Historical Artists | Visual Arts

“Continued Under Her Good Efforts”: Utah Women Artists, Societies, and Social Clubs

“Scarce indeed is the smart woman who does not have affiliation with her favorite organization,” Salt Lake Tribune journalist Grace Gether wrote in 1937, reporting on the importance of clubs to the greater Salt Lake City community. Artists were no different, there was “scarce indeed” a Utah woman artist who was not affiliated with a broader organization. Significantly, it was often through these institutions that these women obtained power in their community and furthered their careers.

Club activity was common for women across the United States and served several purposes. Historian Anne Ruggles Gere has shown that roughly two million women belonged to clubs at the turn of the 20th century.[1] If you weren’t a member, your mom, sister, or best friend definitely was. Women in Utah were no exception. Suzanne Stauffer has argued that women’s clubs in Utah c. 1890-1920 were a way for Mormon and non-Mormon women to come together in the “construction of a shared secular society.”[2] During this time, the church’s female organization, the Relief Society, became much more insular and church-focused than it was before. “Mormon women looked to secular clubs in order to participate in civic, social, and cultural activities with other women and to create a public secular life for themselves distinct from their private religious life,” she writes. Furthermore, participating in these clubs allowed women to expand their world into the public sphere through “socially acceptable public activities.” Their residency in the West was also significant. Clubs were a way for white, middle-class women to create and advance “eastern American society and culture in the West.”

Myra L. Sawyer, “Portrait of the Artist or Her Sister Augusta,” ca. 1911, estimated, watercolor. From the Permanent Collection of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, purchased with funds from Friends of the Art Museum

The Ladies Literary Club, founded in 1877 was an especially important institution for women in Salt Lake City, a place where women created these public secular lives. The club had several different associated educational chapters, including one exclusively focused on the visual arts. The women in this group met together and studied the masters of art history, including Renaissance painters and medieval architects. Its members made it their practice to support each other’s endeavors and to be agents of their own education. They also gave its members the opportunity to share their work and expertise with a broader public. They saw the value in these women’s knowledge and experience and allowed them to be public experts. These women could form their public reputations and personas through club activity.

Myra Sawyer (1863-1956), a successful Utah artist who studied in Paris at the turn of the century, was one such member. In March 1908, returning from a stint in Paris, she gave a special address to its members. The newspaper reported that it was one of the “most thoroughly delightful afternoons of the year.” Sawyer regaled the audience with tales of “the struggles in the realm of art, of the little attic rooms where true art reigns, and of the wonders and ingenuity of the art students whose incomes are limited, but whose ambitions are not.”[3] Through her club activity, she was able to represent herself publicly as a professional, serious artist.

Myra L. Sawyer, “Portrait of a Man,” ca.1900, oil on canvas. Springville Museum of Art

In a miniature portrait, painted circa 1911, Sawyer furthers this self-representation in her art. The painting is either a self-portrait or a painting of Sawyer’s sister. In either case, it showcases Sawyer’s values as a woman in early-twentieth-century Salt Lake City society. The pose, clothing, and painting style recall ancient Roman portraiture, demonstrating Sawyer’s knowledge of this Classical art form. By depicting herself (or her sister) as a Classical woman, she connects the portrait to what in her time was considered the peak of civilized society, education, and art. Notably, Sawyer’s portraits of male subjects are much less formal and depict the men in contemporary clothing and casual poses. Sawyer’s decision to paint herself or her sister as a Classical woman was deliberate — a portrayal of a smart, educated, sophisticated woman. Her tactic here mimics the way social clubs and societies advocated for the women among their members (though it should be noted that the opportunities afforded by these clubs and other organizations were not equally enjoyed: the rural, poor, and women of color were not able to access the same power, advocacy, and success as their wealthy, white, urban counterparts). They fashioned themselves at the peak of their local social circles and emphasized their own education and sophistication.

