Carlos Vierra, Sheldon Parson, and Warren Rollins
These three artists set the Stage for the Santa Fe Art Colony
by Michael Ettema, Santa Fe Director, Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery
The careers of the first three “members” of the Santa Fe Art Colony demonstrate how the intricate relationships between the Museum of New Mexico, the artists, the town, and its tourists helped attract other professional painters to Santa Fe.
As important as the museum was to the colony, its success ultimately depended on the talent and participation of individual artists.
Fortunately for everyone, Vierra, Parsons, and Rollins were just the right kind of artists – and people – to get the colony started.
Carlos Vierra (1876 – 1937), a Californian of Portuguese descent, studied art at the Mark Hopkins Institute in San Francisco in the 1890s.
He moved to New York where he started building a reputation for illustration and marine painting until lung problems sent him to New Mexico in 1904.
Like so many of his successors, Vierra fell in love with the sun-drenched landscape, but he was especially taken with the adobe buildings of the Spanish and Pueblo peoples and the way they seemed to grow directly out of their desert setting.
In 1914, Frank Springer commissioned him to record on canvas each of the pueblo mission churches. These and other paintings of traditional New Mexico architecture, both Spanish and Pueblo, were the great achievements of his career.
Vierra must have been delighted when Edgar Hewett moved the School of American Archaeology to Santa Fe in 1907, bringing along a small cadre of scholars who shared his interests.
Hewett also found Vierra a worthy ally, and appointed him to the staff of the new Museum of New Mexico/School of American Research in 1909.
He became one of the most ardent advocates of the Spanish-Pueblo revival in Santa Fe promoting it as a worthy aesthetic endeavor as well as a tourism generator. In 1917, as the Museum of Fine Arts was under construction, Vierra published an article advocating both historic preservation and the construction of new buildings in the “new-old” style.
He wrote: “‘See Santa Fe First.’ There is a reason [to do so] in our rare climate, in our wonderful surroundings and in what is left of historic Santa Fe. Are we going to destroy what is left…or are we going to build in keeping with it?”
The following year, Vierra took his own advice and began construction of an adobe house for his family on Old Santa Fe Trail.
Now considered the first residence built in the Spanish-Pueblo Revival style, it was made possible with the support of Frank Springer who was eager to assist artists, particularly those who promoted the museum’s cause.
Using primarily his own labor, Vierra created a picturesque composition of terraced rooms, irregular walls, projecting vigas, and recessed portales to make the building look “old and expressive.”
Indeed the house was a bit too expressive for some local residents who referred to it as “the ruins near Cutting’s” (comparing it to the conventionally proper house of newspaper publisher, Bronson Cutting).
Although Vierra worked primarily as an independent artist, he did create several major works under the aegis of the Museum of New Mexico/School of American Research.
In the early years of the School, Hewett and his staff excavated Mayan ruins in Yucatan during the winters.
Based on his notes and sketches of the ruins, Vierra executed a series of murals of Mayan life and architecture to be displayed at the Panama-California Exposition in 1915 (Hewett was director of exhibits for the fair). The murals still can be seen in the Hall of Man in Balboa Park in San Diego.
At the same time Vierra was working on the Mayan murals, Hewett commissioned a young Utah artist (and Frank Springer protégé), Donald Beauregard, to paint a series of murals for the New Mexico building at the Exposition, to be installed later in the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe.
As his subject, Beauregard chose scenes related to the life of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of Santa Fe. Tragically, the young artist completed only the studies for all six murals and part of one full-size panel before succumbing to cancer.
Hewett then asked Vierra and his co-worker, Kenneth Chapman, to execute the paintings as Beauregard had envisioned them. Vierra did add one personal touch, however: the image of Christopher Columbus in one of the panels is a self-portrait. To discover how Columbus relates to the life of St. Francis, view the murals in the Museum of Fine Art’s St. Francis Auditorium.
Vierra, who died at age 61, was not among the most prolific painters of Santa Fe as he divided his time between several passionate pursuits.
In addition to his duties at the museum and his efforts to develop and promote Spanish-Pueblo architecture, Vierra was also a skilled photographer. He operated a photo studio on the plaza for several years after his arrival, and in the 1920s he became a pioneer in aerial photography, documenting Chaco Canyon and other archeological sites from the sky.
As an expert marksman and captain in the New Mexico National Guard, Vierra temporarily abandoned his museum mural project in order to fight Pancho Villa on the Mexican border. Later in his life he was famous for proudly wearing his National Guard coat around town.
