Interview with Don Hagerty
Dixon Biographer, Author, “Desert Dreams: The Art and Life of Maynard Dixon”
Nancy Green: Don, a lot of people don't understand what the west was like in 1875 when Maynard Dixon was born. Can you paint me a picture of the west that Maynard was born into?
Donald Hagerty: The southern San Joaquin valley where Dixon was born in 1875 liken it to the great plains if you will, but buffered by the coast range on the west and the Sierra Nevada on the east. But no trees - rolling plains, vast herds of wild horses and antelope and elk, very few settlements. Fresno at that time was just a small railroad stop, a single-water tower in sort of the midst of this great rolling plain. And I think that Dixon when he got a bit older, in the 1880s, began to realize that there was an impact of this landscape on him and his, ultimately his art. It was an austere landscape. It was something with a vast horizontal, which I think marks a lot of his, his work in later years, his paintings.
Even more so, there was the legacy of the California Gold Rush that was still there. The old west was still there, there were still people who had participated in the California Gold Rush in the 1850s. And this was something I think had a great impact on young Dixon at that time, that he was able to rub shoulders if you will, with Civil War veterans, with ex-Confederates, with ex-Union soldiers, leftover fur trappers, you know, any number of Western characters. And these were things that I think had great impact on his young imagination at that time.
Nancy Green: I remember you writing that Dixon, when he was older, saw a difference between the frontier and the West. What is the difference?
Donald Hagerty: Well, I think the Frontier was a historical concept. And the frontier was declared closed in 1893 by Frederick Jackson Turner. This was something that was a cultural concept, the Frontier. The West he saw was endless, limitless - it had no beginning, it had no ending for him, I think. And it was something that related to, again, going back to the land, cause I think the land was the greatest sort of crucible, if you will, of Dixon's birth as an artist.
Nancy Green: What do you mean by “the land was a crucible?”
Donald Hagerty: It was something he felt born into, something he felt very strongly about, in terms of his belief in the land, in the landscape, and the west in general. And it's something I think he would come back and revisit very poignantly during the Depression years.
Nancy Green: Describe Maynard Dixon's childhood - what was he like?
Donald Hagerty: Well, from everything I've read, in the family records, probably, quiet, somebody who didn't socialize a great deal, somebody who liked being alone, liked to ride his horse out on the prairie, when he was young. It wasn't that he was anti-social, just that he had sort of an inward feeling about himself. And he loved to read - his mother was a great literary person, she loved to buy novels and periodicals, and read them to young Dixon - so I think he grew up with sort of the romance of Ivanhoe and King Arthur and those sort of folks, you know, passed on by his mother. But it was something, I think he was a lone wolf, to a degree, in fact I think all of his life, a lone wolf. And he was somebody that got a great deal of comfort and joy from being alone and out in the landscape.
Nancy Green: The early influences -- you talk about his mother. What about his father?
Donald Hagerty: Well his father as you know, was a veteran of the Civil War, fought for the Confederacy. He and his brother came out at the end of the Civil War, in 1867, and came down to a place called Millerton, actually. So his father got a law degree and set up his office in a one-room shack in Millerton. And at that time, there was still a great deal of lingering sort of animosity between the Union veterans and the Confederate veterans. The North and the South had been sort of transferred to the southern San Joaquin valley. In fact there was quite a large colony of Confederate veterans, in and around Fresno and that area. And Maynard remembered that his father would tell him that he would have to walk around with a loaded six-shooter and that there were times a note would be tacked onto his office door, saying, "Rebel Ass, get out of town!" And these were the sort of things the old west, sort of, the south being transferred to the west at that time.
But his father, I think, was a major factor in his life. His father came from that sort of southern aristocracy. In fact Maynard Dixon, I remember seeing in a letter, his father would always say, “Damn Yankees”, but Maynard Dixon would always say, “Damn Businessmen”, you know, sort of picking up on that kind of southern aristocracy. And it's something I think that a large part of his father was in his persona, particularly in the later years when he had the sword-cane and the tailored black suit, and so forth.
Green: His father also suffered from mental illness, possibly caused by syphilis.
Hagerty: Well, his father had apparently contracted an illness during the Civil War. And whatever it was it became progressively worse and transformed itself into some form of mental illness, in the 1890s. And his father eventually died at Agnew State Hospital in San Jose, I believe in 1898. And I think that was a big loss to Maynard, to lose his father. He was always very close to his mother, certainly because of the literary associations. They had a very large family. Harry St. John Dixon, his father, and Constance Maynard Dixon, his mother, they had a very large family, but they lost half of them.
Green: He had a lot of loss
Hagerty: Loss, a loss, but there also was an exciting time. Fresno was a boomtown, fueled by water and water rights, and I think he enjoyed that. Some quarrels were settled still by six-shooters at that time.
Green: Who else was influential in his early life?
Hagerty: Well, I think his uncle George Mordecai, was the brother of Harry St. John Dixon, and had a large ranch in Madera County. I think he was a good influence, taught Maynard how to ride a horse, gave him a horse. So I think there was some influence from George Mordecai. But there's a lot of shadowy figures around Dixon's early life. I think his mother and father certainly were the main impetus for, I think on one hand, the literary interest, the language abilities that Dixon eventually had came from his mother. I think from his father he got that sort of noblesse oblige, you know the, you know, the southern aristocracy feeling.
Green: You’ve also discovered that his family was also distantly related to Pocahontas.
Hagerty: One of his ancestors was John Rolph. I got a phone call from a book dealer in New England who I’d bought Dixon material from, books and stuff and he said, “I’ve got something that might interest you,” and I said, “Well, describe it.” He did and I said, “Send it right out.” And it’s a book titled Pocahontas and her Descendants and it was published in Richmond, Virginia about, I think 1885, but it’s a presentation copy from Harry St. John Dixon, Dixon’s father to Constance Maynard Dixon, his mother. And he says “To Constance Maynard Dixon, a descendant of Pocahontas.” And throughout the book, Constance Dixon has made numerous entries about the Dixon family, relationship to Pocahontas and in the back of the book a complete family tree showing on the maternal side, descendants from Pocahontas down to Maynard Dixon. And also in the book is a wonderful book plate that Maynard had designed for his mother, probably in the early 1900s. It’s funny because I never picked up in his writings that he ever said he was related to Pocahontas. And I don’t know why. And I have my speculation, I think part of it was, at that time, there was a great deal of racism against Native Americans. I think Maynard simply didn’t want to get into that.
Green: Where did Dixon’s love of the West come from?
Hagerty: Periodicals, he started reading periodicals with illustrations by Frederic Remington and Howard Pyle, some of the great early illustrators in the 1880s, 1890s. And these were a great influence. He would copy pictures from the periodicals, read them avidly, of course, his mother was a great supplier of these periodicals. I think he just, again it goes back to, there's this really strong romantic streak in Maynard Dixon, very strong and very deep. And I think he became enamored of western adventure, the concept of the west that was so different from any else, from any other part of the US at that time. And I think this was something that propelled him into wanting to deal with it as an artist.
Green: He writes to Frederic Remington. What does Remington write back?
Hagerty: Remington was very kind, and Remington wrote him a very nice letter, said that Dixon actually drew better at his age than Remington did at the same time, and gave him a great deal of encouragement. Those letters still exist, by the way, and they're great letters, I mean you could see that from Frederic Remington who was considered the leading illustrator of western life in the United States at that time, to write to a sixteen year old boy with that kind of encouragement. And Dixon was off and running.
Green: That’s gutsy for a teenager to write the nation’s top illustrator. On one hand Dixon seems to be introverted, yet he’s also confident.
