Not only was Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton a renowned artist in her own right, but she took on the mission of fostering the redevelopment and popularity of Native American artisans. Through her efforts, and those of her husband, Harold Sellers Colton, Flagstaff’s Museum of Northern Arizona became one of the pre-eminent facilities encouraging indigenous arts and crafts.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 25, 1889, Mary began her studies at the Philadelphia School of Design at the age of 15. She opened an art studio in downtown Philadelphia with two of her classmates, preferring to work in oils but also experimenting with pencil, ink, charcoal, watercolor and sculpture.
In 1910, she met University of Pennsylvania zoology professor Harold Colton. The couple wed on May 23, 1912.
Spending their honeymoon traveling and camping throughout the west, they arrived in Flagstaff that June and hiked the San Francisco Peaks.
Making their home in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, the couple traveled west whenever possible. They collected old Indian potsherds and discovered ancient sites around Flagstaff that had never been documented including Elden Pueblo, one of the most important pueblos in the Flagstaff area. Recording the location of many ruins they discovered, they initiated some of the first archaeological surveys of the Colorado Plateau.
They visited the Hopi mesas and watched snake dances at Hotevilla and Oraibi. After an extensive trip through the Painted Desert and Hotevilla, Harold wrote his mother that Mary “had discarded her skirt and taken to bloomers quite unblushingly, and on the whole trip wore her hair in pigtails.”
On Aug. 30, 1914, Mary gave birth to Joseph Ferrell Colton, and on Sept. 4, 1917, Sabin Woolworth Colton IV arrived. On a trip to Tucson in 1923, 6-year-old Sabin came down with valley fever and died the following year.
The Coltons moved to Flagstaff in 1925, purchasing 400 acres of land during the ensuing years.
At this time, a small gallery housed in the town’s Women’s Club contained a handful of native blankets, basketry, and pottery. Mary urged the community to expand its native holdings into a facility of science and art. She proposed building a museum from native rock, “roofed with stout spruce timbers, somewhat after the pueblo style of architecture, and placed high upon a mesa top overlooking the city and facing the great Peaks.”
With the backing of the community, the Museum of Northern Arizona began to grow. Harold was elected director and president, a position he held for 30 years, while Mary took on the job as curator of art and later accepted the additional position of curator of ethnology, serving until 1948.
Mary was deeply concerned about the decline in Hopi craftsmanship. She was determined to re-establish these ancient arts, skills that had deteriorated with the onset of modern machinery and cheaply made imitations.
She hunted for a better breed of sheep that would produce quality wool and provide weavers with long staple cotton to construct handwoven fabrics that would flourish with the strength and beauty of ancient cloths.
She sought a source for indigo that would re-create the brilliant blue dyes once used in Hopi weavings. She studied native plants searching for traditional stains that would improve the color quality in textiles and basketry.
She experimented with firing methods and paints to restore Hopi pottery to its former beauty and skill while researching natural soils and rocks trying to replicate authentic clay colors.
Mary initiated the Arizona Artists Exhibitions in 1929, providing local artists with a venue for promoting their work. She put together a traveling exhibit, “Craftsmen of the Painted Desert,” displaying Hopi and Navajo art to schools and museums across the country. Her trunk show or “treasure chest,” in which she compiled lesson plans consisting of collections of art objects and techniques, received national acclaim for its innovative teaching methods.
On July 2, 1930, Mary held the first Hopi craftsman exhibition to promote and preserve native art. “Indians swarmed in from the Reservation,” said Harold, “then the dry season broke with a gentle rain, which was interpreted to mean that the benevolent Kachinas that dwell in the towering Peaks above the town, were pleased. It was, therefore, a huge success.”
By 1931, she had established the junior art show, presenting the artistic talents of grade-school children. “Art education must begin with children,” she wrote. We must grow our own artists. The material is here awaiting encouragement and cultivation.”
In 1934, she published “Art for the Schools of the Southwest: An Outline for the Public and Indian Schools.”
“It does not matter what career he, or she, may adopt in later life,” she wrote, “training in art appreciation means an increased ability to see beauty in the world about you and a facility for creating things with your hands; these things are a great asset and add immensely to our joy in life.”
She initiated the Hopi Silver Project in 1938, encouraging silversmiths to utilize ancient designs and adopt an overlay technique she proposed would generate better quality and a saleable product.
As the Museum of Northern Arizona expanded, the Coltons donated over 100 acres of land to help it grow and thrive. Mary, however, was not flourishing as well.
She became a recluse, rarely leaving her home. She went back to painting for a while, completing “Bell Rock” and “Courthouse Rock,” a Sedona landscape, in 1951, her last work. And although she was not well, she participated in the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the museum in 1953, and an exhibition of her art in 1958.
Harold completed the work she had started to restore ancient Hopi colors, publishing her recipes and findings in “Hopi Dyes” in 1965.
Mary, 82, died July 16, 1971. She is buried in a family plot outside Philadelphia.