Scottsdale’s First Artist


(Update: December 2016.  This exhibition is now featured at the Scottsdale’s Museum of the West and will be until December 2017.)

This past weekend Barbara and I took a short trip to the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg, Arizona. There we enjoyed several interesting Western Americana exhibits along with many impressive pieces from the permanent collection. But our primary purpose was to check out Marjorie Thomas: Arizona Art Pioneer which opened on Saturday.

photo of Marjorie Thomas courtesy DHFA

Marjorie Thomas. Circa 1900. Courtesy of David Hall Fine Art


Curated by Arizona State University professor Dr. Betsy Fahlman, the exhibition features many original oils from various collections.  Included are several pieces from the Picerne Collection of Arizona Landmark Art, Arizona State University, the Phoenix Art Museum,  and the Collection of Frances and Edward Elliott.

Frances Elliott (1954-2014), better known as “Fran” to her friends and colleagues, was a prominent collector and promoter of early Arizona Women Artists.  The works on display are clear evidence of her passion for the subject matter.

Although early twentieth century Arizona was known primarily for “bad men, bad water, and rattlesnakes”(as Dr. Fahlman describes it) the pre-1930 artist community was, with few exceptions, entirely female.  Kate Cory’s arrival in 1905 designates her as the first woman artist to settle permanently in the territory. However Marjorie Thomas was the original resident artist in the Valley of the Sun.

There is also an abundance of historical archives, photographs, letters, and sketches -many from Thomas’s expedition to Rainbow Bridge in 1929,  led by legendary Western writer, Zane Grey.

I highly recommend the exhibition to those interested in Southwestern art, Western Americana, Arizona history etc. etc. etc. or to anyone interested in a great visual and educational experience!

For a little more background on the subject the following is an excerpt from my book, Shadows on the Mesa-Artists of the Painted Desert and Beyond, in which I proclaimed Marjorie Thomas as “Scottsdale’s First Artist.”

“ . . .Thomas was a transplanted East Coast aristocrat. She was born in Newton Center, Massachusetts in 1885 and grew up in the Boston area. After graduating from the Boston School of the Museum of Fine Arts, she became one of Arizona’s original pioneer artists when she moved to the Valley of the Sun with her mother and brother in 1909 -three years before the territory became a state and four years before (Lillian) Wilhelm’s first Rainbow Bridge expedition.


Marjorie Thomas Wetherill Colville Guest Ranch entry

Marjorie Thomas’s inscription in the Wetherill-Colville Guest Ranch registry. September 1929.  Courtesy of the John and Louisa Wetherill Collection.



Like many early Arizona residents, Thomas’s older brother, Richard, had relocated to the desert for his health.  Suffering from tuberculosis, he had been given two months to live -a prognosis he would exceed by six years.

The family originally settled in a small cabin on Indian School Road, just west of present day Scottsdale Road, then part of “a tiny settlement growing around the homestead of Army Chaplain Winfield Scott”[1]. Shortly afterwards, Paradise Valley was open to homesteading and, despite having no agricultural background, Marjorie and Richard Thomas each claimed 160 acres on the eastern slope of Mummy Mountain.  The act designated them as two of Paradise Valley’s original settlers.

In later years Thomas held nostalgic memories of the early days in Scottsdale and Paradise Valley, recalling it as a time “when you could count the families and the buildings on the fingers of one hand”[2]. Every spring and fall sheep drives would pass through her ranch, headed south for the winter or north for the summer.  Afterwards she would round up the young stragglers.

 “The Mexicans called them ‘leppis’ or something like that. Meant motherless. We hand fed and watered them. Saved many and many a one. But dumb us. We forgot that lambs grow big …into sheep. And we had no way of caring for them or shearing them. Sometimes we gave them to folks who used them to graze the irrigation ditches to keep them clean; sometimes to families on the desert we knew were hungry. We couldn’t have slaughtered them ourselves; they were our pets and friends.”[3]

Marjorie thomas  covered wagon on four peaks 20 x 26 oc

“Covered Wagon Approaching Four Peaks.”   24″ x 30″. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Doreen and David Picerne Collection. Having arrived in Scottsdale in 1909, Thomas could have very well painted this scene based on what she saw at the time.


As the passage indicates, she had a deep affinity for animals. When describing her paintings, she would offer perspective from the animal’s point of view whether it be the “poor horse” tired out after running his leg of the Pony Express or the ambulance mule that that had been shot in the haunches by an Apache bullet.

This strong affection was indicated by her entry in the guest book: a sketch of a solitary horse with a dramatic desert backdrop, possibly a thunderhead crossing over Black Mesa.

Although she was trained in Boston as a portrait artist, after she arrived in the Southwest she began painting what she saw around her, primarily desert landscapes, cowboys, Indians and, of course, animals.