Hagerty: You know there really are two Maynard Dixons, when we talk about him. There is the, that introspective, lone wolf Maynard Dixon, riding off in the sunset, turning his back on civilization, turning his back on loved ones. There was the other Dixon who was extremely gregarious, very social, very bohemian in turn of the century San Francisco. There really were two Dixons, and perhaps you never knew which one was gonna show up.
Green: Tell me more about that, the bohemian Dixon. Starting with his move to San Francisco to become an illustrator.
Hagerty: Well, he became an illustrator at the age of 18, he had three abortive months at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art, despaired of drawing from plaster casts, you know rather, he was a person who drew from life, you know, he, his inspiration came from the things he saw around him, the people and the landscape. And he couldn't handle a sort of formal art education where you had to learn from drawing from plaster casts or going to courses, so he and his friend Jimmy Swinnerton, at that time, would run off from classes and go down to Chinatown or along the Barbary Coast and raise hell, and do their sketching down there. And finally he just threw up his hands after three months at Mark Hopkins. And by then he had had such great talent already, because he had drawn incessantly since he was a young child, and somehow innately, along with the experience of constantly drawing, he was able to being to develop a Maynard Dixon style that the Overland Monthly saw in 1893 and published his first drawings. And you know, and from 1893 to oh probably 1905, 1906, Maynard Dixon became one of the great bohemian characters of San Francisco, became well-known, his work had taken off in newspapers and magazines. He hung out with les jeunes, which were the sort of young Turks of the art and print world at that time. He knew all of the writers, hob-knobbed with Mary Austin, Frank Norris, Gillette Burgess, these were all well-known names in San Francisco, bohemia at that time.
Green: How does this Bohemianism develop in Dixon?
Hagerty: Well, if you look at picture of Dixon in the late 1890s or early 1900s, you see in some of these pictures he'd already affected a western persona. He's got ten-gallon boots and a cowboy hat, and cartoons of him drawn by other artists show him in this western garb. So he's already beginning to affect a sort of uniform if you will, what he thought a western artist should look like. The other thing that he began to adopt and did adopt was the thunderbird. And as far as I can tell, the thunderbird, which is actually a southwest symbol - where he picked that up I don’t know, but obviously, he was well-versed already in southwest history - he adopted the thunderbird as a sort of adjunct signature to his work. But the signature became a totem eventually, for Maynard Dixon, I think. And it's interesting to note that from 1895 to about 1925, it was used rather common. Then in 1925, it stopped. He stopped using the Thunderbird on any of his work, probably with rare exceptions, but he stopped. He just stopped.
But you know the times in San Francisco, turn of the century San Francisco, were exciting times, if you were an artist or a newspaper reporter or a novelist. And they were all young people. Realize that Maynard Dixon was only 25 years old in 1900, and he palled around with people who were the same age, men and women who were already accomplished writers and artists. And they would all congregate at Coppa's restaurant, and you know, for a night of jovial drinking and carousing, and even though Dixon would work long hours as a newspaper and magazine illustrator, he would be there with his friends carousing. And it was really an exciting time, I suspect, I always wish I was there, just to see what was going on. And if you read all the reports about the bohemian San Francisco and his role in it, he played a prominent role. He was extremely well known, extremely well liked, well thought of, as a fellow bohemian.
Green: What is a bohemian?
Hagerty: Well, I think maybe the short hand version of that is someone who is carefree, doesn't have deep roots, moves on, not too many cares in the world, so to speak, and in fact there was a great bohemian movement at that time elsewhere in the world, there were a lot of places that were sort of bohemias, if you will.
Green: Talk about his adopting the Thunderbird as a totem. How did that reflect or symbolize him?
Hagerty: Well, I think that he adopted the thunderbird, I think he wanted something to set him apart from other artists, not just a signature, not just the style, per se, he wanted something else that would say this is Maynard Dixon. And he adopted the thunderbird, I think, to do just that. Cause it is, it's a very dramatic image, people instinctively know what it is, by in large. And it's something I think he adopted to make as an extension of his art and as, as him, as a person. That's why I said, first of all it became and extension of the signature, and then it became a totem, his own personal totem. To say this is I, this is Maynard Dixon. By making this mark, I'm Maynard Dixon.
Green: Does it have symbolic meaning?
Hagerty: I don't know if the meaning itself, I think he liked the design. It was unique, it was well-known, it was wide-spread among certainly the southwest, Native Americans. No, I think it was something that stood out.
Green: At an early age he meets Charles Lummis. Describe Charles Lummis for me.
Hagerty: Well, Charles Fletcher Lummis was ah, one of the great characters in California and Southwestern history, idiosyncratic, among other things, he walked across the United States to Los Angeles, a legendary trip, he really became the promoter of what is called the Southwest. It was really Lummis' efforts in doing that, he was the city librarian of Los Angeles founder of the Southwest Museum, one of the true Renaissance people, I think, of that period. And he had first seen Maynard's work in 1895, and began to, and met him, and met him and began to correspond with him, the start of a very long, lengthy, productive relationship until Lummis' death. And I think that Lummis had a great deal of influence, he was one of the surrogate fathers that Dixon sort of adopted, if you will, after his father's death, in fact he called Lummis “Pop Lummis,” and if you look at the letters, almost all of them are prefaced “Dear Pop”.
Green: So it sounds like he has a very personal relationship with Lummis.
Hagerty: I think it was very personal, and it was strained at times, I mean they were both extremely strong-willed personalities, didn't always agree, at times. But I think if you review the letters and what the letters say about the relationship, very strong, they admired each other deeply, and that didn't mean they didn’t cross swords from time to time on various things, but very supportive of each other.
Green: So what kind of an early influence was Lummis?
Hagerty: I think he was a guide, I think he was somebody who took Dixon under his wing and tried to give him some support certainly, for his art, wrote articles about him, about Dixon, in support of his art. But somebody I think that stepped in and tried to point Dixon in the right direction. Tried to give him, you know, keep the moral values straight, tried to point out things within the West that Dixon might look at. I think he was a tremendous influence.
Green: Do you think he influenced Dixon's views of the West itself?
Hagerty: I would suspect he would, you know, given that Lummis was an extremely strong-willed person, had written extensively about the Southwest, really had coined the whole concept of the Southwest, really it was from him. And I think Dixon picked up on that, so whether or not it was always face to face, I think it was as much what Lummis wrote about that Dixon followed, too.
Green: And early on, was it Lummis who told Maynard to go see the West?
Hagerty: Well, no, I think Maynard had decided that on his own, I can't find anything in the record that Lummis said you've gotta go West. Realize that from 1893 to 1900, Maynard Dixon had drawn the west without ever seeing it. He had never seen the west. So how he had to draw the west was from his own imagination, that's how newspaper and magazine artists did it at that time, there was no instant video replay, they had to use their imagination, maybe photographs, occasional on-site visits, but Maynard had never been out of San Francisco, and he made the famous, I have to go east to see the West. You have to realize that you did have to go east to see the Wild West at that time.
Green: And so Dixon does that. Was that an eye-opening experience?
Hagerty: I think it was a profound experience. I think the several months that he spent traveling through Arizona and New Mexico, sometimes in the company of Lummis, was an extremely important event in his life. He had actually seen the West, and it wasn't just an imaginary place, it was a real place. And I think his work began to reflect that, in terms of his drawings and his paint- and ultimately his paintings that he began to see it first-hand. And it was the first of many trips of, what he called “sagebrush inspiration”, to go see the West.
Green: Dixon in a trip to Montezuma’s Well in Arizona says something like, “that to understand the Native Americans, you have to know their ghosts.” What was he getting at on those trips?
