Arizona Craftsmen: The pebble that rippled through postwar Scottsdale

By Joan Fudala

Seventy years ago this month, a gallery opening on Scottsdale’s dusty Main Street changed everything. Hundreds of people came from miles around to see artists and craftspeople creating art and fashion at the Arizona Craftsmen, a postwar rebirth of the former Brown’s General Store. From this humble beginning, within a few years, Scottsdale was—and still is—recognized as a center for arts and culture in the Southwestern United States.

Since its founding as a farming community in 1888, Scottsdale residents have always welcomed artists and those with creative talents. Boston Museum of Fine Art-educated Marjorie Thomas was the first to open a studio in Scottsdale in 1909. Over the next few decades, while Scottsdale remained a farming and ranching settlement, other artists arrived—Jessie Benton Evans, Lon Megargee, Lillian Wilhelm Smith, Oscar Strobel, Jesus Corral and Mathilde Schaefer, just to name a few. At the height of the Depression, famed architect and arts patron Frank Lloyd Wright established his School of Architecture’s winter home at Taliesin West north of Scottsdale. The natural beauty of the desert environment, the easy-going lifestyle, healthy climate and the general acceptance of artists by townsfolk and the handful of seasonal tourists drew creative talent to Scottsdale, despite the lack of art galleries, museums or juried art events.

When World War II ended in 1945, soldier-artists who had lived in the Phoenix and Scottsdale areas returned home. Veteran-artists who had lived elsewhere chose to come to the Scottsdale area, where they heard the desert landscape was inspirational, the townsfolk were welcoming and the potential for tourism seemed encouraging for the sale of their artwork. Americans, with pent-up desire to travel as wartime rationing ended, longed to visit the Southwest that Hollywood’s Westerns had entranced them with throughout the war years. The postwar travel, entrepreneurial and population boom began to transform Scottsdale from an unknown farm town to the celebrated “West’s Most Western Town,” and artists and craftspeople became the catalysts for this metamorphosis.

Tom Darlington—at the end of his wartime tenure as head of AiResearch near Sky Harbor Airport, which manufactured B-17 bomber parts—was looking for a new venture. An entrepreneur and patron of the arts, Darlington bought the former Brown’s General Store on the southwest corner of Main Street and Brown Avenue in Scottsdale. He asked sculptor Phillips “Sandy” Sanderson to help him redesign the space as a studio gallery for working artists and crafts people, where browsers could watch their future purchases being hand-crafted. By early 1946, a handful of artisans had accepted Darlington’s invitation to locate in the Arizona Craftsmen building.

Darlington, well-connected in Valley business, social and cultural circles, staged a gala opening of the Arizona Craftsmen in March 1946, attended by art aficionados and covered by the society pages of The Arizona Republic. Visitors began to realize that this was no ordinary gallery—it was experiential. Customers could order a purse, a bowl or a ring, then watch the crafts person as they customized it.

According to The Arizona Republic’s March 17, 1946, review: “Pleasing to view, in its pink and blue hues with very large picture windows facing the street, the building which houses these noted Arizona Craftsmen, was designed for reconversion by Phillips Sanderson. Thomas Darlington, who is president of AiResearch and widely known in artists circles in the Valley, has backed the project…Established by the far-seeing Mr. Darlington, they will not only provide working space for the artisans, but through the show rooms adjoining their workshops a market is found for the artists’ endeavor…As Mr. Darlington puts it, ‘Arizona Craftsmen is a comprehensive presentation of Southwestern artists and craftsmen and the products of their skill.’”

Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the Arizona Craftsmen in spring 1946, and wrote a glowing report in her syndicated “My Day” column, bringing national attention to Scottsdale as an arts, crafts and fashion destination. She returned in March 1947, and again gave her impressions of the variety of artisans and the quality of their crafts in “My Day.”

Initial resident artists in the Arizona Craftsmen center represented a range of Southwestern arts and crafts and a mosaic of backgrounds that, when brought together in the Arizona Craftsmen building, created an incubator for arts and crafts in the unincorporated village of Scottsdale (area population in 1945: approximately 1,500).

