Friday, September 26, 2014

Women Artists in the West: Mary Achey, one of the Earliest Western Artists

There is a wonderful book entitled Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945, edited by Patricia Trenton. The Introduction, Women Envision the West by Virginia Scharff is a fascinating accounting of the West as it was...wild, open, and a time of expansion and exploration into the unknown. As the frontier "closed" in 1890, some felt that an "epoch of American exploration had come to an end" while others felt that it was just beginning. The East was tame, established, and women's roles were clear, but not so in the West, where lawlessness existed and where women could defy societal constraints of which they had not created.

Women were slowly gaining political rights, as Wyoming was the first state to grant women full suffrage in 1890. The Chicago Exposition of 1893 featured a pavilion representing the state of California featured an art gallery in which more than half of those on exhibit were done by women. Women have worked in the West as long as humans have inhabited the region beginning with the earliest periods. Native Americans created pottery, wove, and made baskets.

As women, we approach life differently than men. Even today, women are still expected to do the lion's share of taking care of the home and children while we work full-time. We strive to connect with each other and to our own lives and to derive meaning. Family ties both empower and constrain women artists as we try to find their own artistic voices while we balance the responsibilities and demands of our families. Some of us want escape from the bonds of family and society while others find safety, comfort, and support from that community. Whatever our individual needs require, women face challenges that are unique to our gender and our work has, in many cases, taken a back seat to the artwork of men in the same social and racial class.

This is why I write the blog. I want to honor those women who took such incredible risks, especially during such an early, unsettled time in our history, and dared to push boundaries in both their lives and in their work.

We will examine the life and work of Mary Achey, one of the earliest documented female Western artists. The photograph that has been a part of this blog entry since its origination was identified by Achey's great-great granddaughter, Mary Gould, as another woman, however definitely NOT Mary Achey. I've looked in several different reference books and online but have yet to find an image that can be positively connected to Mary Achey. I've removed the photo and will replace it in the future if an appropriate one can be found.

A native of Ohio, Mary Achey executed her first known western works during the 1860s when she lived in Colorado. In 1862 and 65, Achey lived in Kansas and Missouri while her husband served in the Second Colorado Cavalry Volunteers. She produced drawings of army fort scenes in Colorado and Kansas. Achey became the territory's first resident female artist while living in Central City, Colorado and painted a number of views of Clear Creek that received attention in the Denver newspapers. Her painting of Lake Creek garnered praise as the "handsomest oil painting ever seen in Colorado" by the Rocky Mountain News in November of 1869.

Mary Achey
ca. 1860
Oil on canvas
In 1870, Mary Achey left her husband several years after the death of their only daughter from diphtheria. He apparently fell asleep during a night watch over her and Mary held him responsible. For the next fifteen years, Achey traveled throughout the West with her two sons. She settled for a time in Napa, California in 1875, where she listed herself as a portrait painter in the local directory. From there, Achey relocated to Healdsburg, California, approximately 40 miles northeast of Napa, then homesteaded land on the Upper Wishkah River near Aberdeen, Washington in 1881. By 1883, she began to visit Astoria, Oregon, a more profitable area for the sale of her paintings and she divided her time between Aberdeen and Astoria. In 1885, she married again to Emerson A. Woodruff of Canby, Oregon. Mary Achey died near Aberdeen, WA, Sept. 18, 1886.

According to her own accounts, Mary Achey completed over 500 works in oil, watercolor, pen and ink and pencil. Her subjects included landscapes of California, Oregon and Washington, army fort scenes, wild west genre, portraits, and still lifes, and she supported her two sons with the sales of her paintings. Because she lived and worked so long ago, it is difficult to get the correct titles and dates for her works.

Mary Achey
Nevadaville
ca. 1860
13.5 x 20.5 inches
Oil on canvas
Mary Achey
Montesano
ca. n.d.
Oil on canvas
Mary Achey
Landscape
ca. n.d.
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Sources:
Independent Spirits, Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945, ed. Patricia Trenton
An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West, Phil Kovnick and Marian Yoshiki Kovnick
AskArt: The Artist's Bluebook, http://www.askart.com/askart/a/mary_elizabeth_achey/mary_elizabeth_achey.aspx, retrieved September 26, 2014.