"Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

Friday, April 7, 2017

Laura Adams Armer: Writer, Artist, Photographer

 In April 1932 when Laura Adams Armer traveled east to accept the Newberry Medal for her children’s book, Waterless Mountain, she wrote, “I was living in the wilderness of the Navajo and Hopi country, seventy eight miles from the railroad.... Traveling by train across New Mexico, through Texas to New Orleans .... I had time to think about the Newberry Medal....that I, as a genuine amateur in the field of literature, had never heard of the Newberry Medal.”

Laura started her career as an artist and photographer. It wasn’t until she was fifty-seven, in 1931, that her first book was published. Upon receiving recognition, she said, “I’ve been writing books in my mind for the last thirty-five years. Waterless Mountain was merely the first one I put down on paper.”

Laura at art school
Laura was born in Sacramento, California, in 1874, the youngest of three children. Her father farmed, did carpentry work, and even tried his hand at gold mining. Her mother was a seamstress. In 1880, the family moved to San Francisco.

Laura was said to be a dreamer, and by the time she was sixteen she showed a great interest in drawing and painting. She was fortunate to have an uncle who doted on her as much as her mother did, and he paid her tuition to the San Francisco School of Art. After graduation six years later, she opened her own studio in San Francisco, catering to California’s high society. She also compiled a collection of photographs of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Her work was often exhibited in photographic salons.

In 1902, her interest in photographic art form took a new direction when she and her fiancĂ©, Sidney Armer, made a trip to the Southwest. She later said, “There at Tucson and in the Catalina Mountains I was first inoculated with the desert delirium.” It was a delirium that would continue throughout her life.

After Laura and Sidney married (he would eventually be recognized as being the highest paid commercial illustrator in California), she moved her studio to their new home in Berkeley. In 1903 she gave birth to her first child, son Austin. (An infant daughter died in 1905.) Over the years, Laura won a number of awards for her photography, wrote articles for various magazines, and illustrated her own and other books. (The dust jacket and frontispiece illustration for Waterless Mountain was a reproduction of a painting by Laura based on a composite of two of her photographs.)

Although work and motherhood kept her busy, the Southwest kept tugging at her heart. In 1923 she, Sidney, and Austin went on a vacation to the land of the Navajo. With them was a friend, Paul Louis Faye, who had lived among the Navajos. Laura writes, “We left Berkeley in a Buick touring car .... We were prepared to camp out in a dry country. The running board of the car held canteens of water and a lunch box. A trunk on the rear stowed a gasoline camp stove with pots and pans. Sleeping bags and ethnological reports filled half the back seat. Cameras and canned goods reposed at our feet.”

Her goal was to capture scenes at Sunset Post and Oraibi and document the lives of the Hopi and Navajo. She met Lorenzo Hubbell, of the Hubbell Trading Post, a man who would become her mentor and help her arrange trips into Navajo areas. In order to meet the locals, she agreed to teach art classes in a government school. Her first art class consisted of forty Hopi boys and girls. The following year, she asked Hubbell to help her find a place where she could do her work in solitude. He took her to Blue Canyon and helped her set up two tents with her equipment and supplies. When he left her, he said, “If this moon place is not wild enough for you, send word to Oraibi and I will try to find you what you want.”

She wanted to learn about the sacred native ceremonies and to film them. Being a woman, she wasn’t allowed to watch the ceremonies, nor was she allowed to photograph or sketch their sacred sand paintings. But when she discovered that the sprinkling of the corn pollen was the sacred item, she convinced them to allow her to photograph and paint more than a hundred sand paintings “sans pollen.” In 1928, Hubbell helped her fund a film, The Mountain Chant. She set out in Hollywood to distribute it as a feature-length movie. Even though it wasn’t a commercial success, it was widely viewed. She wrote Hubbell saying, “I’m not a success as a salesman ...everything is busines, graft, politics ... you can’t realize until you home here [to Hollywood] ... Sorry, but it’s one woman against millions of businessmen.”

Laura retreated to her writing and began working on her second book, Dark Circle of Branches. Proceeds from Waterless Mountain kept food on their table during the depression. Around 1936, she couldn’t establish ownership of the studio she’d built on the reservation and was forced to return to California, ending her visits to the Southwest. She continued her work though, which included a 50,000 word manuscript about sand painting. Other works include, Southwest (1935), which Laura also illustrated, The Trader’s Children (1937), and The Forest Pool (1938), recognized as that year’s most distinguished picture book. It was illustrated in color.

In 1962 Sidney died, and Laura died the following year at the age of eighty-nine.

When Lorenzo Hubbell dropped her off in Blue Canyon back in 1924, he asked her if she was lonely being there, week after week, to which she replied, “Here with the Navajos I am not hampered by trivialities, but I have learned that one must win his own place in the spiritual world, painfully and alone.... The Promised Land lies on the other side of a wilderness.”

One can’t help but wonder if she returned, at last, to her beloved Southwest.

Photo Credit:
Laura at art school
"Mother Took Out the Sheep"