Hagerty: Well, Montezuma's Well is an archaeological site, and I think that what he was talking about in ghosts, and again, this goes back to that deep romantic streak that he has in him. I think that he felt that there was an aboriginal ghostliness in the West, among certainly, not only the past groups, which we know archaeologically, but the living groups at that time, there was something, again that romantic streak begins to surface in his life. He begins to sense and feel things that he can't always put down on a piece of paper or a canvas or write about as well as he would like.
Green: He does find ways to express that. When does he start writing his poetry?
Hagerty: Well, he actually started writing poetry in the late 1890s. And frankly it wasn't always that good, it was rhymed poetry instead of freestyle, and it didn't have that much to do with him, at that time. But in the early 1900s he began to change his poetry. And again, poetry for Maynard Dixon was an extension of painting, and in poetry and in his letters; he was able to say things that he could not say in paint. And I think that that is an important concept for us to understand about Dixon, that there were other parts of his artistic life that we have to look at, which was equally important as his paintings or drawings. And that the poetry was this way of expressing some things he just couldn't do in a material way, out in front with paint or with a sketchbook.
Green: What was he expressing, what was the West that he was trying to describe?
Hagerty: I think he was trying to find the West, I think he was trying to find the west that, of Maynard Dixon, what it meant to him at that time. And I think it was a life-long search, one that he approached differently as he went through his life.
I think you see that in some of his paintings. You know the West meant a great deal to Maynard Dixon, and when the Depression came along in the 1930s, he was absolutely devastated, with what he had seen happening to his beloved American West, the total disruption of culture, the Okies, the Great Migration, the problems of food lines and so forth. It was something that bothered him tremendously. And I think he turned to those Great Depression era paintings as a way to express his dismay at what was happening. And I think also, ultimately, he began to do just landscape painting, cause he felt the real West was deep down in the landscape. He had to go further down into the landscape, to find something that meant, you know, something that meant spiritual, and I know that spiritual is an overworked word and very hard to describe, but I think we all know instinctively what it means. But something spiritual, he was trying to find the spirit of the West through his art and through his poetry and through his letters. And there would be episodes in his life where he would do less painting and more letter writing or more poetry, or vice versa. So there was this constant search, he was sort of like a John Wayne, in the great movie The Searchers, trying to find something out there against all sorts of adversity.
Green: What are some of those adversities that he faced out there?
Hagerty: Well, I think, his own personal demons, he would occasionally lose faith in what he was doing, and again he would pack up and take off for the Southwest or Nevada or Montana. It was a way to sort of cleanse his personal demons, to get a bearing on life. And he always seemed to come back refreshed; there were trips that refreshed him mentally and artistically.
Green: What were his personal demons? Were they about his artistic process or about his vision?
Hagerty: I think it could be any number of things, I think he sometimes just lost faith in his work, it just wouldn't, the paint wouldn't do what he wanted it to do. You know, I think his own personal demons about you know - very sensitive, a very sensitive person, and he could go this way and that way very easily.
Green: Going back to that first trip, or the early trips to Arizona, he does eventually make it up to Ganado, and he meets Lorenzo Hubbell. Describe Lorenzo Hubbell, and that region.
Hagerty: Well, John Lorenzo Hubbell, which Maynard Dixon called “El Patron”, his second father figure, if you will, John Lorenzo Hubbell had come into that area in the 1870s and established a trading post at Ganado, Arizona, at a time when there weren't very many trading posts and the Navajos were not that enthusiastic about having traders there. But Hubbell, who was a extremely honest individual, spoke fluent Navajo, was able to gain the Navajos trust and established Hubbell's Trading Post, which is still there today, Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site. Hubbell was somebody that, I think, ah - it was interesting that Maynard would sell Hubbell's blankets and pottery in San Francisco for Hubbell, and sort of a, you know, a runner, if you will, part-time dealer, but he would bring back from his trips large amount of Navajo textiles and pottery by such great potters as Nampayo, and peddle them to his friends in San Francisco. And it's interesting to note that he recalled, when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his studio, he grabbed the blankets that belonged to Hubbell that he hadn't paid him for as part of the stuff he tried to save from his burning studio.
Green: Did he feel indebted to Hubbell?
Hagerty: I think he felt indebted to Hubbell for support, for introducing him to the Navajo, Hubbell was of great use to Maynard when he came out to Ganado. Most people don't know this, but Maynard became relatively fluent in Navajo, he could also speak fluent Spanish, and passable Hopi. So he has a great sense of getting into Native cultures, without upsetting them, but he needed people like Hubbell to make the introductions, and to be sort of a guide, if you will, on this journey
Green: When he's out at Ganado, there's a scene I've read about in your book, about the death of a young girl, a Navajo girl. And Hubbell says the quote that “Nothing is true or false in this traitor's world; everything partakes of the color of the crystal through which it is seen.” What effect did that have on Dixon?
Hagerty: Well, I think, you know, that's a spiritual experience, if you think about it, and that's the sort of thing, and I'm sure there were many we don't even know about. Dixon saw the spiritual side of the Native American, and I think those are examples of things that, again, built into his persona, things that he couldn't easily explain, but somehow made him Maynard Dixon.
Green: A major experience in his life was the San Francisco Earthquake. He basically loses everything in that, and he writes about, saying that it was traumatic, but it was also an amazing experience. What happened to Maynard Dixon in that earthquake?
Hagerty: Well, you know, obviously he lost his studio, not from the earthquake itself, but from the fire that followed, and he was able to go back and salvage some works, Navajo textiles, and put them in a little child's wagon, and went down the street with them, in advance of the flames. We also have to realize that Maynard Dixon, along with all the rest of the San Francisco artists, lost a great deal of their early material. Very difficult to find any Maynard Dixon paintings, and he started painting, by the way in 1898, started doing easel painting in 1898, very difficult to find Maynard Dixons prior to 1906. They were wiped out. I know William Keith, who was a fellow artist and a well-known California landscape painter, lost a thousand canvases in the earthquake and fire, and Dixon, who knows what he lost? I think he lost a great deal, as I've gone back, I've looked at the early exhibit catalogues prior to 1906, and I think he lost a great deal. But I think he rebounded, you know, he said I can always repaint, there will always be new ones, so I don't think it was a terribly traumatic experience. I think the experience that he did encounter was that after the earthquake, there wasn't any work in San Francisco for an illustrator. And that's where in 1907 he had to depart for New York, to find a living as an illustrator; there just wasn't any work until San Francisco would be built up.
Green: Most of us don't really get the devastation that happened in San Francisco during the earthquake. Describe the devastation--what happened?
Hagerty: It was almost total. There's a wonderful new book out by Simon Winchester called A Crack at the Edge of the World, where he goes into the devastation. And again, it wasn't the earthquake, I mean it did a great deal of damage to the city, but realize that probably two-thirds of San Francisco was wiped out, two-thirds. All of the great buildings were destroyed, the Palace Hotel, supposedly indestructible, was destroyed. I mean, it was total. They still don't know how many people lost their lives, but probably close to three thousand. But it was a devastating shock to the city's culture, and business, certainly. But you know, if you read all the reports about afterwards, how fast San Francisco did come back, it is rather remarkable, as well.
Green: So Maynard moves to New York. What artistic influences does he run into?
