Kate Cory

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(Note: The following is an excerpt from Shadows on the Mesa-Artists of the Painted Desert and Beyond.)

Another possible early Kayenta visitor whose artistic legacy is indelibly linked with northern Arizona is Kate Cory. It is not known what emotions crossed Cory’s mind when she first detrained at the Volz Trading Post in Canyon Diablo, Arizona in 1905. It was her first trip to the Southwest. The harsh but colorful landscape, along with the billowy clouds floating across the vast, azure sky, likely made a deep impression on the New York City resident. But her only recorded observation was one of dismay to the porter about the fact there was no town –just a depot and a trading post in an otherwise empty setting.

The seed for her decision to visit Arizona had been planted the previous fall by fellow artist Louis Akin. Cory, at the time an instructor at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, was at a meeting of the Pen and Brush Club in New York when she was introduced to Akin by writer Maude Banks. Akin had just returned after leaving the year before “emotionally depressed, despairing of city life in New York, and resolved to find himself by living among the Hopi Indians.”

Apparently it had worked. Although frequently moody and distant, Akin was gushing with excitement that day as he recounted the previous winter in northern Arizona. He was most likely the first Anglo to spend any significant time living with the Hopi since the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Akin spoke glowingly of the mild weather which permitted an artist to work outside year round. He then described in detail the block like adobe houses perched on the top of rugged mesas with majestic views. But perhaps most intriguing were his stories of the “gentle people with their strange ceremonies and rituals,” who had inhabited the settlements for centuries. When he felt he had sufficiently captivated the two women, he added “I want to go back there and have a colony of writers, artists, and musicians. Why can’t you two be of that colony?”

Forty-three years old at the time and never married, Cory admitted the idea sounded attractive. Both her parents had died the year before, leaving more than enough money to subsidize her frugal lifestyle for several years. Other than her teaching job at Cooper Union, she had no strong ties to New York. The following summer she accepted Akin’s proposal and headed to Arizona.

However, shortly after arriving Cory realized she would be the only writer, artist or musician to make the trek. She succinctly summed up the event nearly forty years later: “It materialized that Louis’ plan did not bring the party to the reservation and thus I became the ‘colony.’”

It would be a full seven years before Kate Cory left Hopi.

Short and slender in stature, with a modest, low key demeanor, bespectacled Kate Cory was one of those rare breeds who appears completely unremarkable at first glance, but who upon closer inspection becomes outright fascinating.

Cory was born in Waukegan, Illinois on February 8, 1861 just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. She was descended from prominent families on both her mother and father’s side. Her father, James Y. Cory was an activist editor and ardent abolitionist, whose house was a stop on the Underground Railway. Some accounts claim he was a close personal friend of Abraham Lincoln. One of her uncles was Washington’s last territorial and first statehood governor. Both her grandfathers were doctors. Her mother, a Maine native, was allegedly a descendent of Mayflower pilgrims.

Unfortunately most of Cory’s childhood has been lost to history. Her father’s activism and political views likely had a significant influence, particularly in the areas of social awareness and tolerance of other cultures and races – qualities that would prove beneficial during her years with the Hopi. After graduating from high school in Waukegan her family moved to New York City where she continued her art education at Cooper Union and later The Art Students League. While at the Art Students League she studied under early American Impressionist J. Alden Weir and Classical Realist Kenyon Cox. Like many aspects of her early life, it is not known how much influence either had on the young artist. Although not overtly so, elements from both schools can be seen in her work. It can be assumed she created several paintings during this period. Yet curiously, none are known to still be in existence or have ever been cataloged.

On the other hand, much has been written and documented about Cory’s seven years with the Hopi. It was a relatively brief portion of her long life, but it was clearly the most historically significant. She was given the opportunity to observe in depth and photograph every aspect of tribal life, ranging from their daily routines to sacred ceremonies and rituals, even those previously restricted to Hopi men. It was a privilege few have ever been granted. She became a close friend of many in the tribe and was invited to become a member, although she graciously declined.

