Throughout his life, Dixon turned to adopted father figures. One of those was Charles Fletcher Lummis. Lummis was a mentor to Dixon early in his life and a friend for nearly three decades. Dixon’s relationship with Lummis had a critical and direct impact on his philosophical and artistic development. Their relationship began as a kind of father/son connection, a natural one for Dixon, whose father had suffered a nervous breakdown and had been committed to a mental hospital. Dixon was then 18 years old. “Pop Lummis was in effect my foster father over those years,” Dixon recalled. “Lummis gave me new confidence in my ideals of truthfulness in my work, and fortitude in facing the commercial world.”
Harvard-educated, Lummis began his career as a newspaper man. At the age of 26, Lummis walked from Cincinnati to California in 143 days, writing about his experiences for a column in the Los Angeles Times. He lived in the Southwest for five years, exploring the areas and living among the Indians. In fact, Lummis coined the term “the Southwest,” and became an avid publicist for the area, writing articles and books about the land, people, and archaeology.
After seeing Dixon’s work in several San Francisco publications, Lummis invited the young illustrator to submit drawings to Land of Sunshine, a magazine promoting southern California and southwestern regionalism, for which Lummis served as editor. Lummis and his circle believed that by grafting white European culture onto the indigenous culture of the American Indian, a new great American civilization would develop in the West. Dixon’s relationship with Lummis certainly influenced his own attraction to the primitiveness of the Southwest.
Dixon was likewise influenced by Lummis’ concern for the plight of the Native Americans. In 1899 Lummis wrote a series of articles on Indian policy for Land of Sunshine while Dixon was in his employ. Lummis also lobbied his former Harvard classmate Theodore Roosevelt on behalf of the Native Americans and in 1901 founded the Sequoia League to improve conditions for California’s starving Indian population.
According to Lummis’ sons, their father “hammered away” at Dixon and other artists and writers in his circle, such as Edward Borein and Eugene Manlove Rhodes, about their abilities and responsibilities to portray the “real” Old West. It was Lummis who sent Dixon on his first trip to the Southwest in 1900 in the hopes that the restorative climate and culture would help him overcome the nervous strain he was experiencing after a year on the staff of the San Francisco Examiner. That trip would turn out to be extremely significant to Dixon’s future as an artist.
As early as 1901 in the middle of the Nevada desert Dixon had fantasized about getting his illustrations in an eastern newspaper. By 1907, a year after the San Francisco earthquake destroyed his studio, Dixon decided to go to New York. Lummis attempted to give Dixon career advice even though he was no longer in his employ. Trying to discourage the move east, he wrote to Dixon, saying, “ I am sorry to see you go to New York…The trouble with any such metropolitan center is that it wants to use you…Go hungry first…Don’t sell anything that isn’t you.”
Dixon and Lummis kept up a correspondence for many years. In 1916, Lummis fondly recalled watching Dixon’s development:
When I first knew you, you were a very lovable, very spoilt, very selfish and inadequate kid. It is one of the good memories of my life that in those later years you have developed into a man that I really respect as well as like. I hope you keep also with this manliness, the boy that I loved.
It was to Lummis that Dixon turned in times of trial. Plagued by the horrors of World War I, Dixon wrote to his mentor that “my doubts grow & nothing seems real – Socialism is a dream, Democracy an idea – passion & prejudice rule & no one dares tell the truth.” Dixon was deeply upset by the war, and for a time he found it impossible to paint. Lummis understood Dixon’s disposition and tried to pull him out of his deep depression:
I hope you get “interested in painting again.” You may remember that I detected in you very many years ago – an uncommon capacity to do a valuable thing in an uncommon way. You have grown enormously in these years, not only in your technique but in your Soul…Don’t let any sorrow or worry or sickness…cut you out from being the really great artist that it is in you to be. You have 30 years to go yet, Growing…I can understand from your temperament something of the meaning of what you say about dreams and socialism etc…that is simply a sick-mind that you must cure yourself of.
As Lummis predicted Dixon would live and continue to paint for almost another 30 years, on a path which Lummis undoubtedly helped set him.
Excerpt from, "Escape to Reality: The Western World of Maynard Dixon" by Linda Jones Gibbs, permission to use from Brigham Young University Museum of Art.
Maynard Dixon: To the Desert Again is a production of KUED in Salt Lake City, Utah.