September 2015

Lauren LeBlanc


Ladies of the Canyons: A League of Extraordinary Women and Their Adventures in the American Southwest by Lesley Poling-Kempes

With her sweeping landscapes, sensuous florals, and stark skulls, Georgia O'Keefe is arguably the most iconic American woman artist of the twentieth century. For those who have never visited Ghost Ranch, her home and studio in New Mexico, her artwork offers a portal into the American Southwest. Yet, despite her strong association with the region, O'Keefe was born in Wisconsin and studied art in Chicago and New York City. Had she not made a home at Ghost Ranch would she have achieved this level of success?

Ninety-five years ago this summer, the 19th amendment granted American women the right to vote. However, women could legally vote in the Wyoming Territory fifty-one years before American women's national suffrage. It was political savvy that drove Western states to offer women the right to vote, but calculated motivations didn't stop American women from embracing the region. Throughout American history, the West loomed large as a place of freedom and independence. Singular women abandoned their prescribed lives to create a new world for themselves out west.

Lesley Poling-Kempes's Ladies of the Canyons: A League of Extraordinary Women and Their Adventures in the American Southwest chronicles the lives of several East Coast women who moved west for a multitude of reasons. Many dedicated themselves to cultural work and preservation. Some sought the freedom to live outside the pressure to marry and settle. Often women traveled west to recover from long-lasting illnesses. All of them found a deeper sense of self-worth and determination.

Dorothy Wickenden's Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West (2011, Scribner) explored a similar story of elite East Coast women charting a new path out west, but Poling-Kempes's scale is a more expansive look at the impact created by a larger group of women who rallied for Native American cultural preservation and artistic tradition in the Southwest.

Poling-Kempes writes:

[T]he "civilized" world ceased to have meaning... [W]hen you traveled into the deep outback of Indian Country, conventional time became irrelevant. Hours and days were measured by the movements of the sun and the moon, and time was of significance only in relation to the distance one needed to cross between sunup and sundown.

While it's somewhat problematic to consider the Southwest a place outside civilization, it is clear that this was a space where women could set their own agenda. The New Women, as they were known at the time, bent to no convention. That said, all of the women profiled in Ladies of the Canyons arrived west with significant financial support. This was not a haven for women without independent means.

Poling-Kempes does not dwell on this fact. Nor does she provide much in the way of insight into the lives of the Native Americans and locals who assisted these women. Opting against speculation, she focuses exclusively on these elite women based on their correspondence and journals. While this perspective often feels selective and often uneven, it's important to remember that these entitled women did sacrifice a world of comfort for access to a new world beyond so-called civilization -- often for the good of others.

Take, for example, Natalie Curtis. At eighteen years old, most women of her time and station dedicated themselves to the search for a proper husband; Natalie chose, at that age, to become a professional concert pianist. The Curtis family resided on Washington Place in New York City and was an elite, American Victorian family with strong ties to the Roosevelts. They encouraged and celebrated Natalie's genuine talent, but it was understood that, as a woman, Natalie would walk away from her career once she was married. This familial duty was not expected of her brother George.

In 1897, at the age of 21, Curtis suffered what was described as a "collapse." While her family attributed this to her strenuous musical practice, contemporary readers recognize this as a nervous breakdown. In the following years, she spent her convalescence at home in Manhattan and continued to place music above the institution of marriage. Encouraged by her brother George's enthusiasm for the Southwest, Curtis decided in late 1902 that she would join him in Southern California. In 1903, Natalie Curtis joined a circle of outdoorsmen and archaeologists who would introduce her to her life's work as an ethnographer of Native American music and culture.

A far cry from the delicate woman who suffered a nervous breakdown from the pressure of her well-bred family, Natalie Curtis developed strong ties within the Hopi community, gaining their trust and respect so much that they allowed her to record their songs and traditions. Curtis went on to publish a piece in Harper's Weekly on the people and music of the Southwest, which helped her raise money to fund further expositions and research. Not only would she go on to publish an authoritative book on Native American music, she successfully lobbied President Theodore Roosevelt to improve conditions for Native Americans.

The success of Curtis's work lead her to go on to study and record African American music and cultural traditions in the American South. Later, she helped develop museums and cultural institutions that would preserve and celebrate the art, culture, traditions, and architecture of the Southwest.

The book chronicles several other women who challenged authority and expectation. Their stories weave a portrait of educated women, familiar with the European continent, and gifted in the arts. The Southwest was by no means a place of last resort. Rather, these women took what they had gained from their travels and education and applied those gifts in the hopes of preserving Native American tradition as well as the natural beauty of the Southwest.

In particular, Carol Stanley stands out. In 1914, never married and in possession of an inheritance, Stanley sought to make a home out West. Through musical circles, she was already friends with Natalie Curtis and, like Curtis, felt grounded in Santa Fe. Together, the two women explored the possibility of managing a guest ranch in New Mexico. It was their hope to establish a major cultural center for Indian arts and crafts.

Their efforts to raise money and support were stalled by the fact that they were single women. Even so, they helped foster an artistic environment where modernist art flourished. An "open door" policy to exhibitions at Santa Fe's Palace of the Governors and its Museum of Fine Arts allowed all local artists to participate in public exhibitions. Along with the beauty and space of Santa Fe, this democratic practice attracted countless artists to the area.

Eventually, Stanley met and married a local guide named Roy Pfaffle. They established an outfitting business, which sprung up in response to interest in dude ranch tourism. Their business evolved into the guest ranch of Stanley and Curtis's dreams. No dream comes without a cost. Roy's alcoholism and gambling addictions created financial instability for the couple. They found themselves in increasing debt. Finally, Stanley decided to divorce Roy, but not before he won a new ranch in a game of cards. That ranch, which was signed over to Stanley before the divorce, became what we know today as Ghost Ranch.

While few records ever link Carol Stanley to the development of Ghost Ranch, it's clear that her vision created the artistic haven where Georgia O'Keefe's career took off. Without it, who could say if O'Keefe would have made a home in New Mexico. Perhaps she would have returned to New York and created a new artistic tradition. Ladies of the Canyons shows the way in which O'Keefe and others were just the latest in a tradition of audacious women who carved a well-traveled path of freedom and challenge.

Ladies of the Canyons: A League of Extraordinary Women and Their Adventures in the American Southwest by Lesley Poling-Kempes
The University of Arizona Press
ISBN: 978-0816524945
384 pages