Another of the many mysteries in Cory’s life was the purpose behind her extensive photographing and cataloging of Hopi life. Painting was her first love, and it may have been the photos were taken as studies for subjects she later intended to portray on canvas. Others have speculated she began experimenting with photography as an artistic medium and became frustrated with the results. Regardless of the intent, by the time she left she had amassed a photographic archive of over 640 negatives, a body of work which in time would prove to be a remarkably valuable ethnographic and historical achievement.

After saying goodbye to Oraibi in 1912, Cory settled in Prescott where she would remain a permanent resident for the rest of her life. The following year Cory exhibited one of her landscapes, Arizona Desert, in the now famous 1913 Armory Show. Cory was the only Arizona resident artist to be featured.

In 1921 a group of Prescott businessmen, threatened with the cancellation of the annual Frontier Days rodeo, organized a “Way Out West Show” to raise badly needed funds. One of the acts involved a group of white dancers in Native American costume engaging in a performance based on the Hopi Snake Dance. The troupe soon named themselves the Smoki People. Originally started as an endeavor “to produce and present more realistic performances” for tourists and attendees at the Way Out West Show, the Smoki People in time became dedicated to preserving several different elements of Native American Culture. In 1923 the Smoki People “enlisted the advice and guidance from noted frontierswoman, anthropologist, and artist Kate T. Cory.”

Over the next decade the group grew in both size and scope and 1935 saw the opening of the Smoki Museum in Prescott. The construction of the 5,100 square foot pueblo like museum was funded in large part by the Civilian Work Authority (CWA). Cory provided architectural assistance for the building and designed a double-mouthed Zuni-style fireplace and chimney painted with katsina images. The Smoki Museum and people depended heavily on Cory for her knowledge of Hopi customs, dress, and ceremonies. Cory in turn later donated an extensive portion of her personal paintings and photo archives.

The last three decades of Cory’s life were lived in relative quiet in Prescott. For several years she was a member of the Monday Fine Arts Committee, the first women’s club in Arizona. The group included fellow Prescott artists Claire Dooner Phillips, Mabel Lloyd Lawrence, and Ada Rigden.

Her later years were characterized by a Spartan existence that in time has become the stuff of local Prescott legend. Cory “lived in a clutter of books, paintings, and work in progress.” Like every true artist she was clearly driven by a strong sense of internal values, deeply rooted in her desire for artistic expression. Personal appearances and housekeeping were not priorities. Frugality, on the other hand, was highly valued. She was once was offered used clothing, apparently an improvement over her wardrobe at the time, and she politely declined. A vegetarian, she “ate beans from an open can heated on the back of her woodstove.”16 In the winter months she would build a tent of blankets around a small space heater to conserve the heat. A cot and easy chair were then placed inside the tent.

Yet also remembered was her gentle demeanor and charitable nature. “Trim and spry with bright blue eyes,” she was always known to be gracious and open to visitors. A devout member of the Prescott Congregational Church, it was said she rarely missed a Sunday, although she would most often not be seen or heard. Residents recall she would “slip in, listen attentively and slip out again.”

Cory moved into the Arizona Pioneers Home at the age of 95 where she remained until her death two years later in 1958. Considered a “congenial, generous eccentric” to those who didn’t know her and beloved by those who did, the bronze plaque at the base of her tombstone best describes her journey:” Kate Cory, Artist of Arizona. Hers was the joy of giving.”

At the time of her passing Cory had no idea of the importance her Hopi photographs would eventually attain. It was not until several decades afterward scholars began serious study of her photographic work. Despite her self-imposed Spartan existence, she had lived a life which was remarkably diverse and rich. Her legacy consists of significant contributions to both art and history. Cory’s paintings are in the permanent collections of both the Smithsonian National Museum of National History and American Art Museum.



K. T. Cory Hopi Country

Kate Cory Desert Landscape I
Kate Cory Desert Landscape II
Kate Cory Desert Landscape III
Kate Cory Circa 1952 Desert Magazine photo
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