Hagerty: well, you know, New York was the center of American art, at that time, certainly illustration art, all of your major painters, illustrators were in New York. And when Maynard got there, he took a, found a studio in what was called the Lincoln Arcade Building where the Lincoln Center is now, and some of his fellow studio people were Rockwell Kent, Robert Henri, some of the other great names in American art at that time, and certainly at this time. So there was this enormous array of very talented, important American artists in San Francis - or New York at that time. And Dixon cracked it easily. With his talent, he'd already been well-known by then, by 1907, he was extremely well-known nationally as an illustrator, and didn't have any problem cracking the illustration world in New York, and got commission after commission by all the great, legendary magazines at that time, Collier's, McClurn, Pearson's, Life, Outdoor Life, there was an Outdoor Life at that time, all of the major periodicals had Maynard Dixon illustrations. So he didn't have any problem whatsoever getting commissions. And again, he didn't work for any one company, these were all freelance commissions, but he had more than enough.
Green: Did Henri and the Ashcan school have a lot of influence at the time?
Hagerty: Robert Henri, Rockwell Kent, Ernest Blumenschein, who actually at some point invited him to join a group in Taos that was forming, which became know as the Taos Society of Artists, but Dixon never was a joiner. Again, that lone-wolf, never a joiner. He began to really embrace easel painting even more, even though he had a busy illustration schedule, he began to do more and more easel painting. So by 1912, you know, he actually had one of his canvases accepted into the prestigious National Academy of Design, which was the epitome for an American artist at that time, to have a canvas in that show, and Dixon did it by 1912.
Green: So what were illustrators like back then? I think we can't really imagine the fame or the life of an illustrator.
Hagerty: There was no distinction between fine art and illustration at that time, absolutely no distinction, none whatsoever. The illustrators at that time were considered at the same level as any of the easel painters were. They showed together and their exhibits and reputations were the same. It's only, I think, in the 1920s were that bifurcation began to appear. But no, in the early 1900s there was no distinction, whatsoever.
Green: He becomes quite successful as an illustrator in New York, but there's a mounting tension within the work he's being asked to do and what he really wants to do. Describe that tension.
Hagerty: Well, what's happened is, there was the rise of Western fiction, and it became increasingly more heroic and idealized and less truthful then, if you will. And I think it began to make Dixon uncomfortable because, remember, he had seen the West. But he was asked to draw and paint a West that was not a West he had seen. And it ended up being a West of outlaws and, steely-eyed outlaws, and a few strong-willed women. And that was about it, it became very narrow and depressed, and no whatsoever on the bearing of the west. Very fictionalized, very idealized, and heroic, sort of the Hopalong Cassidy syndrome, if you will at that time. And Dixon became increasingly distressed by being asked to do illustrations, no matter how lucrative. To do illustrations for things he didn't quite believe in, and he felt that most of the editors in New York had never been west of Pittsburgh, so they didn't have any sense of knowing what was really going on. So it began to accumulate in his mind, to the point in 1912, the same year he had that canvas accepted in the National Academy of Design, he said I'm being paid to lie about the West. And he quit. Although he would be an illustrator for the rest of his life, and he never quit it abruptly, it just sort of tapered off, didn't do as much with it, was much more cautious about what he accepted as an illustration. But it was something, it was a whole rise of this Western fiction thing that permeated, Western novels were the most read novels of anything in America at that time. Almost all your periodicals had more Western-themed stories than they had other stories in them. And Dixon was all that, he was in the golden age of illustration, he was a household name, I mean, his name was up there with N.C. Wyeth, and Frank Schoonover, and Edward Pyle, all the great illustrators of that time. But he became increasingly uncomfortable depicting a West that he knew wasn't right in his mind. It wasn't the real West. It was the Wild West, it was a West that he didn't know.
Green: He’s also going through a rough time in his personal life—with his wife, Lillian West Tobey. Describe her, how did they first meet and what kind of a woman was she?
Hagerty: Well she's sort of an enigma in Dixon's life. I've tried to do a lot of research on her and I've found some things. She was an artist, I don't know how they met, I have no idea even what year they met, but they did meet and she actually was an artist in leatherworking, whatever that was at that time. And they married in 1904, I think it was, at Charles F. Lummis' El Alisal in Los Angeles. Had a daughter, Constance Dixon. I don't know, again she's a bit of an enigma, even for me. You know, I've found bits and pieces about her, but at some point in the New York days, she began to drink heavily, and became an alcoholic, a serious alcoholic, and it was a, something that was very disruptive to Dixon and sent him into fits of depression because he didn't know how to handle this. Plus he had a young daughter at the same time, and I think that may also be partly why, a reason why, he did return to San Francisco, although I think it really was the saturation of western fiction that he was, that he rebelled against. But when they came back to San Francisco, her alcoholism became progressively worse. Terrible fights, according to his letters, no way of reconciling. And you know, he pours his heart out to Charles F. Lummis about his marital problems, pours his heart out, and I think it begins to affect his work. They went on a trip to Arizona in 1915, Dixon and Lillian and Constance, and he thought that was going to solve it, because she didn't drink on the trip. But as soon as she got back, was drunk within a few hours. And it just devastated him, he didn't know how to do it, and he began to get progressively deeper into a depression about this, of course. But she's an enigma, and of course in 1917, they, friends of Dixon prevailed upon her to grant a divorce. She didn't want to grant a divorce. She actually tried to shoot Dixon with his own Colt six-shooter at one point. It got that bad.
Green: And earlier we were talking about he's an illustrator, an incredibly successful illustrator, he's incredibly prolific, just the amount of drawings that he did. What impact do you think that had on his painting?
Hagerty: I think it had a great deal of influence. I think his early illustration years are really the foundation for his paintings and murals of later years. I think that the way he was able to organize, because a newspaper magazine illustrator had to organize a concept and had to present it in a certain kind of way, I think Dixon took that into his later artistic years. So I think his early illustration years were tremendously important. His ability to deal with the figure, particularly, his ability to space out a design in a newspaper or magazine article, again carried over.
Green: He was incredibly prolific, you said.
Hagerty: Yes, he was. I think he probably, and this is a rough estimate and it might be low, I think he did over 40,000 drawings in his lifetime. I have one letter at home where he states that in one day he did over 300 sketches, on one of his Arizona trips. But these might be sketches on the back of an envelope, or a scrap of paper, and not a finished sketch. I'm talking about a quick, field sketch. But no, he was extremely prolific. And again, one of the foundations that he brought into his later life from his illustration years. His ability to go to the heart of a subject in a sketch. All of his paintings, almost all of his paintings, started with a quick pencil and ink sketch out in the field, and then they would be - and maybe we're talking about a little sketch, two inches square, would end up being a 40 by 50 inch painting. He could take; just get the essence of something down. It was like something just flowed out, you know. By the way, he was left-handed, he was actually ambidextrous, he could use either hand equally well.
It would just flow. It was like electricity, it would come out at the end of his fingers and his fingers, you know, if you've seen photographs of his hands, and Dorothea Lange did a great photograph. His hands were very long and tapered, and I think he was just, somehow, what is it Constance Dixon said on the Montana trip, that he painted down the arm, which means, he had all this experience coming out.
Green: What kind of influences do you think American art or the geography of the land, what influences do you think those had on his painting and his art itself?
Hagerty: Well, I certainly think the landscape is the basis, Native American art, that is, art produced by Native Americans, I think had some great influence, Navajo textiles, he became very enamored of Navajo textiles in his early trips to Ganado and elsewhere, and collected them, sold them for Hubbell, for example. But if you look at them, they're paintings, Navajo textiles are paintings, and they actually reflect the Navajo landscape through Navajo eyes, through the weaving. So I think he was able to take this part of it and adapt it to his own use, not a direct copy of a Native American art form, but just the color, certainly, the color. Look what he did with the great November 1903 cover of Sunset Magazine, with the robed Navajo. I mean that was so totally different from any other illustrator at that time. But that came from his trips to Navajo country and the Navajo landscape.