Marjorie Thomas Four peaks 8 x 10 oc
Four Peaks. 8 x 10 Oil on board. Courtesy of Doreen and David Picerne Collection of Arizona Landmark Art.


In 1910, Thomas became one of only a handful of women artists to have a painting purchased by the Santa Fe Railroad, an accomplishment she repeated in 1913 when the railroad acquired Indians Breaking Broncos.   She moved into Scottsdale sometime after her brother died in 1915 and for the next several years spent most of her summers in Massachusetts.  


Arizona Dust Devil Marjorie Thomas

“Arizona Dust Devil.”  4″ x 6″. Oil on board. Collection of Frances and Edward Elliott.


She never married, had no children, and as of the visit to Kayenta was living with her mother on Indian School Road in Scottsdale, likely in the same cabin where the family had settled initially in 1909.  She listed her full time occupation as “artist”.  Given the small size of the Scottsdale community in the 1920’s it was not surprising that she knew Lillian Wilhelm Smith personally –a connection which led to her introduction to Zane Grey. 

Thomas considered Grey “A kind, thoughtful man”, who was unsurpassed in writing descriptions of Arizona’s canyons and deserts.  He invited her to accompany his 1929 expedition so she could “do a series of ornamentals for his children.”[4]  The result was dozens of thumbnail sketches which Grey “cherished …all his life”[5], and which Thomas later used as studies for larger paintings.


Burro 20x16 Marjorie Thomas

“Burro” 20″ x 16″ Oil on board. Collection of Frances and Edward Elliott


In addition to the sketches the trip produced an abundance of memorable mishaps and blunders. One of Thomas’s favorites involved a “Mexican man, a very good driver, who caught up with us once a week to bring needed supplies.  One time one of the women advised him not to take a certain trail.  He bristled, shouted ‘I won’t let a woman tell me what to do!’ and buzzed off in a huff.  Almost immediately he hit a big rock which took the oil pan out of his truck.

“The men in the party couldn’t fix it. But I was a rancher and knew how to make things work. I fixed it.  It was bitter medicine for the driver, but he apologized profusely for what he had said about women.”[6]


Arizona Pack Horses Marjorie Thomas

“Arizona Pack Horses.” 24″ x 30″ Oil on board. Collection of Frances and Edward Elliott.


For reasons unknown, Grey did not ask for Wetherill’s guiding assistance during the group’s trek to the Tsegi Canyon ruins.  It was a nearly fatal decision.

Thomas recalled that at one point, “Grey led us into a stream, then downstream and up the opposite bank. The water was fairly high . . . oh, maybe up to the horses’ bellies. The party hadn’t crossed that stream and met on the other side five minutes before we heard this awful, awesome crashing roar. High water coming down the streambed from the high country. Of course, we’d all have been washed away if we’d been five minutes later crossing that stream.”  She noted that Grey “was so upset at what he called his ‘thought-lessness’ that he didn’t sleep for nights afterward.”[7]

Yet one more misadventure took place when, after requesting assistance from Kayenta, the Wetherill and Grey parties met at Marsh Pass, at the south entrance of Tsegi Canyon where two of Wetherill’s horses were lost in quicksand.

 Like so many early Arizona artists, time has erased those individuals who knew Marjorie Thomas personally. As a result it is difficult to form a comprehensive profile of her personality and character. As noted previously, her affection for animals was obvious. It can be safely assumed given the time and place in which she lived that, like most of her contemporaries, she was a fiercely independent soul.   One reporter described her later in life as having brown eyes that penetrated “with a kind of ferocious, but good-humored, intensity” noting there was really nothing to say after she made a demand except, “Yes, Ma’am.”[8]


Marjorie Thomas Camelback Mountain 3x5 WC unframed

This small watercolor (3″ x 5″) was likely used as a study for the much larger piece shown below. Courtesy of Doreen and David Collection of Arizona Landmark Art.


Marjorie Thomas Camelback Mountain C1926 30x40 OC

“Camelback Mountain” 30″ x 40″ Oil on canvas. Dated 1925. Courtesy of Doreen and David Picerne Collection of Arizona Landmark Art.



[1] Mary Leonhard. “Artist Painted Her Memories”, Arizona Sun. October 17, 1976

[2] Maggie Wilson. “Scottsdale ‘character’ paints tales of old-time Phoenix.  Arizona Republic. Unknown date.

[3] Ibid

[4] “She is probably Scottsdale’s first artist”  Unknown Arizona Newspaper clipping. Circa 1976. 18

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Maggie Wilson. “Painter Knew Zane Grey”, Arizona Republic. May 25, 1969  M3

[8] Maggie Wilson. “Painter Knew Zane Grey”, Arizona Republic. May 25, 1969  M3


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