Lloyd Kiva New

Born in Oklahoma to Cherokee and Scot-Irish parents in 1916, Lloyd Kiva New was one of the first Native Americans to graduate from the Art Institute of Chicago. New came to Phoenix in 1938 to teach art at the Phoenix Indian School, where he also supervised student illustrators who contributed art to bi-lingual textbooks for Hopi and Navajos. Returning to Phoenix after serving in the U.S. Navy, and branding himself “Lloyd Kiva,” he set up shop in the Arizona Craftsmen Center, where he founded Lloyd Kiva Art Studios, specializing in leather-crafted fashions. Within a few years, his line of haute couture leather and silk-screened fabric fashions received international acclaim. One of his first big hits was a leather bag modeled after a Navajo medicine man’s pouch. A born mentor and teacher, he worked with many apprentices in Scottsdale, became the founding president of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe in 1962 and served on the board of The Heard Museum. During 2016—the 100th anniversary of his birth—IAIA and museum in Santa Fe are commemorating his artistic talent and leadership in Native American arts and culture.

Wesley Segner

Wesley Segner earned his art training at the Cleveland School of Art, Western Reserve University, and taught art in Ohio for several years. He came to work for Goodyear Aircraft in Litchfield Park in 1942 as an illustrator, then received a commission in the U.S. Navy for wartime duty. He moved his family to Arizona in 1946 with the intent of becoming a potter at the Arizona Craftsmen, however, because they already had a potter, he decided to become a silversmith. In his Seg-Art Studio Segner created silver objects ranging from spoons to earrings, often incorporating gemstones native to Arizona. He also did watercolors and stained glass. Segner became the founding president of the Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce in 1947, and later taught art at Scottsdale High School.

Phillips “Sandy” Sanderson

A native of Bowling Green, Missouri, R. Phillips Sanderson trained at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Institute of Kansas City. For health reasons, he moved west to Bisbee, Arizona, where he created a sculpture of a miner to stand in front of the courthouse. A talented sculptor and wood carver, he came to the Scottsdale area in 1937 and worked in the New Deal’s Federal Art Program with Philip Curtis at the Phoenix Art Center. In late 1945 he joined the small band of artisans at the Arizona Craftsmen Center, turning out wood objects, from bowls to sculpture. He also served as an assistant art professor at Arizona State College. Sanderson’s wrought iron sculpture, “An Abstraction,” is part of the Scottsdale Public Art program and is currently installed at the Via Linda Senior Center.

Lew Davis

Born in Jerome in 1910, Lew Davis worked in New York City as a sign painter while studying at the Academy of Design. He taught art at a private school in New Jersey before returning home to Arizona in 1935 to work as a painter in the Federal Art Program. In 1937, he married Scottsdale sculptor/potter Mathilde Schaefer, and worked with Curtis and Sanderson at the Phoenix Art Center. His oil paintings of Jerome miners were exhibited at the New York World’s Fair in 1939-40. During World War II he was a civilian graphic artist at Fort Huachuca, where he created posters to recruit African American soldiers. He and Mathilde joined the others at Tom Darlington’s craft center. After working with his wife creating pottery, he returned to his love, oil painting, and became known as the “Dean of Arizona Artists.” The Davis’ opened the Desert School of Art during the 1950s in Paradise Valley, then moved their studio home to the north side of then-remote Pinnacle Peak. Several of his pieces are part of Scottsdale’s Fine Art Collection.

Mathilde Schaefer Davis

Born in New York City in 1909, Mathilde Schaefer Davis studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and in Berlin, Germany. She exhibited at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, then moved to Scottsdale in 1935. Although recognized as a sculptor, she found she could make a living producing pottery and tableware during World War II. When the Arizona Craftsmen began recruiting artists in late 1945, she moved her Desert Kilns studio into it. She eventually returned to sculpting. With her husband, Lew Davis, she opened the Desert School of Art in the 1950s. In 1971 Mathilde and Lew Davis held an exhibition of their life’s work in the mezzanine gallery of Scottsdale’s Civic Center Library. The Scottsdale Fine Art Collection has several of her small sculptures.

