Celebrating Legendary Women of Santa Fe County

Throughout the month of March, Santa Fe and the nation celebrates Women’s History Month—a time to commemorate, study and recognize the incredible role of women in American history. In the case of Santa Fe, many of these women made their mark in the arts and cultural fields.

Among the female trailblazers throughout its history, Santa Fe County shines special recognition on:

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986)

One of the most renowned artists of the 20th Century, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Southwest-inspired works are acclaimed worldwide. Taking inspiration from local landscapes and cultures, O’Keeffe created stunning art pieces that captured the unique beauty of northern New Mexico.

For visitors looking to learn more about O’Keeffe and her work, a visit to The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe is a must. Currently on exhibit, the Rooted in Place exhibition runs through August 1, 2024 and focuses on O’Keeffe’s studies of the trees around her New Mexico home.

For those interested in exploring her life and work further, plan a visit to Abiquiú, New Mexico to explore her home and studio. O’Keeffe Home & Studio Tours can be reserved by visiting the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum website.

Mary Cabot Wheelwright (1878 – 1958)

An artist, philanthropist, and cultural preservationist, Wheelwright—who came from a wealthy Boston family—became a student, admirer, and fierce advocate for the preservation of Indigenous cultures. After her mother’s death in 1917, Wheelwright came to New Mexico, where she was inspired by the Navajo people.

In 1937, she founded The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, housing her collections of Native American art, as well as a variety of unique exhibits of contemporary and history art.

Leonora Francis Curtin (1903–1999)

Leonora Francis Curtin is credited—alongside the wise businesswomen in her family, Eva Scott Fényes (1849-1930-Grandmother) and Leonora Scott Muse Curtin (1879-1972 Mother)—for the establishment of an integral cultural institution in Santa Fe County—The Acequia Madre House. Completed in 1926, today the estate houses collections of books, art, furniture, photographs, letters, and artifacts from the lives of the three women.

Additionally, the house serves as the Women’s International Study Center, celebrating their incredible studies, research and residencies spanning a variety of academic fields.

Thanks to the work of three generations of women in the family—spanning more than 100 years—visitors today can explore and discover the cultural heritage of New Mexico when visiting.

Furthermore, Leonora Francis Curtin left her mark through her important work to establish the living history museum at El Rancho de las Golondrinas. In 1932, Curtin and her mother bought the property that would become Las Golondrinas. The founder of the Santa Fe Native Market, Curtin was dedicated to preserving traditions and cultures of the area.

Beginning in 1946, Curtin and her husband Yrjö Alfred (Y.A.) Paloheimo worked to transform the ranch property into a dynamic living history museum, where visitors can interact with and learn from the past. Along with founding El Rancho de las Golondrinas, Curtin was focused on preservation and is the namesake of the Leonora Curtin Wetland Preserve that protects the area’s natural spring for wildlife and vegetation.

El Rancho de las Golondrinas—Curtin’s legacy—continues to thrive today. The 2024 season opens June 5, 2024, to the general public and runs through October 2024.

While at El Rancho de las Golondrinas, visitors can explore the past through tours with docents dressed in the time period or attend special events and festivals, including:

  • The Santa Fe Spring Festival (June 1–2), focuses on herbs and lavender, as well as spinning and weaving, sheep shearing and more. The event will include traditional horno bread baking, crafts for kids, and vendors.
  • The Santa Fe Wine Festival (July 6–7) where attendees can sip and savor a variety of local New Mexico wines, arts and crafts vendors, live music and food.
  • Fiesta de los Niños (July 20–21) offers an immersive adventure for children, focused on learning about life in the past. Tin stamping, rope making, schoolhouse games, tortilla making, meeting the animals of El Rancho de las Golondrinas, and wool spinning, weaving, and dyeing are just a handful of the activities offered throughout the festival.
  • The Santa Fe Beer & Food Festival (August 10–11) celebrates the local brewing scene and cuisine with opportunities to sample New Mexico beers and enjoy delectable bites from food vendors, along with live entertainment.