Although Vierra’s paintings are difficult to find today outside of museums, they are highly prized among collectors for their ability to capture the landscape and architecture of New Mexico just as they appeared in the earliest days of the art colony.
Warren E. Rollins
Warren Eliphalet Rollins (1861-1962) never made Santa Fe his permanent home, yet he was considered “the Dean of the Santa Fe Art Colony.”
This high regard was the result of the early contributions he made to the art colony, his lasting friendships with its members, and his extraordinary longevity, continuing to paint past his 97th birthday.
Born in Carson City, Nevada, Rollins spent his youth in Northern California and attended the Mark Hopkins Institute (then called the San Francisco School of Design) and later became its director of instruction.
But Rollins was an intensely and restlessly energetic man, and soon found that he needed to explore the western landscape which he loved to paint.
He was in Taos for a time in the 1890s, but spent most of that decade in southern California where he began painting the Native American subjects for which he became famous.
Early in the twentieth century, Rollins explored Arizona where he lived among the Hopi off and on for many years.
He also painted in Arizona for the Santa Fe Railway which built him a cabin on the south rim of the Grand Canyon.
1909 found Rollins back in Taos, painting with Bert Phillips and Ernest Blumenschein.
Because Santa Fe had only two resident easel painters (Vierra and Chapman), he thought the territorial capitol might be a good place to show his work.
Rollins’ Taos friends warned him: “Don’t go to Santa Fe; they have no appreciation for art and never will have.” Nevertheless, Phillips wrote him a letter of introduction to then territorial governor, Bradford Prince, and Rollins left for Santa Fe to persuade the governor to give him a show at the new Museum of New Mexico.
The Taos artists’ skepticism about Santa Fe was not entirely unfounded, as Governor Prince reportedly said, “I can’t see what good an art exhibit would do; on the other hand, I can’t see that it could possibly do any harm.”
Rollins got his exhibition, the very first art show at the Museum and an event that helped nudge Edgar Hewett in the direction of supporting an art colony in Santa Fe.
Hewett gave Rollins temporary studio space in the Palace of the Governors and also had him teaching art classes there. Thus he probably was the first in a very long line of colony members to offer professional art instruction in Santa Fe.
Rollins painted in a post-impressionist style with straightforward, well-balanced compositions, slightly simplified drawing, and softened forms.
The palette was high-key in much of his work, favoring strong greens, violets, blues, and oranges. This is particularly true of his crayon drawings which often seem to glow because of the medium’s translucence.
However, many of his landscapes and a few of Indian genre scenes were done in an earthy palette of soft brown, tan, and muted orange. These were especially popular early in his career, earning Rollins praise for his skill at capturing the colors and moods of the desert.
During most of the ‘teens and ‘twenties, Rollins divided his time between studios in Santa Fe, Phoenix, and Los Angeles, but by 1928 he was ensconced in a wilderness studio at Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico.
Over a period of six years in Chaco, he built a major body of work, drawing and painting the Anasazi ruins.
By 1935, Rollins had developed a neurological disorder which caused his hands to shake and made oil painting difficult.
Never losing enthusiasm for his art, Rollins’ solution was to take up drawing with colored wax crayons. He found the medium more than satisfactory, layering up colors much as he had done with oils. He applied his crayon technique to east coast subjects during the 1940s while living with his daughter in Baltimore.
He completed a major series on the Pilgrim ship, Mayflower, during those years saying he always had wanted to paint marine subjects. Returning to Santa Fe in 1952, he spent most of his last decade of life carrying out a full schedule of drawing, teaching, and enjoying the esteem of the artists and residents of his sometime “hometown.”
Orrin Sheldon Parsons (1866-1943) was the second professional, Anglo artist to settle in Santa Fe, arriving in 1913.
Trained at the National Academy of Design under William Merritt Chase, Parsons built a successful career in New York as a portrait and landscape painter whose subjects included President William McKinley and suffragist Susan B. Anthony.
After the death of his wife, the noted photographer Caroline Reed Parsons, Sheldon decided to leave the city. He sold his possessions, packed up his young daughter, Sara, and accepted a mural commission in San Francisco.
Plans changed en route, however, when Parsons suffered a severe relapse of tuberculosis and detoured to Santa Fe in hope of recovery.
Local citizens welcomed Sheldon and Sara, helping them find an apartment in the Padre Gallegos house on Washington Avenue (now Sotheby’s realty.)
Sheldon was too ill to work, so to help with finances, locals purchased several paintings he had brought with him from New York.
Santa Fe merchants also agreed to take paintings in trade for food and supplies. As Parsons slowly recovered over the next eighteen months and was able to resume painting, Frank Springer and other art patrons offered commissions so that he and Sara could reestablish their lives in Santa Fe.
