Mary Russell-Ferrell Colton, Painted Desert, Oil on Canvas, c. 1920, 16″ x 20″
After graduating from the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in 1908, Mary Colton developed an interest in landscape painting. She also had a studio in Philadelphia, and worked as a commercial artist and painting restorer. She exhibited with ten Philadelphia women intermittently for over thirty years.
She was a Philadelphia – trained artist who traveled to the Colorado plateau of northeastern Arizona on a honeymoon trip. The lure and grandeur of Arizona brought the Coltons back to Flagstaff for successive summers until 1926, when they settled there permanently. In 1928, when northeastern Arizona was sparsely populated and isolated, the Coltons founded the Museum of Northern Arizona. Mary Colton was the curator of art and ethnology from 1928-1948. She developed significant programs that endure today and her money was critical for the financial survival of the institution. The Arizona Arts and Crafts Exhibition from 1929-1936 was an important early venue for Arizona artists.
Of more lasting significance was the Hope Craftsman Exhibition, instituted in 1930. Colton had a great commitment to education, ethnology, and preservation and support of Native American Arts. She painted wonderful portraits of the Hopi in both an aesthetic and an ethnographic context. She also organized traveling exhibitions of Hopi arts and crafts in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. In 1942, she also added an annual Navajo craftsman show to the museum’s calendar of events.