Candace S. Hughes
2051 S. Mountain View Road
Apache Junction, AZ. 85219
Apply for Passport to Culture in Prescott, Ariz.
by Candace S. Hughes
Docent Evelyn Groff shows her grandchildren around the exhibit at the Phippen Art Museum seven miles north of Prescott on Highway 89A, being careful to show them a trophy rodeo saddle they can touch. “They love the bronzes,” she says proudly. “They look so real,” says 7-year-old Wesley of Phoenix. “They’re like the cowboys in the rodeo,” he exclaims.
Docent Ray Henning’s eyes light up as he excitedly demonstrates leather tool work outside the Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott. “I’ve been doing this for years as a hobby,” he says, and now the retiree can devote all his time to making bridles and to working in a period costume on the grounds of the museum two blocks from the Courthouse Square. Darilee Meeks, a visitor from Paradise Valley, stops to discuss her love for a treasured leather box she has owned for many years. The handcrafted items entice her to stay awhile.
Betty Guyer, a Smoki Museum docent, proudly explains that she was first trained as a docent at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, but now specializes in leading school groups through the exhibits in the Prescott museum focusing on Native American culture in Yavapai County. She ensures that a Native American flute sold in the gift shop is sold with instructions and a diagram explaining the designs on the pottery.
All three show visitors slices of Arizona history through the filter of their experiences and with a knowledge of how to present other cultures and times in an engaging manner.
Groff is stopping at the Phippen Museum five days before she guides a group of 30 women through an exhibit, but also uses her expertise to bring the art alive for her grandsons. Holding their hands, she discusses “Off My Back,” an oil on canvas by Charly Schridde.
She carefully points out the bull’s wild eye, a feature that keeps the painting interesting in addition to the movement the artist depicts. “It shows the action of being a cowboy,” says the grandma, who has taken her grandsons to Prescott’s rodeo.
For those interested in other aspects of Western art, the museum includes examples of Western American realism in sculpture and on canvas. Eight panels showing the evolution of the Prescott area in oil on board by Paul Coze feature frames with a mosaic of local stones.
Artifacts and history also are shown such as Ben Johnson’s 1971 Best Supporting Actor Award for his performance in “The Last Picture Show” and a letter to Johnson from Joe Beeler, a member of the Cowboy Artists of America.
Visitors to what is billed as “the most beautiful museum location in Arizona” find a fine art museum explaining the art of George Phippen, an artist and sculptor as well as a co-founder of the Cowboy Artists of America. A replica of his studio near the museum entrance shows his technique of sketching and then tracing onto canvas. Young artists are invited to sketch and enter a contest to have their art framed.
Since opening in 1984 in the Granite Dells area north of Prescott, children and adults continue to grasp the concept of the importance of highlighting the glare in a bull’s eye or the action of a rodeo cowboy in art that is compelling and inviting. Conversations with artists and video producers as well as activities in a Family Discovery Center draw those of all ages and interests to the museum.
The hands-on center for children encourages kids to write letters to friends describing the exhibit, and provides handouts on local ranch brands and “Cowboys: Yesterday – Today – Tomorrow.” Explaining that Prescott had the first cowboy competition in the world on July 4, 1888, the exhibit shows children another part of Arizona history.
The joys and economic and environmental pressures of ranching life can easily be seen in art and on the screen with everyday activities shown in their unglorified reality. “Cowgirl Riding on the Range” by Anne Coe of Apache Junction, provides some of the variety of experiences of women and men, girls and boys who are raised on and work on ranches.
As the “Ranch Album Video” attests, there’s “a lot of space out here” and the Phippen Museum ensures a sensitive portrayal of everything from windmills to herds at sunset.
Although the collection of buildings known as the Sharlot Hall Museum offers many looks at frontier life, the best way to experience the pioneer days may be to simply sit on the museum grounds after hours on a weeknight. While the entertaining docents are gone, travelers and locals gather to sketch, write, read, talk, photograph, sprawl in the grass, play an instrument, smell the roses and herbs, or watch a play in the amphitheater.
