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Mesa Verde’s Mary Jane Colter Collection (But Don’t Call it That)

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Square Tower House at Mesa Verde National Park. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user BenFrantzDale.

Everyone knows what to see at Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado: the cliff dwellings of the Pueblo people who occupied the Four Corners region from A.D. 600 to 1300. Soon, though, there will be good reason to stop at the entrance because the park is building a new Visitor and Research Center, scheduled to open late this year, that will give a state-of-the-art museum to its remarkable collection of archaeological artifacts, ethnographic material on the Native Americans of the Southwest and Santa Fe Indian School painting. Considered as a whole, it’s one of the oldest and biggest museums in the national park system.

Another one of its treasures is a collection of jewelry and ceramics given to Mesa Verde in the 1940s by architect Mary Jane Colter. Born in Pittsburgh in 1869, she attended the California School of Design in San Francisco, then went to create and decorate buildings for the Fred Harvey Company which ran shops, restaurants and hotels along the Sante Fe Railway. Among her masterworks are Hopi House, Lookout Studio, Hermit’s Rest and the Watchtower on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, all stunning examples of the American Arts and Crafts movement that take their inspiration from Hopi, Zuni and Navajo design, as well as Spanish-Mexican hacienda architecture. Between 1900 and 1940 Colter also worked on landmark train stations in Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City and Los Angeles.

At a time when women spent their time in the kitchen and parlor, Colter made her way in a man’s world, striding over construction sites and seeking artifacts all over the old Southwest, her hair in an untidy French roll, her radio tuned to a Mexican music station. On forays around the Four Corners region she collected baskets, jewelry and pots, while getting to know the Native American craftspeople who made them. She used most of the treasures she found to decorate Harvey Company buildings, but kept some for herself, eventually retiring to Santa Fe where she died in 1958.

Colter was a close friend of the archaeologist Jesse L. Nusbaum, who excavated Mesa Verde’s Balcony House and served as the park's superintendent from 1921 to 1946. So the museum there seemed to Colter a suitable home for her art.

But she never wanted the 530 pieces of jewelry she bequeathed to Mesa Verde to be known as the Mary Colter Collection. “I think she didn’t want it to be about her. She wanted it to be about the artists,” said curator Tara Travis. Later some of Colter’s ceramics were added from the old Southwest Museum in Los Angeles.

When the new Visitor and Research Center opens at Mesa Verde, 30 Colter pieces will be on display, including a silver Navajo pin shaped like a biplane, heishi necklaces made of delicately strung shells, and tie slides carved from the vertebrae of cows and goats—all showing, as Travis explained, that “Colter had an interest in how artists used materials—shells, stones, turquoise and silver—and everyday objects to create works of art.”

The mastery of the Native Americans who made them should be overwhelmingly apparent. But I can’t think of it as anything other than the Mary Jane Colter Collection.

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