Organizations that were specifically dedicated to the visual arts were also an integral part of the Utah art scene in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries and helped professionalize the arts in the state. Unfortunately, one of the first such organizations, the Society of Utah Artists (SUA), excluded women from formally joining. Formed in 1893 by some of the giants of Utah art history, the SUA’s charter and bylaws restricted membership to males. It is important that women were left out of this society because as you read the ledger of its members, these are the most recognizable Utah artists: John Hafen, J.T. Harwood, and Mahonri Young, among others (Fig. 3). The men in this society set the tone, standards, and expectations for Utah art and are the ones most remembered in its history. Because women were not allowed the benefits of joining this elite group, they were left out from the networking, skill-sharing, and advocacy that helped propel some of these men to national and international careers.

Though barred from membership, women found a way to participate, and were regularly included in the SUA’s annual exhibitions (Fig. 4 and 5). Suggesting just how many skilled female artists there were in Utah, women created approximately 18% of the works in the first exhibition in 1893, and 15% of those in the 1894 exhibition. (Though this number may seem low, note that in 2018 only 10% of works hanging in major U.S. museums were created by women.) An impressive list of women participated in the first annual exhibitions of the SUA: Emma Carson, Harriet Richards Harwood, Mary Teasdel, Charlotte Newman, Marie Gorlinski Hughes, Rose Hartwell, Alice Merrill Horne, Mrs. C.A. Krouse, Edith Maguire, and Edna Sloan. Unfortunately — and tellingly — in catalogs they were not often fully named, identified as “Mrs.” or “Ms.” and sometimes exclusively by their husband’s names.

Mary H. Teasdel, “Brighton,” undated, watercolor. From the Permanent Collection of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, University of Utah Collection

Prohibited from full participation in the SUA, Utah women artists continued to seek a statewide art organization that would be open to both male and female artists. In 1899, Alice Merrill Horne, one of Utah’s first female legislators, successfully proposed legislation that would create the Utah Art Institute (which would eventually be known as the Utah Arts Council, now part of the Utah Division of Arts & Museums). It was the first state-funded arts organization in the country. The Institute began collecting art and held annual exhibitions, both of which are legacies continued today. Suggesting the power of Horne’s vision, in 1899 the SUA even stopped hosting its annual exhibition for several years to support the efforts of the Utah Art Institute (UAI).

Though women artists were outnumbered by the men in the UAI’s initial exhibitions, their work competed on an equal basis. James T. Harwood, one of the best-known artists in the state at the time and an influential teacher, won the purchase award at the organization’s first exhibition; but at the second, the awarding committee wanted to split the award between John Hafen and Mary Teasdel. It was blocked from doing so by the organization’s bylaws, so Hafen took that year’s prize. But Horne raised enough outside money to also purchase the Teasdel. The next year, Teasdel, one of the most admired Utah artists of the time, male or female, took both the watercolor and oil painting prizes. Suggesting the influence she had in the arts community, when the SUA was advocating for change in the Utah Art Institute’s payment structure, they invited Teasdel to attend one of their meetings. This would be an anomaly, however: Women as a rule were not invited to participate in SUA meetings and though in April 1905 the all-male membership discussed possibly amending the bylaws in order to make the membership open to female applicants, no women artists were mentioned as members in their minutes or correspondence through 1932, when the society presumably disbanded.

Florence Ellen Ware, “Bowl of Gladiolus,” undated, oil on canvas. From the Permanent Collection of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, gift of Timothy C. Hoiles

In the 1940s and 1950s, in contrast to the SUA at the turn of the century and building on the UAI network, women took charge at a new organization for Utah artists, the Associated Utah Artists (AUA). Like the SUA, some of the best and most well-known Utah artists were members of the AUA. Notably, from its beginning women were active, formal members and took on important leadership positions.