A good example is that 1903, February 1903 issue of Sunset Magazine with the robed Indian. I mean there it was, right there, and he began to understand. And a lot of actually early American abstract artists, began to collect Navajo textiles as well for the same sort of aesthetics, but you know, Navajo textiles, the early ones, not the ones made today per se, are really landscape paintings and I think Dixon knew that.
Green: How rare was it for somebody to be wandering in these areas at that time?
Hagerty: It wasn't rare, there was a lot of, a lot of people going out, in the turn of the century and afterwards, you know. It wasn't a vast howling wilderness, I mean, there were places that were certainly, you know, hard to get to, but it wasn't a vast howling wilderness. But it was something where he could escape, and find something that he needed to find.
Green: Was he part of the Desert literati? Was he part of the movements that were going on at the time?
Hagerty: Yes, yes he was. There was a great deal of desert escapism, both in writing and in the arts, certainly after 1900 and up until middle 1920s. Mary Austin, is a very good example of somebody who took the desert into her heart and wrote about it. She was a friend of Dixon, by the way. Yes, I think he was part of that, that movement, there was a, a whole, just a whole movement of people going into the desert and trying to find something there. But I think that came about because of a lot of writers and artists, like Dixon, a fear of what was going on in America at that time. Remember that America was becoming more urbanized, more industrialized, and I think a lot of artists, writers or painters, feared that. And they saw the desert as some sort of way of moderating that, that problem.
But I think he was part of that movement, and it was an impartial movement, there was no club or no president of vice-president, just a group of people, and usually independent of each other, going to the desert and finding some sort of solace and inspiration from austere landscapes.
Green: So he goes back to San Francisco and it's about 1912, and he's now trying to find the "real thing,” He’s trying not to follow the clichés. How difficult was that?
Hagerty: Well, I think very difficult, because I think the sort of Old West had become institutionalized, and there was a lot of looking back. In fact I think that's part of Dixon, if you look at his art. Part of his art is an art of looking back at the Old West, yearning, if you will, for simpler times or heroic ideals. And eventually the other arts surfaced, where he began to find, I think, the true soul of what the West meant to him, certainly. But no, there was, a lot of Western art is the art of looking back. It's nostalgia, with a big N, a real big N. And it still goes on today. You have the cowboy artists of America, and other groups like that who celebrate, you know, and art of looking back.
Green: So how did he resolve that, those two sides of himself?
Hagerty: He never did. It was always a duality, you'll see all through his life. I think he did understand it was there, and there would be canvases that would come out, or even drawings that would come out with great power, you know, that dealt with sort of the spirit of the West. The Real West vs. the Old West.
Green: And then in 1912 he gets a significant commission to paint a Mural for Anita Baldwin. Who was she?
Hagerty: Well, Anita Baldwin McClaughry was one of those, again, great influences on his life. She was the daughter of Lucky Baldwin, who'd made his fortune in the Com stock money load of Virginia City, a man of immense wealth and passed it down to her after his death. If you know Santa Anita racetrack and places like that. But she was an extremely wealthy, highly eccentric individual and she came to San Francisco in 1912. He'd just gotten back from New York and had an exhibit of his paintings, and I don't know where, in San Francisco, that's a point I'll probably find out. And she saw his paintings and bought several of them. And she was just building this whole home in Arcadia, called Anoakin, owned 13 acres, big rambling arts and crafts style mansion. And she asked Dixon to do murals for the Indian Room, and the Jinks Room. The Indian Room was sort of a room celebrating Native American culture, and the other was a room, sort of a family room, a playroom where the billiards table would be and so forth. And the Jinks Room was basically old English, Yule-tide scenes. And anyway, she asked him to come down and look at the room - and the room was 12 by 18 feet- and submit a design of what he thought would be in there. So he came up with his famous Anoakia murals. And the theme is Plains Indian culture. By 1912, the Plains Indians were red-hot in American culture. I mean they were epitomized as Native Americans, so. Anyways he came up with the design to do this. And there are four panels, and the panels are, two of them are two by four feet, and the other two are four feet by 18 feet. So if you stand in the middle of the room, it's like an early Cinerama, and all of the horizon line is, even though the panels are all separate, all of the horizon line connects around. So it's like standing in the middle of the room and looking around and seeing this great Cinerama. And they are images from Plains Indian symbolism and life. And you know, Maynard Dixon always felt these murals delineated him as a painter. He says as a painter I date from 1912. And he always pointed to those murals as a separation in his life, where he began to become a painter. Not an illustrator, but a painter.
Green: In 1915, the big Panama-Pacific Exposition comes to town. Was that an exciting time for artists?
Hagerty: Oh, I think it was tremendously exciting time, not just for California artists, but particularly for California artists, because they were considered somewhat provincial at that time, and didn't have access to world-wide art movements. But it was a worldwide, you know, they had French, Italian, all the great American, eastern artists were there, represented. A lot of the California artists certainly, including Dixon. I think it was a tremendously impressive time. In fact I think his painting began to change, became more impressionistic, more color and light in there, are he began to see what was going on in there. Again, remember that California artists were, you know, they were probably 15, 20 years behind impressionism, in terms of the impact. So they just didn't see that sort of stuff out there. And here was all these thousands of paintings from all over Europe and America, where they could compare their work with what other people were doing. I think it had a great impact on Dixon, and I think we immediately see it in his 1915 trip to Arizona where, if you compare the paintings he did there with some he did before, a remarkable difference—a lot more impressionistic.
Green: The process that he went through going from sketching to a full sized drawing. What was his artistic process?
Hagerty: Well, Maynard would, everything that Maynard did was drawn directly from life, you know, let’s just say he’s going out into, into Utah or, you know, Arizona some place and what he’ll do is he’ll take some sketch paper along with him. He’ll make some quick sketches, maybe some color notes, but just generally, and some of the sketches I’ve seen are one inch square and have become large paintings from that one inch square. Just, just trying to find something that he needed. He would also do in the field 10 by 14 paintings, sometimes smaller. Sometimes he’d do a 16 by 20 in the field as well. Again you know, just a quick sketch, but when he’d get back to his studio he’d go through all the drawings from a trip, or, or small oil sketches and he would select those out that he thought would be useful. And I think it’s important to, to say that what you’re seeing in a Maynard Dixon painting is not actually what he saw. It’s an amalgam, it’s a combination of things, it’s, it’s drawing from his sketches, from his memory and imagination to put together something, even though it may say Face of Hurricane Fault and that’s where he painted it, but it’s not exactly Hurricane Fault, if you get my drift. So you know, Maynard Dixon paintings are, are imaginative paintings, they are not, not direct representations, even though they may look like it. There are some things that have been changed in it.
Green: He does enter a dark time in his life. In 1916 he divorces Lillian, and World War I is raging. Describe that time in his life. What were some of his concerns and fears?
Hagerty: Well, among other things, Maynard Dixon was a very strongly opinionated, almost apolitical sort of person. He didn't subscribe to being a Republican or a Democrat that I could ever tell. He was just simply very apolitical and suspicious of political movements, generally. Very much opposed to World War I, he just thought that was something America should not embark on, or at least get involved in. Certainly his wife's deepening depression. He had taken, in 1917, he had taken a job with Foster and Kleiser, which was a northern California outdoor billboard advertising agency, and actually he credited the three years he worked there as helping with his designs, and particularly with his mural work. But you know, increasingly, more defeated, and very serious bouts of depression, wasn't able to see his child Constance. And then in 1917, sort of, the railroad, rode to the rescue if you will, chuffed into town and rescued Dixon. They offered him a chance to do publicity materials for their, for Glacier National Park in Montana. And Dixon jumped at the chance and actually took his daughter with him, for a wonderful time. Dixon always seemed to have watershed moments and times in his life when something that would do something to him, and that pushed him in a new direction. And I think 1917, when he went to Montana that was certainly one of them. He had a wonderful time in Montana, did some great work at Glacier National Park, and then at the Blackfoot Indian reservation at Browning, Montana. It was just something - he felt he was back in the real West that he loved so much. So again it was a watershed event in his life, and he came back, I think, energized, and feeling better about himself and his art. Things, I think, slowly began to turn around at that time, for him.
