When Kate Thompson Cory’s family relocated from her native Waukegan, Illinois to the East Coast in 1880, she attended Manhattan’s prestigious Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. Here she excelled in both oils and photography and began exhibiting some of her paintings. In 1905, she met artist Louis Akin who had just returned from an 18 month commission in Arizona painting the Hopi people and the Grand Canyon in order to increase tourism along Santa Fe Railroad routes. Akin was intent on starting an artist’s colony on the mesas surrounding the Hopi lands and persuaded Kate to leave for Arizona that same year. As a single woman of forty-four, she left New York City to visit the Hopi Reservation. Kate remained in Arizona until her death in 1958.
Enthralled by the light and life of the West, Kate stayed with the Hopi for seven years photographing, painting and writing about Hopi daily life. She took more than 500 photographs of the Hopi people. She was a schoolteacher at the Polacca Day School near the Hopi village of Walpi on First Mesa for many years. During this time, she compiled a dictionary titled, Hopi Alphabet, containing over 900 Hopi words and phrases. In addition to chronicling the Hopi people on canvas and film, she also wrote down her experiences of living with the Hopi in her unpublished journal, “Of Living with the Hopis.” The Hopi called her “Paina Wurta” meaning “Painter Woman.”
Cory completed her paintings from the photographs she took, from sketches, and painting outdoors to capture the luminous effects of natural light and atmosphere. Her images of Native Americans have always been commended for a sensitivity that was lacking from the works of earlier Native American portraitists and her ability to capture the minutia of ceremonial regalia and mannerisms. She soon became a nationally recognized painter.
Kate displayed her artwork and contributed articles to publicize the Hopi culture. Buying property in Prescott in 1911, she continued her work as an artist and sculptor, becoming one of the West's most famous artists. She formed a friendship with Arizona historian and curator Sharlot Hall. During the 1920s and 30s, Kate joined with Sharlot Hall to advise a group of Prescott businessmen interested preserving the culture of local Native Americans. She also helped in the design and furnishing of the Smoki Museum.
Kate died on June 12, 1958, at the Arizona Pioneers' Home and is buried in the Arizona Pioneers' Cemetery, where her headstone is inscribed with “Artist of Arizona” below “Hers was the joy of giving”.