As the first president of the AUA, Florence Ware (1891-1972) used her position to advocate for artists of Utah. In 1940, during National Art Week, she, alongside Alice Merrill Horne and other local leaders, urged the Salt Lake City public to invest in original art by local artists. She exclaimed, “Too many of our people go abroad and bring back pictures which are not a bit better — sometimes notably inferior — to the work being done by the artists right in their hometown.”[4] She reiterated her advocacy as part of the AUA’s mission to promote interest in fine craftsmanship, encourage creative work, and emphasize high ideals in art. Mary Kimball Johnson (1906-1994), who took over as AUA president in the late ‘40s, also advocated for Utah art in the local media and with local patrons and businesses (fig. 5). As presidents of the AUA, these women became public champions for the arts, furthering not only their own careers, but the careers of their peers.

Mary Kimball Johnson, “Survival, Tropic Canyon, Utah,” 1945, watercolor. Springville Museum of Art

In addition to the advocacy of its leaders, the network provided by the group itself was important. Women members like Florence Ware, Gertrude Teusch, and Alice Merrill Horne curated art shows, organized exhibitions, and ran galleries. Their participation in the broader network of the AUA allowed the other female members to develop close relationships with gallerists, curators, and dealers, giving them additional opportunities to show and sell their art as professional artists. A newspaper article featuring one of the group’s meetings emphasizes the importance of the group and its professionality (fig. 6): the artists pose with their supplies, palettes in hand, to show that even at a party they are serious artists; they interact with one another, and look at each other’s works in progress, indicating the importance of their network; they are shown together, rather than as individuals, emphasizing their group is greater than the sum of its parts; and the men and women of the group are shown on equal footing.

Regrettably, these gender dynamics were not as equal behind the scenes. Women were largely responsible for the often-invisible labor of hosting, organizing, coordinating, and recording that made the AUA’s impressive accomplishments possible. Florence Ware, Rose Howard Salisbury, and Ann Walker Browning (referred to most regularly as Mrs. G Wesley Browning), hosted frequent meetings in their homes and studios. Bessie Alice Bancroft, a midcentury painter almost forgotten in Utah’s public collections, kept an extensive record of Utah art in the 1940s (fig. 7). She fastidiously cut newspaper clips and collected show catalogs and mementos. After her death in 1945, the AUA recorded that these scrapbooks originated with Bancroft and were “continued under her good efforts … with the same painstaking care that she gave to her duties as Secretary.” The records she kept for the AUA are now housed in the University of Utah’s Marriott Library and are an incredible resource for researchers of Utah art.

Though they still had to grapple with sexism and unfair gender dynamics, women artists were able to use the power of clubs and art organizations, and the leadership opportunities they afforded, to legitimize themselves and their peers as professional artists. Through the exhibitions, advocacy, and networking these groups provided, Utah women artists furthered their careers and navigated the Utah art world. The organization created socially acceptable ways for these women to be leaders in their community, advocate for their peers, and promote the work of Utah women in a mostly patriarchal culture and society.

This article is funded through the University of Utah’s Fellowship in Collections Engagement.

Emily Larsen is currently working with Dr. Heather Belnap of BYU on a research project focusing on Utah women artists c.1880-1950. If you are a descendant or have any information, documents, or other relevant items about the artists in these articles, or Utah women artists from this time, please contact her at emilylarsenart@gmail.com.

[1] Anne Ruggles Gere, Intimate Practices: Literacy and Cultural Work in U.S. Women’s Clubs, 1880-1920 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 5.

[2] Suzanne M. Stauffer, “A Good Social Work: Women’s Clubs, Libraries, and the Construction of a Secular Society in Utah, 1890-1920,” Libraries & The Cultural Record 46, no. 2 (2011): 135-155.

[3] “Women’s Club’s,” Salt Lake Herald, March 28, 1908, page 18.

[4] Newspaper clipping in AUA scrapbook., Deseret News, Tuesday November 26, 1940. Associated Utah Artist Records Box 2, Book 1, Special Collections J. Willard Marriott Library, The University of Utah.

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