Green: So once again the West rejuvenated him?
Hagerty: Yes, I think so, it's again one of those trips that he had to go out and find that other Maynard Dixon, so to speak. And I think it was a form of therapy, certainly artistic inspiration, but a form of therapy. When things got him down, the only way to recover was to go out there in the Western outback.
Green: During this time he has an affair with Sophie Treadwell, who was she?
Hagerty: Well, Sophie Treadwell was a playwright, actually I learned recently they met in San Francisco. And she left for New York just slightly before he did, and I think rekindled something in New York, and probably the best way I can say it is that they had an ongoing affair. And he was quite enamored of Sophie Treadwell. I think it was someone who would listen to him and take care of him, over the rough patches in his marital problems. I don't think she was any great influence on his art, per se, I think she was just somebody there to you know, for him to lean upon. And eventually in 1916 or so, it was all called off.
And if you read some of his poems in 1916, they're actually addressed to Sophie Treadwell, they don't say Sophie Treadwell, but they're very poignant, and mournful.
Green: The dark time doesn’t last. What turns him around?
Hagerty: He met Lange and she had just come out there and taken a job with a printing room, and tried to establish herself as a portrait photographer. And they met, and hit it off, and were married in 1920.
Green: How did they meet?
Hagerty: She was working in the basement of the print room, which was a gallery in San Francisco, and she'd hear these tapping noises on the floor above, and she says, well, what's that? And a person says, that's Maynard Dixon. He was wearing these high-heeled Texas boots, made these click-click-click as he would go across the floor. And that sort of intrigued her. And that's how they met.
Green: In your book you write that Maynard had sharp sense of humor that would come out odd times, and would sometimes frustrate Dorothea. What would he do? What kind of character was Dixon?
Hagerty: Oh, I think Maynard Dixon was a character. I mean, there are lots of stories, and I probably can't tell some of them on film. You know, one comes to mind where someone I interviewed who was fairly young at that time remembered that Dixon was kind of invited to a dinner party at their home, Dorothea Lange would put on dinner parties for her wealthy patrons. And Dixon hated that, hated any of that stuff, he just couldn't stand that. And he was walking up the street to their house and spotted a pair women's undergarments in the street, so he flipped out his sword-cane and speared the women's undergarments, walked into the house, walked up to the dining room table and flung them on the table, in the midst of all the dinner guests, and of course Dorothea was mortified. A later story was that he and his brother, Harry St. John Dixon, again, somebody I interviewed came to see him, and found he and his brother had opened one of the windows overlooking Montgomery Street and had taken an old inner tube, and made a giant slingshot, and were flinging water-filled balloons onto the pedestrians below and you know. So here was Dixon in his sixties, still doing things like that. But he had a, you know, some people would call him a curmudgeon; he had a rough sense of humor, to be very, very abrupt with people. But a lot of the young artists adored him, because he took such great pains to help them with their work. People who met Dixon, I think never forgot him.
Green: He left an impression. Artistically, what influence—if any-- did Lange and Dixon have on each other?
Hagerty: Well, I don't think she influenced him at that time. Remember she was just getting established as a photographer. I think he began to look around even more keenly. One of the things that he says that, oddly enough, that influenced him was going out on his porch of his Russian Hill apartment one night and seeing cloud forms, and just seeing how they were formed, and how the aesthetics of them, it was just something he had to deal with. I think he was just evolving. Again, I don't think there was any one particular event at that time. I think he was just really beginning to learn about himself, and what he had in the way of talent, and what he could do. And one of the things I admire about Dixon, he was, he would look around and learn, he wouldn't sit in a particular situation and box himself in. You know, some sort of internal alarm clock saying, what could I do better? And by 1920, 1921, and particularly by 1925, he begins to sort initially flirt with modernist techniques, studying European techniques, space division, and cubist realism, stuff like that. But Maynard Dixon never became a full-blown modernist. Never. You know, he would take some of these techniques, and use them, adapt them to his own particular use, but he never went over the edge, so to speak, or embraced full-blow modernism. First of all, he deplored the tenets of modernism, which usually were brought in from Europe. He said we ought to have our own American modernism. And eventually we did. But you know, he was very reticent to embrace anything that smacked of European art. In fact, was really a curmudgeon about the whole thing. So he's not, and should never be considered a modern artist. He got close, he would use the techniques, but if you look at his art at that time, you begin to see something going on - less is better. That is, he's taking things out of the painting, rather than putting more in. So he's looking for that underlying structure, and I think that's the search for the West too, he's trying to find that sort of superstructure, if you will, underlying structure of what he felt the Western landscape might be.
Green: With Lange he did take several trips out. What kind of an influence do you think he had on her?
Hagerty: Well, Lange always declared that no one ever influenced her art. I don’t quite subscribe to that because I think there was some influence. You know she was a very intelligent person. I think she began to look at how he composed, developed his art in the 1920s. They didn’t take a lot of trips. Oh, probably the most notable one was in 1923. Well the, two of them in 1922, Lange and Dixon went up to Northwest Arizona, up into the Kayenta area and spent a month or so up there and I think she enjoyed that trip. The more formidable trip is the one that they took in 1923, upon the invitation of Anita Baldwin McClaughry, who had her own private railroad car and took the Dixons out to Flagstaff, Arizona where they departed for, for Walpi and Anita, being the character that she was, she wanted to write an Indian opera and this was her field gathering time to do that and I think Dorothea I remember was, wrote that she was aghast that there were so many crates and chests and trunks, you know, it was like a giant expedition into the wilds of Africa. And again, getting to Walpi at that time was not that easy. You had automobiles, but you didn’t have any bridges, you didn’t have any good roads, so they were at the mercy of the elements, but they went out there and Dorothea didn’t stay very long. She returned with Anita shortly after they got to Walpi, but Dixon stayed for several months, in fact, until December of 1923 and living with a Hopi snake priest and documenting the Hopi ceremonies. You could do that then. And he would travel around to other places, went out to Canyon De Chelly and again 1923 was a very strong pivotal point where I think he began to almost become an Indian. In fact somewhere along the line I’ve always felt that Maynard Dixon wanted to become an Indian. You know just this, you know, you want to transform, transport himself into an Indian body. But you know, he became almost an Indian, a Hopi, at Walpi at that time. The only white man living in the village for several months, completely surrounded by the Hopi. He wrote a wonderful letter to his dealer in New York about his experiences in the province of Tusayan, which was the early Spaniards term for the Hopi mesas, which is in the book. So I think another very strong spiritual experience that he came back with to San Francisco.
Green: How much was he involved with Native American spirituality? How important was that?
Hagerty: I don’t think he adopted it, per se, at least direct adaptation from, say the Hopi or the Navajo. I think he respected their ceremonies and their spirituality and I think he tried to use it for his own, his own inner ways and for his painting. I mean he collected, you know, Indian artifacts all of his life. But I think the spirituality was something. I think he just simply studied and listened and looked when he was out there to discover what this might be for himself.
Green: The family also goes out to Taos. Was that another watershed moment?
