- Shadows on the Mesa: Artists of the Painted Desert and Beyond by Gary Fillmore
In this lavishly illustrated volume, gallerist, collector, and regional art historian, Gary Fillmore recounts the colorful history of the Wetherill and Colville Trading Post in a remote part of Arizona from 1911 to its end in 1945. Fillmore vividly describes the cultural importance of the post that was founded by his great grandparents, John and Louisa Wetherill, in Kayenta, Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation. The Wetherill Post was of special importance to the history of the Southwest, and Arizona in particular, because it was for most of the early years of the twentieth century the outpost from which artists, writers, and photographers gained access to the scenic wonders and archaeological sites near Monument Valley. The author’s mother, Dorothy Leakey, granddaughter of the Wetherills, helped inspire Fillmore’s interest and provided valuable information about the cultural importance [End Page 112] of the trading post and its many illustrious visitors. The author was fortunate to gain access to the illustrated guest registry of the Wetherill-Colville Guest Ranch from Harvey Leakey. Fillmore constructed the outline of his book from this document that inventories the artists, writers, and notables who visited Kayenta.
Among the best known of the impressive list of artists and writers are James Swinnerton and Maynard Dixon. Both were favored employees of William Randoph Hearst’s newspaper syndicate and eager to promote tourism in Northern Arizona. Another was European-trained and New York-based painter William Robinson Leigh. These artists, along with Lillian Wilhelm, the photographer Dorothea Lange, and noted cartoonists George Herriman and Rudolph Dirks gathered in 1922 at the Wetherill Post for a dinner party and an expedition to the ruins at Tsegi Canyon. Their presence is documented by the guest register with its elaborate drawings and inscriptions. Fillmore amply illustrates some of the work that resulted from this and many later visits to Kayenta with a variety of images ranging from finished paintings in oil, to sketches, and numerous cartoons drawn by Swinnerton, Herriman and Dirks. Other visitors to Kayenta included Swedish-born painter Carl Oscar Borg, who arrived in 1924 and the Minnesotan muralist Frank Joseph Van Sloun. In 1926 the Wetherill Ranch was visited for the first time by a couple who would leave an important mark on the cultural life of Northern Arizona: Mary-Russell Coulton and her husband, Harold Coulton. Mary Coulton was an accomplished amateur artist and would go on to play an important role in the founding of the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. Harold Coulton was interested in American Indian archaeology. More artists followed, such as Swedish-born painter Gunnar Widforss. Georgia O’Keeffe and photographer Ansel Adams came in the fall of 1937.
Fillmore’s book provides a wealth of color illustrations related to the region that were produced in a surprising variety of media. They offer a welcome insight into the art and visual culture that resulted from visitors to the Wetherill Trading Post. Collectors and students interested in these artists will find an abundance of examples. Art historians may be concerned that the author seldom offers any critical insights into the art; however, that was not the intent of the volume. The account of the trading post and its visitors is purely anecdotal and biographical. Fillmore’s story is occasionally repetitious and chronologically it is confusing in places, but it does unquestionably offer insight into an overlooked chapter of southwestern art history not previously chronicled.