Friday, October 10, 2014

Laura Adams Armer: Painter, Photographer, Writer, and Filmmaker

 
 
Laura Adams Armer
Portrait Study
ca. 1900
The Navajo called Laura Adams Armer "the woman who wears the turquoise" and "hard-working woman." She was the first white woman to have a sand painting prepared in her honor and the first permitted to film the sacred Mountain Chant ceremony (1928) for distribution as a feature-length film. Armer was a respected painter and photographer for many years before she turned her hand to writing. Her first book, Waterless Mountain (1931), published when she was fifty-seven years old, received both the Newberry Medal and the Longmans, Green & Company's prize for juvenile fiction.

Laura May Adams Armer grew up in San Francisco, was educated in public schools and by private tutors. By age 16, she demonstrated an ability in sketching and painting and attended the California School of Design during the years 1893-1898. Afterwards, she spent a year at the University of California, Berkeley. She also studied photography and in 1899, opened a studio in San Francisco where she catered to members of California high society. In the spring of 1902 she and her sister visited the Southwest for the first time and she wrote, "There at Tucson and in the Catalina Mountains I was first inoculated with the desert delirium." She was enchanted.

Laura married classmate Sidney Armer, also an artist, who later achieved fame as the highest paid commercial illustrator in California.  Following her marriage, Laura gave up her San Francisco studio and moved her darkroom to her home with Sidney across the bay in Berkeley. Armer continued her art photography there and in 1904, won four awards in the Kodak Competition. In 1905 she illustrated Theodore Elden Jones' book Leaves From an Argonaut's Note Book and in 1906, traveled on assignment to Tahiti.

Laura Adams Armer
Cover, Sunset Magazine
ca. 1911
As an artist, Armer worked around the birth of her son and exhibited at the Hotel Del Monte in Monterey (1907-1910) and at the Hillside Club in Berkeley in 1914 which featured leading women artists of California. Armer did a cover for Sunset Magazine and provided story illustrations as well. As a photographer, Armer received honors at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Seattle (1909), and at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco (1915).

In 1923, Armer returned to the Southwest. It was on this trip that she bought her signature turquoise earrings. Since few white women wore turquoise at the time, Armer's chance purchase gave her an entry to the Navajo and frequently proved helpful in times of delicate negotiations.
Fascinated by the Native Americans of the Southwest, Armer became a student of Navajo folklore and their religious rituals that involved sand painting. She enjoyed quite a bit of freedom to move about  for a woman alone during the early years of the twentieth century and, on occasion, she lived for months at a time in remote reservation areas.

True to her Navajo nickname "The Hard-Working Woman," Armer compiled volumes of notes, many of which she incorporated into her later novels, in addition to painting and photographing the people and their culture.


Laura Adams Armer
Native American Studies, Navajo and Hopi
ca. 1920s
In her collaboration with Lorenzo Hubbell  of the Hubbell Trading Post who became a mentor to Laura for the next fifteen years, her trips were organized into Navajo areas. Hubbell also helped to fund her 1928 documentary film, The Mountain Chant. Armer agreed to teach an art class in the nearby government school with the hope of meeting Native Americans and it was indeed a success; she had forty Hopi boys and girls in her first class. Because she spent so much time in the wilderness learning to embrace the quiet and spiritual nature of the Native Americans, she was allowed to photograph sacred religious rites and to film the Mountain Chant ceremony. With no previous filmmaking experience, Armer wrote, directed, edited, produced, and marketed the entire project. She even convinced Lorenzo Hubbell to make a major capital investment in the film. Since some of the public showings were narrated by Navajos in native tongue, The Mountain Chant is considered to be the first "all Indian" motion picture "in an aboriginal language."

Marketing the film was a nightmare and not of her skill set. Despite the rollercoaster of acceptance and rejection in Hollywood, the film was widely viewed by groups such as the Section of Anthropology and Psychology of the New York Academy of Sciences, the Explorer Club, and at the University of Pennsylvania, among others, however the film was not a commercial success. Armer turned to writing for solace and it was at that time that she was awarded the Newbury Medal for her book Waterless Mountain. The generous monetary award allowed she and her family to survive the Depression and, she continued to write.


Laura Adams Armer
Waterless Mountain
ca. 1931
Laura Adams Armer
The Traders Children
ca. 1937


Laura Adams Armer
The Forest Pool
ca. 1938














Armer wrote and illustrated Southwest which was published in 1935. The Traders Children followed in 1937 and was highly autobiographical as she inserted herself in the tale and referred to herself as "Aunt Mary," to Sidney as "Uncle Joe," Although Laura and Sidney lived apart for much of the Depression (Sidney found work in Detroit), their art continued to be intertwined. Laura's books, for example, were illustrated in one of three ways: by Sidney alone, by Laura alone, or by the two working together. In the case of Waterless Mountain, there are four illustrations by Laura, one by both Laura and Sidney, and the remainder by Sidney. In 1938, her book The Forest Pool was recognized as the most distinguished picture book of that year. The book was illustrated, in color, with her paintings.

Armer exhibited her western paintings in both solo and group shows. In 1963 many photographs taken by Armer on the Navajo Reservation and vicinity were put on display at the Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art which owns the 97 copies she made of her Navajo sand paintings.
Laura Adams Armer
Hopi Women
ca. n.d.
Oil on canvas

Laura Adams Armer
Untitled Illustration for The Forest Pool
ca. 1938
Tempera
Donated by Helen Everett

Laura Adams Armer
Untitled Illustration for The Forest Pool
ca. 1938
Tempera
Donated by Helen Everett

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Sources:
Women Artists of the American West, Women in Photography Archive, Peter E. Palmquist, http://www.cla.purdue.edu/waaw/palmquist/photographers/armeressay2.htm, retrieved October 10, 2014
Humbolt Arts Council, http://humboldtarts.org/Collection/artists/LauraAdamsArmer.html, retrieved October 10, 2014
artnet, Laura Adams Armer (American, 1963) http://www.artnet.com/artists/laura-adams-armer/past-auction-results, retrieved October 10, 2014
An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West, Phil Kovnick and Marian Yoshiki-Kovnick, ed., p. 9