Hagerty: I think Taos had another great effect on him. In 1931 Dixon and Lange and the two sons, Dan and John, drove out to Taos. Kind of an interesting story to begin with. They had bought an old San Francisco police department Model A and Dixon decided - Dixon hated cars by the way. You know, he just absolutely felt that Henry Ford and the Model T had stolen the old west away and he just despised the cars. But he decided to take a turn at driving it. Around Santa Cruz he overturned it and broke his jaw, so apparently they fixed the car up and managed to get out there, but on the way out they saw the long lines of the Okie migration, you know, the beginnings of this great depopulation of the Great Plains. And when they got to Taos, you know it was another spiritual place. Dixon would paint all day and Lange remembers meeting Paul Strand there, or seeing Paul Strand, not meeting him, beginning to do, you know, some more documentary style photography at that time, but you know it was sort of an oasis if you will for the Dixon family to get away from the pressures of the depression. And the depression was there in Taos too. Everybody had to barter and there wasn’t much money. But it was a lifestyle that Dixon liked. It was simple and direct. The people were honest and direct, so it was something that, that he enjoyed. I think some of his, some of his great paintings have come out, his great spiritual paintings, Men of the Red Earth, Earth Knower, for example, are products of that Taos episode.
Green: Why? Why do you think?
Hagerty: Because I think Maynard Dixon was very worried about the depression and he felt very strongly that America had to adopt or certainly return to the concept of living in harmony with the land like the Native American did and that we had fouled up the land with, with our industrial might and that we had to really return. The painting Allegory is another good example of one of his, his paintings, you know, about Native American spirituality and connectedness to the land.
Green: So the land was the savior?
Hagerty: Well, it wasn’t necessarily the savior. It was just something that he felt America had lost sight of in its history and that we had to take steps to do something about that.
Green: During the depression too, he takes work at the Boulder Dam. Was that the birth of his social consciousness?
Hagerty: No, he’d actually done earlier things that nobody’s ever seen. Some drawings dealing with the Forgotten Man series. I have a drawing, a very large drawing of a Forgotten Man, the depression era cap and it’s quite large, about 20 inches tall and he’s looking into a - it’s a full length portrait and he’s looking into a trash can where somebody’s thrown a Christmas tree. It’s signed and dated 1930, so it pre-dates anything that, that, that I know of that he’d done, you know, the 1934 ones and so forth, or what Lange had done. So he was already dealing with this and the reason he took the, the Boulder Dam project was to make money because nobody was buying easel paintings in the depression so the only way an artist could make money was to work for the WPA doing post office murals or documenting large construction projects like Boulder Dam.
Green: What did he see?
Hagerty: Well he sees men against rock. That his sort of theme, and he tries to paint and draw, make sketches, of the workers, you know trying to erect this enormous dam in this enormous gorge and nothing like it had been done in America prior to that and I think he was quite impressed by it. It’s interesting, there’s a painting he called Men and Mountains. Well the original version of that painting, was that where the laborers are in the painting that now exists, originally had a line of Indians going up a canyon and when he went to Boulder Dam he came back and repainted that with workers constructing the dam, very same painting. But that’s the version Men and Mountains. But no, I think, you know, those were the things, Maynard Dixon loved to be around working people. He loved to be around Native Americans. He loved to be around cowboys and miners. He loved the, the sort of, the workers out in the west, you know, these were his kind of people. I mean he could certainly socialize with socialites in San Francisco and so forth, but he loved being with the common person out in the west. He felt very comfortable with that.
Green: At Boulder Dam, he was upset by what he saw. What was his reaction?
Hagerty: Oh I think his reaction was one of rage and dismay. You read his letters, a number of his poems emerged with depressionary themes. Very negative against what he felt was happening to the west, and that there were no efforts being made to alleviate these problems.
Green: Many of the Forgotten Man series ended up at Brigham Young University. How did this obscure university in Utah come to own so many of his paintings?
Hagerty: Well, you know, Maynard came out to Utah in 1933 and kind of liked what he saw there and began to make friends in Zion National Park area and one of those friends was Herald Clark, I think he was dean of liberal studies, whatever they called it, at BYU in Provo at that time and they became great friends. Remember Dixon could not sell any of his Depression era paintings. Nobody would buy them. Nobody wanted the reminder of the Depression on their walls. In fact it was an ugly time for Dixon, in terms financially, he and Lange both, in that early period, early 1930s, very ugly time. And anyways, he and Herald Clark hit it off and again it’s a good example of Maynard making friends with all types of people, you know, in all walks of life and he loved his Mormon neighbors up around Mount Carmel and that area and Zion and anyways they became good friends and Herald Clark approached Dixon and said, “Would you be willing to sell some of your paintings and sketches for the museum for BYU?” And Dixon said, “Yes, I would,” and made a list and about some 80 paintings, drawings, substantial amount by the way of work, and dating back early on in his career as well. And Herald Clark, the story is that Herald Clark came out to San Francisco to sign the agreement and to collect the artwork and Dixon said well let’s go down and have a drink on it and they went down and I guess Dixon had his drink, but Herald Clark had his milk. But they did have a signed legal agreement to purchase this and of course we all know that BYU has the greatest collection of Dixon artwork of any museum.
Green: Also I got the sense that Dixon wanted his work seen by people.
Hagerty: You know it’s interesting because in the, I think after 1935 or so, I think Maynard Dixon began to mellow. He no longer wore the black, tailored suit, he looked more like a desert rat, started growing a beard. I think he was just starting to mellow and let loose of some things in his life. I just think he began to change again. Yeah, it was an interesting period in the ‘30s. In 1937 he only did seven paintings, you know, because he was getting ill again, you know, so it was an up and down time for him, although he had, the big, you know, one of the big things in his life was that 1935 he and Lange divorced, you know, and I’m not going to recount the story of that. And I think they divorced on rather amiable terms as far as I can tell, but it didn’t seem to bother Maynard as much as you would think. He went to get the divorce in Carson City in 1935 by himself, went out and painted by himself, enjoyed himself there for several months while the divorce was finalized, but didn’t, from what I can tell it was not an immense blow to him. I think probably he had accepted it even prior to the official divorce and again they parted, I think, on rather amiable terms.
Green: Also at this time he was becoming ill. What was happening to him?
Hagerty: He was beginning to suffer, in the beginnings of emphysema and aging generally. You know, of course in 1937 he met and married Edith Hamlin, which I think was his real savior the rest of his life that he had left. There was over a thirty year difference in their ages, but she was totally devoted to Maynard Dixon and I think kept him going as an artist and as a person for quite some years.
Green: Was he disillusioned with San Francisco?
Hagerty: Yes, he was, but it was also as you know, the cool climate was, was not doing well for his health, but he also felt that the art scene had changed in San Francisco. It was more, you know, less camaraderie among the artists. It was more, and more influence from European art at that time. He just felt that old bohemian, you know camaraderie had changed and there was more backbiting among the artists and he didn’t like that.
Green: So he leaves and he goes, he finds solace and he finds a new home in Tucson and in Utah. What drew him to both those places?
Hagerty: Well, they’d actually thought about going to Carson City, but they, I think Maynard and Edith too were always enamored of Hispanic culture. Again remember the Dixon’s spoke fluent Spanish and felt very much at ease in the southwest. It was where he had done a lot of his great work. And again it was warm. It was a climate for people with lung problems. And so they found a place on Prince Road and built their home there and then of course it’s much too hot in Tucson during the summer, so they found their place up at Mount Carmel and built a small cabin up there where they could escape Tucson’s torrid summers. So it was kind of a duality in terms of two places.
Green He never stopped painting though.
Hagerty: No, he never, Maynard Dixon never stopped painting or drawing. I think there was a lessening of, of it. I think he just didn’t push himself as much as he had in the ‘20s for example, early ‘30s. I think it was more relaxed. I think probably Edith had something to do with that too.