School for Advanced Research

School for Advanced Research Pottery Vault in Santa Fe racks.
School for Advanced Research Pottery Vault in Santa Fe racks. Photo by Chadd Scott

I consider the School for Advanced Research’s Pottery Room the most sacred room in art. Contained within are hundreds of ancestral, historic and contemporary Pueblo pots, the vast majority produced by women. The importance of pottery and pottery traditions to the Indigenous people of what is now New Mexico cannot be overstated.

That work was created by women. Those traditions passed down by women.

Andrea Fisher

Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery has been specializing in hand-made, hand-painted, Native American pottery from the Southwest since opening in the early 90s. Located steps from Santa Fe’s famed Plaza, it has evolved into the premier Pueblo pottery gallery in the nation.

The legends of the genre – women – are spotlighted beginning with Maria Martinez (San Ildefonso Pueblo; 1887-1980) who is best known for her striking black pottery found in museum collections around the world.

“She’s really the one who made all the rest of this possible and that’s because she was, first of all, extremely talented,” Andrea Fisher told me, also noting how committed to production Martinez was. Her ability to make work was supported by family, including four sisters who were also potters.

“In those early days the sisters were getting 25 cents for their pots and Maria was getting a dollar and so those sisters would help (Maria) out, make sandwiches for the kids and do the laundry, and that way Maria could be incredibly prolific,” Fisher said.

Martinez was an innovator in art and business.

“She was sort of the first Indian marketer,” Fisher explains. “She could talk to the white guys who came out and bought (pots), and there were a lot of people in those early days in the 20s and 30s in Santa Fe who recognized her talent, and so all of those things combined and made her the founder of contemporary American Indian potters.”

The influence and artwork of Maria Martinez pervade Santa Fe like sunshine. Traces of her are everywhere.

She wasn’t the only grande dame of Pueblo pottery. Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery highlights these women as well.

Margaret Tofoya (1904-2001) at Santa Clara.

Rose Chino Garcia (1928-2000) and Lucy Lewis (1895-1992) from Acoma.

Nampeyo of Hano (1860-1942) at Hopi.

“(Nampeyo) did the same thing that Maria did, took (pottery) from utilitarian to an art form, away from a curio into a piece of art,” Fisher said.

Also like Martinez, Nampeyo paired business acumen with brilliant artistry, venturing to the Grand Canyon not far from the Hopi villages to sell her work to the throngs of tourists there

“All those matriarchs, they raised the bar for everybody,” Fisher said.

So has she. Fisher has become a Santa Fe icon in her own right.

Acoma pottery at Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery in Santa Fe
Acoma pottery at Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery in Santa Fe

The Women’s Board of the Museum of New Mexico

The School for Advanced Research Pottery Room is my favorite room in Santa Fe and the Women’s Board Room in the New Mexico Museum of Art on the Plaza is No. 2. Check out the ceiling beams and the woodwork and paint detailing on those beams!

The Women’s Board has been essential to assisting and supporting the Museum since 1910.

The room is filled with masterpieces from the museum’s collection.

Cara Romero

Cara Romero (Chemehuevi), Archival pigment print, The Zenith, 43 x 48 x 3, Digital capture of model with corn on fishing line. Best in class winner at SWAIA Indian Market 2022.
Cara Romero (Chemehuevi), Archival pigment print, The Zenith, 43 x 48 x 3, Digital capture of model with corn on fishing line. Best in class winner at SWAIA Indian Market 2022. Photo by Chadd Scott.

Lest you think the great women of Santa Fe exist only in the past, photographer Cara Romero (b. 1977; enrolled citizen of the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe) represents one of countless examples of female artists and entrepreneurs continuing in the legacy of O’Keeffe and Fisher. Romero is both.

As one of the nation’s most esteemed contemporary artists, her work has featured in countless exhibitions at the nation’s most prestigious art museums for the past handful of years, and as a businesswoman, she opened a gallery (333 Montezuma Ave $5) in 2022.

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