Pioneer artist defied convention for dream

Lillian Wilhelm Smith's story is a sweeping saga to rival any historical fiction. Her life included struggle, loss, romance, the unbelievable luck to see Arizona at the turn of the century and rubbing elbows with the rich and famous of her day.

She was able to see parts of Arizona in its pristine and primitive conditions, experiencing the west as a true pioneer.

She marched to a different drummer than most women who lived between 1872 and 1971. During 70 of those years, she did what she loved most ­ art. She made a living at it, but fame eluded her because of her gender and because she chose to live in the place of her heart, Arizona. The life she led was a passionate one.

She was born in New York City to a well-educated mother and a father who sold luxury items such as glass in Manhattan. Their brownstone soon contained Lillian and five younger brothers. In amongst the hustle and bustle of this busy household, Lillian retreated to art. At age five, she drew a cup and saucer which were done so outstandingly well that her father hired a private art tutor. This was along with the cook, maids, butlers and nannies already employed. There were also many cousins to play with from her mother's sisters. At age 16, Lillian started a diary which included sketches. She also acquired a sister, Claire.

At age 20, she started attending the National Academy of Design. Meanwhile, her cousin Lina had taken up with a moody dentist and aspiring author named Zane Grey. The couple married in 1905 and took a honeymoon to Grand Canyon and a little logging town named Flagstaff.

In 1907, Lillian attended Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, accompanied by Zane Grey. She was as fascinated as the rest of America with the western myth. She received permission to sketch and paint the Indians in the show.

Grey also attended a lecture about Yellowstone Park, given by Charles Jesse Jones. Grey received an invitation to travel west. This summer trip to the Arizona Strip to rope mountain lions catapulted him into the national spotlight as an author of western novels.

Lillian hung on every word of the stories of his travels and the stories generated by the sights of the west. Zane planned another trip west and wanted an artist to come along to illustrate his forthcoming books. His wife had two small children and another on the way so the trip was out of the question for her. Lillian jumped at the chance to go instead.

For propriety's sake, her cousin Elma Schwartz went along. Apparently that didn't work, as rumors abounded that both had affairs with Grey, who was often heard to say how much he loved the ladies and that he could never be tied to one woman.

So began an outrageous adventure for a New York lady of that time. It included a 400-mile horseback ride from the rail terminus at Flagstaff to Tuba City, Kayenta, Navajo Mountain and Rainbow Bridge, which had only been seen by a handful of white people at the time.

Lillian was stunned by Arizona's scenery and fascinated with the interplay of light in the blue sky and among the cliffs and buttes ­ all a perfect landscape for an artist with a passion for color.

She met the noteworthy people of her time ­ Louisa and John Wetherill, Maynard Dixon and his wife, Dorothea Lange, Gunnar Widforss, the Verkamps, the Babbitts and Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton. Al Doyle was their guide.

Lillian returned to Manhattan for further training, inspired by her astounding memories of the lights and shadows of the southwest.

New Yorkers were uneasy with people of German descent, as the threat of World War I loomed. Lillian escaped by heading west once again with Zane Grey and his entourage. She continued to illustrate many of his books.

In 1917 she moved to Arizona permanently, spending winters in what is now Scottsdale, on 20 acres she purchased in her own name with money from Grey. Like a moth to the flame, she was drawn in the summers to all of the places she loved ­ Monument Valley, Walapi, Chaco Canyon, Grand Canyon and Betatakin. She had a brief marriage to Westbrook Robertson and divorced him after five years, erasing all traces of him from her life.

On a parallel path destined for collision with Lillian's, Jess Smith was working on the Hashknife Outfit, one of the largest ranching operations in Arizona in the 19th century.

Jess was born in 1886 to a family that traveled west in a covered wagon from Iowa to Denver, Colo. In true western tradition, he herded cattle and captured wild horses. He had an invitation to join Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show at 16 but his mother refused to let him go, fearing he might learn bad habits. He went off to World War I and returned to Arizona to work for John Wetherill.

Zane Grey and his entourage, including Lillian, returned to Monument Valley to watch the filming of one of his books. Jess was on this expedition, employed as a packer. He and Lillian spent 27 days in the saddle together. They married as she turned 42 and he was 36. Their 35 years of love can be chronicled through her paintings, always of Arizona, always together.

They had the orange groves of Scottsdale as their home base, but were happiest roaming the northern Arizona spectacles of nature. They witnessed the infamous deer drive on the North Rim. Lillian made the first painting ever of Navajo Falls at Havasupai.

She also incorporated Navajo rug designs onto china ware.

Jess worked for a time on the Prescott National Forest near Crown King, and Lillian was content to be on the move as long as she was accompanying her cowboy and could paint in her precious Arizona.

While Jess worked as a Civilian Conservation Corps foreman in the Bradshaws, Lillian lived in the fire lookout, where she could paint Thumb Butte and the surrounding beauty.

Lillian was continually trying to get her art into shows and galleries. When they wintered in Scottsdale, Lillian was able to be artist in residence at the Biltmore Hotel.

Lillian and Jess lost their hearts completely to a little-known area called Oak Creek Canyon. They sold their Scottsdale home for a place along quiet Oak Creek. Shekayah Guest Ranch could accommodate 10 visitors at a time, enough to keep the pair busy.

About the time that electricity became available in Sedona, they lost their ranch due to a legal loophole reverting it back to the original owner who then sold it to relatives.

It would have hurt Lillian to see what her quiet oasis has become today ­ Los Abrigados and Tlaquepaque.

Lillian and Jess never got over the loss of their paradise in Oak Creek Canyon. They were offered jobs as caretakers at the Amerind Foundation, where they stayed for a couple of years.

In 1959, Jess checked into the Veteran's Hospital at Fort Whipple outside of Prescott. Lillian rented a tiny house on Beach Street behind Sharlot Hall Museum, where she could be close to him.

The great man of the western frontier, who had ridden horses, herded enormous cattle drives and became a pattern for the model cowboy in Zane Grey's novels died in 1960 at 73.

In 1968, with her heart failing, Lillian moved into the Arizona Pioneer's Home in Prescott. Her friend to the end, Kay Manley sat by Lillian's bedside. Their conversation was always about Jess.

"Soon you will be with him," Kay offered.

"Thank God," was Lillian's response.

Lillian Wilhelm Smith returned to her cowboy on Feb. 22, 1971. She was cremated and her ashes placed in Jess' grave at Fort Whipple.

(Editor's note: Nancy Green of the Grand Canyon Historical Society wrote this article following a lecture on northern Arizona artists by Donna Ashworth in Flagstaff as part of Grand Canyon Association's Canyon Country Lecture Series. This article first appeared in the Ol' Pioneer, the quarterly newsletter of the Grand Canyon Historical Society. For information, see


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