If you look at his art from about 19, well 1935 to his death in 1946, it’s almost exclusively the landscape, almost exclusively landscape, with the exception of some illustrations and some other things. So he had really focused in on the thing that I think started him in the first place, was that, that call of the landscape and this is what he did. It’s almost exclusively landscape painting in the latter, latter part of his life.
Green: Do you think he found peace and contentment in his last years?
Hagerty: I think he did. I think he found a great deal of contentment. And again Edith had a lot to do with that. She was a great help to him. They had a lot of friends in Tucson and up at, around Mount Carmel. I think he sort of enjoyed kicking back and relaxing a little bit and not, not pushing the, you know, the commercial end of things the way he had used to.
Green: What kind of person was Edith Hamlin?
Hagerty: Oh Edith Hamlin was, was a wonderful person. You know she married Dixon and they were over a thirty year difference, but there was, she called their marriage simpatico, you know, sympathetic. They, they, they just got along so well and then, you know, she was so supportive of him while he was alive and in his waning years, but you know what was really remarkable about Edith Hamblin was that after Maynard’s death, she carried the torch for him. She kept his career, his name alive, you know, and she, you know, I, you know she turned her back on her own art career and she was quite good, was well known, well recognized as an artist. She did everything she could to make sure that Maynard was remembered, exhibitions, writings. But yeah, and she was, there was a little bit of Maynard Dixon in her too. She was an extremely strong willed person. She would always correct my Spanish. You know, we’d, we’d start, you know, I’d say something in Spanish, she’d say, “No, Don, it is pronounced this way.” You know and you know and, but she was, she just opened up her, you know once she began to trust me, because I approached her one day and said, “Look, I think your husband is, is, you know your late husband is somebody I want to kind of pursue.” I think that was probably 1975. So we became great friends and she gave me all of her archives and everything, but she, you know, she was absolutely the best wife that Dixon could ever have had in his waning years, but she was so strong willed about keeping his name alive out there.
Green: You describe his life as a search for the real west. Did he find it?
Hagerty: I think he had found it and I think that’s part of the contentment. I think he finally figured out that, that somewhere he had found what he was searching for. And that was the land. And so I think he was relatively content in his, in his last few years. I mean he was quite ill the last two years, on oxygen almost 24 hours a day and, and you know there were times that things looked pretty dismal. You look at his, read his letters, you know, didn’t want to continue that way, but no I think he was content. I think he felt that he had led a life that he had been searching for and found what he had wanted.
Green: In Tucson his neighbors were the Rondstadt family. Tell me that story about his connection with the Ronstadts.
Hagerty: Well, when Edith and Maynard settled on Tucson they looked around and spotted a lot on Prince Road and right next door was Gilbert Ronstadt’s home. And they bought the lot and then, Gilbert Ronstadt got a painting in trade for water rights because they didn’t have any water on their lot. So they built their home, and it became sort of a casa rendezvous for a lot of friends in Tucson. Not just the Ronstadt family, which were old time, you know, Tucson residents, Arizona residents. Their ancestors had come in the nineteenth century to that part of Arizona. But there were a lot of other, a lot of other people that would come and visit. Ansel Adams would stop by and visit the artist Leonard Rice, Joseph Wood Crutch, the great naturalist, even Sophie Treadwell showed up one day to visit and I remember Edith saying, “Well, I can sure think about that affair by just seeing her right now.” So I think, and Maynard would lounge around in a, in a Chinese coolie coat and Indian moccasins during the day, just very relaxed, but again they were, they were centerpieces of, of I think the artistic community of Tucson at that time, in the, in the early ‘40s.
Green: There’s a great scene you paint in your book about the Ronstadt family coming over to visit. Tell me that story.
Hagerty: Well one, one night Maynard was quite ill and I think Edith was the one that instigated it. She gathered up the Ronstadt family. They were all quite musical, I understand they came over and serenaded him with Spanish songs, songs, Hispanic songs. And I think he appreciated that quite a bit. I remember one of the Ronstadts telling me that as children they would follow Maynard Dixon around in his, you know, in his area just behind his house and watch him draw and they said it would be magical. He would just do a few swipes of his pencil, out would come a lizard and then a few more swipes, out would come a roadrunner and it was just like, you know, instant, they were just, you know, absolutely adored him for that.
Green: Ansel Adams, would also come to visit. What kind of friendship did they have?
Hagerty: Not a lifelong friendship, but you know, it started in the ‘20s because of Lange’s photography connection to photography in the city and Ansel was one of that. Ansel was, was an interesting character, but he and Dixon got along quite well and there was a, a great story he told. I visited him a couple years before his death and I went down to his Carmel home, wonderful home and spent a day there interviewing him and I remember one, one section he mentioned that Dorothea and Dixon would come up and visit Ansel, he and his wife at Yosemite. I said, “Oh, okay.” And I said, “Well, what went on there?” And he said, well, remember the time that he took Maynard Dixon the Awahnee Hotel and Dixon had not been there to see the Ahwanee Hotel and he recalled that Dixon was appalled the Indian decorations in the Ahwanee because they had been developed by a Frenchman and he felt they were not authentic. And then the second story, which I love, love to quote all the time is that well, you know, Dixon was…really great wonders of the world. Did he do painting while he was there, in Yosemite, and Ansel, no, no he didn’t and I said, “Well, why?” And Ansel looked at and he said, “Too many trees.”
I think they were both irascible characters, bigger than life at times.
Green: But Dixon was winding down physically. Describe his last days.
Hagerty: Well, you know in the last couple years he was on, on 24 hour oxygen and Edith had gone out that morning to run an errand and when she, and he was in a wheelchair at that time too and when she came back an hour or two later, she found him slumped over dead in the wheelchair and the official cause was heart attack.
Green And then Edith scattered his ashes. Why do you think she scattered them at Mt Carmel?
Hagerty: Well I think it was a special place for he and Edith, I think it was just something, you know, probably, she, you know she could have put him any place he had been, Montana, or anywhere’s in California or around Tucson, but I think Mount Carmel and I think the ridge if you’ve been there is kind of a special place. The view and so forth and I think, you know, it was just something that she wanted to do and it was a, it was a bowl he had brought back from Walpi in 1923 that she put the ashes in.
Green: What is the legacy of Maynard Dixon?
Hagerty: Oh, that’s a very difficult question. Perhaps the best way of responding to say legacies, I think he allowed us to see the west better in visual terms. Many people constantly tell me they would drive somewhere and, in say the Great Basin or in Montana they see a landmark and they say, “Oh, that looks like a Maynard Dixon painting,” so, you know, you have transference of, of Maynard Dixon paintings into the landscape instead of vice versa, the landscape into the painting. So I think that’s, that’s part of it. I think his insights, his writings, poetry, about the west, which are still lesser known, I think, are important documentary evidence of, of his interpretation, the changes in the west that he saw going on at that time, his role as an illustrator and developing the wild west, is important, whether or not he liked it at the end, it’s still important to understand that he was part, an important part of that. So those are some of the legacies that I would say that Maynard Dixon has left us with. I think the most important one is that when we see the western landscape we see a Maynard Dixon painting.Maynard Dixon, you know, these are my words, not his - Maynard Dixon was the American West. He was sort of the embodiment of, of what we think about, all the good things about the American West, the great landscapes, the, the far horizon, the steady hand on the helm so to speak. I think that was Maynard Dixon. And I think, you know there was somewhere I wrote in the book, Maynard Dixon got to a point he didn’t know where Maynard Dixon ended and the West began.
Maynard Dixon: To the Desert Again is a production of KUED in Salt Lake City, Utah.