Warren E. Rollins

(1861 - 1962)

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It has been almost one hundred years since the peripatetic Warren Rollins first appeared in northern New Mexico to escape, or possibly transcend, the stifling ferment of the Edwardian era.  Born in Carson City, Nevada in 1861, Rollins became part of an era whose epic-changing events would imbue him with a keen sense of history. 

A gifted art student who received the Avery Gold Medal for excellence in painting before graduating from the San Francisco School of Design in 1885, Rollins became assistant and then director of the School at age twenty-four, a post which he held for four years.  When he did turn to painting full time, he soon became know, first in California and then in Oregon, as a highly skilled marine painter.  But more to his liking, in 1901, he was offered a commission for two historical paintings on the subject of Indians for the Lewis and Clark Exposition.  This was a theme for which he would soon gain national recognition.

It was the catastrophic San Francisco earthquake which lured Rollins to the Grand Canyon in 1906.  The following year he painted his first masterpiece, Indians at the Grand Canyon,* which depicts a Hopi creation myth.  According to the legend, the Hopis left their underground world and followed the path of a tree which broke through the earth’s crust at the edge of the Grand Canyon.  Rollins depicts these ancient peoples of the myth as they stand in awe on a dramatic ledge as they gaze at the Temple of Isis, where, they believed, dwelt their great spirits.  This masterpiece so mesmerized President Ripley of the Santa Fe Railway that he bought and exhibited the painting at the Chicago Art Institute and then toured it across the country -- a stroke of providence which catapulted Rollins to fame overnight. It was, in fact, the notoriety surrounding Rollin’s painting, Indians at the Grand Canyon, that preceded him to Santa Fe and paved the way for his warm reception in the City of Enchantment.

In June, 1910, when the Santa Fe Art Colony was still very much in its infancy, Rollins journeyed there at the suggestion of his good friend and noted archaeologist, J. Walter Fewkes.  Shortly after his arrival, Rollins became one of the first artists to exhibit his work in Santa Fe’s recently created Museum of New Mexico, at an exhibition organized by the Ladies Board of the School of American Research. (Museum officials would later demonstrate their regard for his work by exhibiting his paintings in approximately twenty-five shows between the years 1916-1977.) 

Rollins also become an avid student of the Ancients, a favorite term for the Anasazi, and lived for months at a time among the Pueblo peoples, absorbing their history, legends and ceremony, exploring and recording their canyon and desert environs.  He distilled what he learned into his paintings, sketches and historical essays which he published in El Palacio, New Mexico Magazine, Overland Monthly, and Desert Magazine among other newspapers around the country. Though he had no formal training in the study of archaeology, Rollins keen eye described and relayed all that he saw in numerous pencil and charcoal drawings of the recently discovered complex of ruins in Chaco Canyon and other archaeological ruins. In many ways, Rollins devoted his life to keeping the ceremony of the Ancients alive

Rollins became nationally known as an artist of the Southwest achieving his most brilliant successes on canvas between the years 1908 and 1928.  He was appointed the first president of the Santa Fe Art Club and became known as the dean of the Santa Fe School -- in part because of his stature and professional record; in part because most of his artistic peers were half his age.

One other aspect of Rollins artistic development also bears mention.  This was his experimentation with crayon works-on-paper as early as 1916.  After 1935 with the onset of palsy, Rollins reached his full stride in this medium using the distinctive bite of the Crayola crayons on a toothy paper to create brilliantly colored, impressionistic renderings of the Southwestern landscape which surrounded him.  He interspersed his landscape works with a crayon series of scenes of World War II and finally a series on the historical seventeenth-century entrance of the Mayflower and other great ships into Plymouth Harbor.  Rollins worked in this unique crayon medium until his death in Winslow, Arizona in 1962.

M. Terrance McKay, Curator
The Warren Rollins Project

* =  (Indians at the Grand Canyon is presently owned by the State Department  in  Washington, DC.)