Named for a woman wishing to preserve Arizona history, a visit during the quiet hours will allow time to find metates built into a wall around the governor’s mansion , view native plants such as the Apache plume, and photograph hollyhocks outside a replica of a one-room schoolhouse.
Hall, the first woman to hold salaried office in Arizona territory, was territorial historian from 1909-1912, and used her position to collect pioneer material and visit prehistoric ruins and Indian reservations.
The museum’s grounds include a transportation building with a vehicle including Hall’s personal 1927 Star automobile, a stagecoach and a high-wheeled bicycle. In addition, there is the Fremont House, built in 1875, and the home of the fifth territorial governor; and the Bashford House, built in 1877 by William Bashford, a merchant. Fort Misery, the oldest log building associated with the territory, is on the site, as well as the museum center.
All passports to Prescott museums must receive a stamp from the Smoki Museum, and the best way to explore the area is to walk from the Courthouse Square up the Sheldon Street hill to Arizona Avenue. A trolley tour also will provide a narrated experience and will stop and pick up at the site.
Constructed of native stone and wood after the design of an artist who lived with Hopis at Walpi, the Smoki (pronounced with a long I) Museum of American Indian Art and Culture started in 1935 and continues to call itself “the only Native American Museum in Prescott.” The museum benefited from the Civilian Works Administration and the Smoki People, a group of businessmen who gathered to preserve Native American culture.
Celebrating 70 years of operation, the museum still shows the influence of Kate Cory. A Prescott resident after living at the pueblo in northern Arizona, her large paintings of Native American life continue to provide context for the exhibits. Her work “Return of the Kachinas” depicts the spiritual nature of Native Americans and that belief is found throughout the museum in the large collection of kachinas ranging from the cactus wren or Turposkwa to the Corn Maiden kachina.
A hands-on area for children includes a beading loom and materials to create stick figures. In addition, children and adults may listen to audiotapes from an oral history project in which fifth graders ask open-ended questions of Yavapai Tribal elders to elicit information about their ancestors and their culture.
“They are getting an experience of a different culture and children don’t often get exposed to that,” says Guyer, who has been a Smoki docent for more than four years. “The elders also needed to have their information put down,” she says of the project through Taylor Hicks Elementary School.
The preservation of Native American culture at the museum includes the possession of an animal stick figure made 3,000-4,000 years ago and stone carvings of bighorn sheep’s heads found during excavations at the Yavapai County Fairgrounds.
Also proudly discussing the Smoki exhibits every Friday is Eleanor Pugh, a Prescott docent, who interprets the “Puzzle of Ancient Prescott: Pieces from Coyote Ruin” for visitors. “I’ve been interested in Native American culture since moving to the Southwest in 1948 and this is the only logical place to volunteer,” says the retiree.
The carefully planned show includes a finely carved frog made from a Glycymeris shell. Many artifacts in the exhibit show the entire shell or the natural material used for the item and then the carved puzzle piece carrying out the theme.
The excavations from Coyote Ruin on a private ranch north of Prescott show life prior to abandonment of the area during the 14th century. With the work done by the Yavapai Chapter of the Arizona Archaeological Society over a five-year period in the late 1990s, more of the puzzle is being put together, but some has been lost due to pothunting.
A terraced garden plot with irrigation, an ancient hearth, petroglyphs in the shape of a grid, and granite boulders worn smooth from the grinding of corn, nuts, and seeds are among some of the evidence available in a video, photographs and artifacts on display.
Built around an outcropping of bedrock, one of the most interesting pieces of the puzzle is a room whose door was blocked by the inhabitants, but when “unlocked” by excavators yielded more treasures than the rest of the ruin combined. Found there were ceramics and jewelry, sherds of pottery indented with human fingernails, human and animal figurines, handles or scoops, burned corncobs, walnuts and pinon nuts and a whistle.