Effie Anderson Smith was an early Arizona settler and artist who studied with the esteemed California Impressionists Anna Hills and Jean Mannheim. She admired the Salton Sea mirages, declaring them on par with the Sulphur Springs Valley mirages in Arizona. So, for our purposes, she belongs in the annals of California desert art.
For her nephew’s purposes, though, she belongs everywhere. I’ve watched in admiration as San Diego resident Steven Carlson has restored Effie’s name to public view from Laguna to Bisbee. If you have an obscure desert artist to promote–or are one yourself–you’ll want to heed the story of Steven and his great-great Aunt Effie, also known during her career as Mrs. A.Y. Smith.
When I asked Steven–a consultant for classical radio stations–what propelled his devotion to an aunt he never met, he said he spent many years on radio telling the stories of famous classical composers. When he began to learn about Effie, he realized the narrative of her life had parallels to the legends of great artists. He decided it was his job to tell her tale.
“Each of our ‘forgotten’ artists deserves to have someone look into their story, their life, how they came to art and how they evolved,” he says. “There are many, many, many whose stories are yet to be told.”
Growing up in a suburb of Buffalo, NY, Steven first heard tales of his aunt from his mother, Grace. “We had a couple of her paintings, and my mother (who was an amateur painter, by her own admission) told me that these paintings by Aunt Effie were something special and that Effie was clearly not a hobbyist.”
When Steven moved to Arizona in the 1980s, he spent time with Effie’s son–his Uncle Lewis. Effie’s husband, A.Y., had been a mine president in Pearce and Lewis also worked in mining. “We talked about his mother,” Steven says, “her technique and habits as a plein air desert painter, and their lives in the very rough and raw desert mining camp in Pearce.”
Born in Arkansas in 1869, Effie turned to painting for solace after the death of her infant daughter, Annadel, in 1907. Steven likes to point out that she was decades ahead of another famous Southwestern artist, Georgia O’Keeffe, who moved to New Mexico in 1929. In fact, Steven has not found another known woman artist working in Arizona earlier than Effie.
Steven’s interest was galvanized when he inherited some of Effie’s personal belongings and paintings. Then, after leaving KUSC radio in 2004, he had some free time to look more deeply into her story. He took classes at UC Irvine on fine art and decorative arts appraisal and began to learn his way around the art world.
When Steven told art dealers and museum staff he wanted to promote his Aunt Effie, he sometimes met skepticism. One appraiser told him an amateur wouldn’t be taken seriously. “That is about all anyone needs to say to me to stiffen my back and make me more determined,” Steven said.
You can read about Effie’s career on Steven’s comprehensive website (link below). Often called The Dean of Arizona Women Painters, she was especially known for her Grand Canyon landscapes; the work was compared in her day to that of Thomas Moran and the Hudson River painters.
Starting in 1914 she studied with Anna Althea Hills, a founder of the Laguna Beach Art Association, and at the Stickney Memorial School of Arts in Pasadena, where her teacher was Jean (Gene) Mannheim. Steven doesn’t know for sure if she painted the California deserts because none of those paintings have been found. Effie’s home and studio burned in 1929 and many of the scenes of her early travels were lost. He asks readers to keep an eye out for California landscapes that may be undiscovered.
Painting into her 80s, Effie died at the Arizona Pioneers’ Home in Prescott in 1955. She was pretty much overlooked until now, when she is again appearing in exhibits and in publications. Here’s how Steven brought her back.
Step One: Find the Story
Steven believes in the power of narrative and so he looked for the drama in Effie’s life–rugged years in a Cochise County mining town, and the tragic deaths of two children. (In addition to her daughter, an infant son died in 1896.) While he loves stories, he is also keen on facts.
“At some point, you need to separate fact from lore and fiction,” he warns. “We’ve had a fair amount of what may be apocryphal stories in the family. I am careful not to inject those until I can really verify. Or if I do present some of these ‘recollections’, I make it clear what can and cannot be verified.”
Step Two: Build a Tribe
Steven made contacts with everyone he could think of who might have a soft spot for Effie. He called mining historians in Bisbee and Pearce. He contacted arts scholars Phil Kovinick and Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick, authors of An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the West. He tracked down Cindy Hayostek, a Douglas, Arizona researcher who had an Effie painting in her family and had a 30-year start on Steven on researching the artist. He contacted collectors who had kept Effie works in the family for generations.
“It’s important to see as much of the artist’s work as possible,” he says. “If the works are in private hands, be willing to ask if you can carefully examine and document them. I have found even the framers’ notes, gallery labels, and other scribbling on the back can tell a story. Take all the photos of these things you can and start to connect the dots.”
Almost everyone Steven contacted became invested in his quest; and the tribe increased.
Step Three: Add to the Written Record
Steven created an online archive, the E.A. Smith archives, and went to work on a catalogue raisonné. He also contacted journalists and landed stories at places like the Arizona Daily Star. He added Effie’s bio to archives wherever it was missing, such as an entry in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas (where Effie was born.) Each time an artist’s name appears in print, his or her comeback gathers steam.
Step Four: Create a Quest or a Challenge
To get more people cheering for Effie’s resurgence, Steven launched a GoFundMe campaign. The goal: Restoring two of her damaged paintings owned by the Douglas Historical Society.
He hauled the paintings from San Diego to Chicago, delivering them to art conservator Barry Bauman. Barry donated much of his work and Steven filled in the rest with GoFundMe contributions.
The restored paintings are Douglas Smelters (1931) and Cochise Stronghold (1926). The Stronghold–where the Chiricahua warrior chief died–was Effie’s favorite subject. She painted it at least 14 times. The restored paintings will be welcomed home in a reception August 26, 2016 (see below).
Step Five: Don’t Be Discouraged
When Steven first contacted the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame in Phoenix in 2011, there was no response: “Not even a ‘how do you do’ or a ‘thanks for writing.” Recently, though, the group contacted him for more information. The inquiry was probably spurred by a recent article on Effie. (See Step Three).
You’d think Steven would rest after all his triumphs, but he is now planning a documentary about his relative. And he assures others they can bring back a lost artist too.
“You can tell the story, or even just a part of it,” he says. “Then maybe someday another person can build on what you’ve found. I don’t think you need an art history degree to do this, or even to have been a painter.” He suggests consulting with academics, artists or art dealers who can help you along the way.
“The bottom line,” he says, “is don’t let people discourage you by saying: ‘Oh, that is just not done’. Who says? Just be sure of your facts, and go forward.”
For more on Aunt Effie, see: http://www.effieandersonsmith.com
Effie’s restored paintings will be reinstalled in the Douglas Historical Society’s Douglas-Williams House Museum. You’re invited to a Welcome Home reception on Friday, August 26, 2016, 5-7 pm.
See the before-and-after painting restoration process on Barry Bauman’s website: http://baumanconservation.com/members149.html