George “Doc” Cavalliere

Born in Scottsdale in 1916, George “Doc” Cavalliere was the son of the town’s original blacksmiths, George “Cavie” and Mary Alice Cavalliere. After serving as a golf caddie, ranch hand, pharmacy delivery boy and U.S. Army Air Corps aircraft mechanic, “Doc” began producing ornamental ironwork in the family foundry on Brown Avenue. His wrought iron designs were commissioned by local resorts, homes and by Frank Lloyd Wright for Taliesin West. Doc joined the other artisans at the Arizona Craftsmen in 1946 (although he continued to work from his foundry just down Brown Avenue from the Arizona Craftsmen). He and his family later operated two popular Western-themed restaurants in the Pinnacle Peak area—Reata Pass and Greasewood Flat. Doc’s son, George, continues to produce ornamental ironwork at what has become Scottsdale’s oldest continuously-operating business, Cavalliere’s.

In addition to the above-mentioned artists, Horace and Peggy Smith operated a gift shop in the Arizona Craftsmen building, selling original handmade silver by Hopi craftsmen. Fashion designer Mitzi Holmes set up her studio within the center and a variety of other artists worked at the Arizona Craftsmen throughout the late 1940s. Additional art studios and galleries opened in downtown Scottsdale, such as Buck and Leo Sanders’ Trading Post, where Ted DeGrazia created quite a buzz in 1949 with his distinctive art.

Just as the Arizona Craftsmen Center was entering its fifth year, tragedy struck. It suffered a devastating fire on April 25, 1950. Although they lost inventory, working/selling space and, in the case of Mathilde Schaefer, the chemical formulas for her unusual pottery glazes, the artists and craftspeople did not lose their sense of camaraderie and purpose. With the help of art patrons Anne and Fowler McCormick (owners of Scottsdale’s McCormick ranch and he the chairman of International Harvester), Kiva, Segner and most of the Arizona Craftsmen tenants rebuilt north of the small downtown Scottsdale area on unpaved Fifth Avenue, calling their new location the Arizona Crafts Center. They were open for business by November 1950, and had added new artists and craftspeople to their numbers.

In 1955, Lloyd Kiva opened the Kiva Craft Center on the south side of Fifth Avenue. Working in a beautifully designed group of arts and crafts studios surrounding a courtyard, tenants included Kiva’s own leather and silk-screened fabric fashion shop; Erne (perfumer); Charles and Otille Loloma (pottery, then Charles Loloma’s Hopi-inspired jewelry); H. Fred Skaggs (jeweler); Paolo Soleri (wind bells); Charles Montooth (architect); Leona Caldwell (silk-screened fabrics); Rema’s (hand-screened original fashions); Alexander (jeweler); Joe Lincoln and Joe Maas’ The Flemish Glazenier; Frank Vining (leather sandals); Van (Andy) Tsinhajinnie (Navajo-inspired paintings and murals), Evalyn Haines and Charlotte Armstrong’s Paint Bucket (hand-painted items) and others. Long-time Scottsdale creative talents George and Rachel Ellis opened “The Craftsmen” café adjacent to Kiva’s Craft Center to provide a meeting place for artists and visitors.

Although most of the arts, crafts and fashion synergy occurred in Scottsdale’s compact downtown area between 1946 and the 1960s, there were other pockets of creativity. Artists lived and worked in the area known as Cattle Track on McDonald Drive. The area had been called Scottsdale’s “Left Bank” (it was located on the left, or west, bank of the Arizona Canal) since George Ellis began building redwood homes there in the 1930s. Among the resident artists in this area were painter Philip Curtis, former Disney artist Don Barclay and artist Fritz Scholder. In 1950 Avis Read opened The Stable Gallery on her Cattle Track property, combining gallery shows with horse events and art classes. Anne McCormick opened the Indian Arts & Crafts Center on her ranch, near the location of today’s U.S. Post Office on Via de Ventura and Pima Road. Artist Pop Chalee and her musician husband, Ed Natay, were the major draws to this art hub, located in recreated hogans.

Thanks in large measure to those guild-like artists and craftspeople who came together in 1946, 70 years later the small farming village of Scottsdale has grown into a city of nearly 230,000 people with a worldwide reputation for its multifaceted menu of arts and cultural offerings. Today, Scottsdale consistently earns ratings as one of the premier arts destinations in the United States, is home to dozens of art galleries, boasts several art museums, displays an impressive array of public art installations, hosts numerous major art events, is home to renowned artists and serves as inspiration for new generations of creative talent.