Sonoran Desert surroundings. The Wrights brought a new level of culture to Scottsdale and the desert by hosting frequent salons, cabarets and holiday programs, a coveted invitation for locals. They also encouraged their apprentice architects to create art, and Taliesin West became known for its collection of original paintings, graphic design and sculpture.
Wisconsin native Walter Bohl and his wife, Ann, lived in the Pinnacle Peak area through his death in 1990. During this period, Bohl created dozens of etchings of owls, roadrunners, Gambel quail, white-winged dove and other birds he found living in his backyard. Also fascinated with desert plants, he incorporated indigenous cacti and trees into his watercolors and etchings. He explained in an oral history interview with Jennings Morse for the Scottsdale Historical Society in 1981: “In the spring of 1951, we contacted K.T. Palmer, who had holdings in the Pinnacle Peak area, on the west slope of Pinnacle Peak. I fell in love with the area because of the beautiful desert growth that is present here. My purpose in wanting an acreage in this region is so that I’d have beautiful desert backgrounds for my etchings and watercolors of desert birds.” He received commissions from local banks; Valley National Bank President Walter Bimson was a particular fan. Bohl also did several paintings for the Arizona Bank branch that opened in Scottsdale at Brown and Main in the 1950s. In 1971, his bird etchings and watercolors—all created at his home studio, Wing Haven—were featured at the first city of Scottsdale/Fine Arts Commission Scottsdale Art Festival. Several of his works are in the Scottsdale Public Art’s Fine Art Collection.
Lon Megargee, whose home became the Hermosa Inn in Paradise Valley, created numerous paintings of Valley landscapes, as well as murals for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the 1930s. He also depicted Arizona’s famous cowboys in ads for the A-1 beer company.
Lew Davis was born in Jerome in 1910. His stylized paintings of Arizona’s scenery, horses, mining towns and people gained national attention throughout the 1930s and continued to receive acclaim until his death in 1979. He created works for the U.S. Treasury through a Depression-era WPA program for artists and was part of the artist group at the Phoenix Art Center in the 1930s. In 1937, he met and married the Scottsdale-based sculptress Mathilde Schaefer. Davis served as a civilian employee/graphic artist at Fort Huachuca during World War II, creating murals celebrating the history of African American soldiers stationed at the fort.
Phil Curtis, a founder of the Phoenix Art Museum during the Depression years, settled in the Cattle Track area of Scottsdale in the late 1940s and maintained his art studio there until his death in 2000. He loved the desert and incorporated the McDowells and other desert backdrops in his unique oil paintings. His work is part of both the Scottsdale public art and Phoenix Art Museum collections.
Lotan Lotan, a mysterious and somewhat elusive painter living in Scottsdale in the 1950s and 1960s, received commissions from Walter Bimson and others. His oil of E.E. “Brownie” Brown on horseback shows what life was like on Brown’s Ranch in its heyday. Lotan also penned a regular column on local art and artists in the Arizonian newspaper in the 1950s.
Bill Schimmel, a commercial artist from New York, moved his family to Arizona while he served in World War II. After the war, and at the urging of his friend Wright, the Schimmels settled in Scottsdale. Bill became a resident artist at Segner’s Craft Village on Miller Road. His watercolors and oil paintings of desert scenes were popular with businesses and private collectors. He also taught art at the Craft Village.
Gene Brown Pennington, a graphic and fashion artist and granddaughter of rancher and entrepreneur E.O. Brown, was commissioned by Scottsdale’s first mayor, Malcolm White, to create art for the town’s official seal. Her cowboy and bucking bronco lives today as a city’s beloved emblem.
Oscar Strobel, a transplant from Cincinnati, created murals, oil paintings and watercolor illustrations throughout the 1930s to 1960s from his home studio in Paradise Valley. Beautiful depictions of Arizona’s landscape were featured in a nationally distributed calendar in the 1950s. A colorful character himself, he served as a grand marshal for the Parada del Sol in the 1960s.
Mario Martinez grew up in Scottsdale, trained as an artist, then returned to his hometown to help his neighbors create a mural commemorating their Yaqui culture and heritage. Camelback Mountain is featured as a backdrop in one of the scenes. The murals reside at the Vista del Camino neighborhood center.
Ed Mell’s dramatic art—paintings and sculpture—can be seen throughout Scottsdale, from his Jackknife sculpture in the roundabout on Main Street to oversized oils of flowers and desert landscape at places like Mayo Clinic. He also provided the scenery artwork for the opera based on Grey’s “Riders of the Purple Sage.”
These artists are representative of the many other artists and craftspeople who have lived, worked or featured Scottsdale’s McDowell Mountains and Sonoran Desert landscape, flora, fauna and people in their work. Some are internationally known and collected; others have a more local following. Their media—oil paintings, watercolors, sculpture, photography, quilts, architecture and more—are as varied as their muse, the Sonoran Desert. All have perpetuated Scottsdale’s reputation as an inspirational destination for art and other creative pursuits.