Grateful for the many kindnesses shown to him and his daughter, Parsons returned the favor to other artists as they arrived in town.
His house became a meeting place for visiting and resident painters. At one of the early gatherings, Sara encountered Victor Higgins who was on his way to join the artists in Taos. Sara later recalled, “I am positive I was the first child of thirteen to cook him a five-course Thanksgiving dinner on a two-burner oil stove that smoked and sputtered in a small adobe room overlooking pinon dotted foothills and the handsome snow-capped peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Range.”
Higgins proposed to her that day. They finally married when Sara turned eighteen, but the marriage lasted only two years. At age 20, Sara returned to New York where, like her mother, she became a highly respected photographer.
Santa Fe not only suited Parsons’ health, but also aroused his aesthetic senses.
He was captivated by the hard, bright light of the high desert and, as he resumed painting, he developed an entirely new palette. Gone were the soft, dark tones of his eastern landscapes and formal portraits, replaced with high-key colors dominated by bright yellow, white, and tan with accents of red.
His subject matter changed, too, as he gave up figure painting in favor of local landscapes featuring the softly rounded adobe houses he quickly grew to love.
Though not as vocal as Carlos Vierra, Parsons also was a proponent of preserving Santa Fe’s adobe architecture and building in the Spanish-Pueblo Revival style.
Eventually he was able to buy an old Spanish adobe house on Upper Canyon Road which he remodeled and enlarged into a classic example of the “new-old” architecture.
A painter of Parsons’ reputation – and one who painted old adobe buildings – could not escape the grasp of Edgar Hewett for long.
In 1918 Parsons became the first curator of the newly completed Museum of Fine Arts. Typical of the mutually beneficial relationships between the museum and artists, this part time position offered Parsons both a steady income and time to himself for painting.
In return, Parsons helped the museum build the art colony by acting as ambassador to the artists, offering technical and moral support, and making sure their paintings were attractively hung in the museum shows which Parsons personally assembled.
Many of the artists visiting Santa Fe during Parsons’ tenure as curator were anti-establishment modernists who liked Santa Fe because of its geographical and cultural distance from the academic romanticism of the eastern art schools.
Hewett and Parsons welcomed artists no matter what philosophy or style they professed, and the Museum of Fine Art’s open exhibition policy guaranteed space for their work.
Many of these modernists such as Henri, Davis, Hartley, Burlin, Sloan, and Nordfeldt were famous (or infamous) at the time and are now considered among the most influential artists of the period. The fledgling art colony was thrilled to welcome them.
Unfortunately, not everyone in Santa Fe was so open to new aesthetic ideas.
In 1920 a visiting lecturer from Columbia University delivered a museum-sponsored talk on the modern movement, sparking a months-long debate among the local populace.
The editor of the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper repeatedly attacked modern art as aberrant and fraudulent, and criticized the museum for showing such trash. But even more viciously, the editor attacked the artists themselves as Bolshevist sympathizers and tools of radical New York intellectuals.
During the “Red Scare” following World War I, this was an incendiary accusation.
Parsons rose to defend the museum and the artists with several long letters to the editor in which he pointed out that the ultimate definition of good art was not realist representation but rather the ability “to create a picture (not merely reconstruct a natural object) which will possess an intense life over and above its pictorial qualities.”
New ideas, he said, required education and an attempt at intellectual understanding.
The New Mexican was unrelenting, however, and continued its attacks on the museum and the artists. In the end, the pressure was too great for even the politically connected Hewett to bear, for he knew that the legislature – the source of much of his funding-included many people who agreed with the newspaper.
In 1922, Hewett eliminated Parsons’ position at the Museum, officially citing budget constraints. The Santa Fe Art Colony, however, felt quite certain that Parsons was a political sacrifice.
One of the ironies of these events was that Parsons, himself, was not a modernist.
In fact, he was on record as a skeptic of the modern movement, particularly for its unconventional draftsmanship. Nevertheless, he was sufficiently open-minded and supportive of the art colony and the museum to put himself in jeopardy by defending everyone’s right to paint as they wished, and to have those paintings shown to the public.
And this is just what Sheldon Parsons continued to do as an independent artist. For the next 20 years he made his living by creating peaceful and timeless scenes of Old Santa Fe. Despite his bright palette, his paintings were very traditional in composition, drawing, and brushwork.
They continue to be so evocative of the light, landscape, and feel of Santa Fe that they are now considered the quintessential paintings of the early days of the Santa Fe Art Colony.