In 1928 Mary Russell Ferrell Colton and her husband, Harold S. Colton, founded the Museum of Northern Arizona. He became the director; she became the curator of art and ethnology. For more than 20 years the Coltons worked to expand public understanding of the Indian cultures in northern Arizona and of the history of the area. Mrs. Colton, an artist, had a deep appreciation for the arts and crafts of the native people of northern Arizona. She was dismayed, as were many others, to see the traditional skills being lost to the younger generations. Determined to do something about the situation, she collected, cataloged and preserved thousands of Indian artifacts, crafts and works of art. Mrs. Colton researched and wrote papers on the techniques of the Hopi craftsmen, discussing Hopi silversmithing, pottery and weaving.
In 1965 she wrote a book called Hopi Vegetable Dyes. She had spent years discussing techniques with Hopi artists and conducting laboratory experiments to develop effective formulae for the dyes. Her work stimulated a renewed interest in traditional dyes among the Hopi, and the book became an important reference for Hopi artists.
Her interest in art went beyond what she could find nearby. She was undoubtedly one of the first Arizonans to recognize the need for bringing culture to the state. She arranged for special exhibitions of paintings, sculptures and crafts by outstanding artists from throughout the country. And in 1929, she organized the Arizona Artists’ Art and Crafts Show, the first exhibition open to all artists in the state.
Born on March 25, 1889, in Louisville, Kentucky, Mary-Russell grew up in Germantown, Pennsylvania. When she was 15, she enrolled in the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, the nation’s first art school for women. In 1912 she and her husband came to Arizona on their honeymoon. “We chose northern Arizona because it has so many mountains, and we both like mountain climbing,” she told a reporter. After several summer vacations in the West, they moved to Flagstaff in 1926 and had a Spanish colonial home built north of the city.
Though Dr. Colton had taught zoology at the University of Pennsylvania, after moving to Arizona he chose to specialize in the field of archeology. Mrs. Colton, in addition to serving as curator at the museum, earned a national reputation as an artist. Her interests extended from oil and watercolors to wood carvings and block prints. A story in The Arizona Republic in November 1948 reported she was carving life-size mannequins which would be used to display textiles at the museum. According to the same newspaper story, one of her proudest possessions was an elaborate beam she had carved and painted for use in the Colton home. It was an exact replica of a 1680 Spanish mission beam found in the Hopi village of Oraibi.
Her paintings, including Southwest landscapes and portraits of many of the Indians she met in northern Arizona, were shown to critical acclaim in Philadelphia and New York City. As a graduate of the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, she was a member of a group known as “Ten Philadelphia Painters.” Working at the Museum of Northern Arizona, Mrs. Colton initiated a program of artistic events that continues to this day. In 1930 she launched the Hopi Craftsman Show, which had three objectives: to provide a showcase for the best Hopi artists, to stimulate public interest in Indian works, and to provide a financial incentive for the artists to improve their craftsmanship. The show was an unqualified success and has grown in popularity each year.
During the 1930s only a few Hopis were working in silver, and they were producing jewelry similar to that of the Navajo. Mrs. Colton encouraged the Hopis to develop a style which would be uniquely their own. She proposed that their silversmiths use ancient pottery, basket and textile designs to create a distinctively Hopi style of jewelry, a style which became known as Hopi overlay and is extremely popular today. In 1942 the Navajo Craftsman Show began. Like the Hopi show, this event not only benefited the Indian artists but also increased public awareness of their artistic contributions.
Mrs. Colton died on July 26, 1971, in Phoenix at the age of 82.