Home > Carnegie Center > Arizona Women's Hall of Fame > Inductees > Colton, Mary Russell Ferrell
Mary Russell Ferrell Colton
1889 – 1971
Inducted in 1981
In 1928 Mary Russell Ferrell Colton and her husband, Harold S. Colton,
founded the Museum of Northern Arizona. He became the director; she became
the curator of art and ethnology. For more than 20 years the Coltons worked
to expand public understanding of the Indian cultures in northern Arizona
and of the history of the area. Mrs. Colton, an artist, had a deep appreciation
for the arts and crafts of the native people of northern Arizona. She was
dismayed, as were many others, to see the traditional skills being lost
to the younger generations. Determined to do something about the situation,
she collected, cataloged and preserved thousands of Indian artifacts, crafts
and works of art. Mrs. Colton researched and wrote papers on the techniques
of the Hopi craftsmen, discussing Hopi silversmithing, pottery and weaving.
In 1965 she wrote a book called Hopi Vegetable Dyes. She had spent years
discussing techniques with Hopi artists and conducting laboratory experiments
to develop effective formulae for the dyes. Her work stimulated a renewed
interest in traditional dyes among the Hopi, and the book became an important
reference for Hopi artists.
Her interest in art went beyond what she could find nearby. She was undoubtedly
one of the first Arizonans to recognize the need for bringing culture to
the state. She arranged for special exhibitions of paintings, sculptures
and crafts by outstanding artists from throughout the country. And in 1929,
she organized the Arizona Artists' Art and Crafts Show, the first exhibition
open to all artists in the state.
Born on March 25, 1889, in Louisville, Kentucky, Mary-Russell grew up
in Germantown, Pennsylvania. When she was 15, she enrolled in the Philadelphia
School of Design for Women, the nation's first art school for women. In
1912 she and her husband came to Arizona on their honeymoon. "We
chose northern Arizona because it has so many mountains, and we both like
mountain climbing," she told a reporter. After several summer
vacations in the West, they moved to Flagstaff in 1926 and had a Spanish
colonial home built north of the city.
Though Dr. Colton had taught zoology at the University of Pennsylvania,
after moving to Arizona he chose to specialize in the field of archeology.
Mrs. Colton, in addition to serving as curator at the museum, earned a
national reputation as an artist. Her interests extended from oil and watercolors
to wood carvings and block prints. A story in The Arizona Republic in
November 1948 reported she was carving life-size mannequins which would
be used to display textiles at the museum. According to the same newspaper
story, one of her proudest possessions was an elaborate beam she had carved
and painted for use in the Colton home. It was an exact replica of a 1680
Spanish mission beam found in the Hopi village of Oraibi.
Her paintings, including Southwest landscapes and portraits of many of
the Indians she met in northern Arizona, were shown to critical acclaim
in Philadelphia and New York City. As a graduate of the Philadelphia School
of Design for Women, she was a member of a group known as "Ten Philadelphia
Painters.” Working at the Museum of Northern Arizona, Mrs. Colton
initiated a program of artistic events that continues to this day. In 1930
she launched the Hopi Craftsman Show, which had three objectives: to provide
a showcase for the best Hopi artists, to stimulate public interest in Indian
works, and to provide a financial incentive for the artists to improve
their craftsmanship. The show was an unqualified success and has grown
in popularity each year.
During the 1930s only a few Hopis were working in silver, and they were
producing jewelry similar to that of the Navajo. Mrs. Colton encouraged
the Hopis to develop a style which would be uniquely their own. She proposed
that their silversmiths use ancient pottery, basket and textile designs
to create a distinctively Hopi style of jewelry, a style which became known
as Hopi overlay and is extremely popular today. In 1942 the Navajo Craftsman
Show began. Like the Hopi show, this event not only benefited the Indian
artists but also increased public awareness of their artistic contributions.
Mrs. Colton died on July 26, 1971, in Phoenix at the age of 82.
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