Transformative Journeys of the Feminine Into the Southwest

A Look at the Ordeal of Making the Real Visual in Picturing a Different West:  Vision, Illustration, and the Tradition of Austin and Cather

Picturing a Different West: Vision, Illustration, and the Tradition of Austin and Cather


Originally published 2 June 2014

“You can scarcely understand what it means . . . that enormous territory . . . the cradle of faith in the New World . . . the beginning of momentous things.” Willa Cather in Death Comes For the Archbishop

“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing.” Georgia O’Keeffe

In Picturing a Different West: Vision, Illustration, and the Tradition of Austin and Cather (Texas Tech University Press, 2007) author Janis P. Stout closely researches and explains the history and places of the creation process of two pivotal female writers, Mary Austin and Willa Cather, both having traveled into the Southwest resulting in some of their most important works. She shows the ordeal for these universally groundbreaking visions experienced there to be brought to text. In doing so, Stout presents an historical framework in which to view the undercurrents of feminine creativity in the Southwest slowly coming into view in the early twentieth century as a distinctly different way of seeing that lies open the fixed rigidity of a system, mythos and art that restricts and negates “other” in order to dominate. Austin’s and Cather’s work, along with others in the continuing tradition of women artists in the Southwest, quietly establishes that this is a restriction of being that does not hold true in authentic experience. This difference is especially and remarkably visually apparent in the Southwest. While it is most difficult to break through those binding, unnatural restrictions, greater yet is the larger picture these writers were able to begin to create. In this different undercurrent, while they do indeed begin to take apart what does not work, they start putting together what does. Importantly, this is done through writing, the visual image, and through the female artist in the Southwest.

In her words, Stout seeks to show: the “interrelated ideas . . . the visual nature of Austin’s and Cather’s own experience of the West, the importance of western art and the art of illustration in the making of their books, and their revision of the gender assumptions pervading both the art and the literature of the West” (xviii). Her finely-detailed examination of this feminine literary history through their individual correspondence and publishings provides evidence of important factors within their continuing creative ordeals that are crucial in understanding the vital difference and effects of the work and expression that comes from women who demonstrated both a deep-seated sense of being and an equally deeply felt awareness of and connection to place. Because both writers were closely concerned with the visual representation of artwork that accompanied their writings, we get a closer view into their visions and the necessary forces constraining and compelling them into realizing those visions. It is when all of this converges in the Southwest that something in the mythic imagination begins to shift and new possibilities become apparent.

Stout begins by demonstrating how popular artists of the nineteenth and early twentieth century were building and fortifying the identity of the West, and consequently of the United States, by representing the frontier as a place for male adventure, gain and domination. Popular artists such as Thomas Moran were of course offered free trips, money and even more wide-spread recognition by entities such as the Santa Fe Railway to envision the West and Southwest in this way. Stout writes, 

. . . artists as well as writers conveyed a view of the West as a rugged and forbidding place amenable to encounters only by equally rugged and daring men. The West was defined as a place of adventure and wonder, an arena in which men might prove their manhood through encounters and conflicts with the rigors of a difficult landscape inhabited by people of striking otherness. The West, in short, was gendered male (xviii).

It is in this “striking otherness” where we find a completely different experience with self and place that stands in stark contrast to this imposed constructed image of masculine identity and landscape, for as Stout points out in the poet Leslie Marmon Silko’s work, “gender and seeing are linked” (xix). In a gendered culture, it raises few visible qualms when the art--whose very point is to break through unnatural walls--reflects those prescribed world views. It is in this alterity where we find what is of utmost importance newly elementing its processes of creation. Stout follows the “regendering” of the Southwest in close detail and shows how assumptions about femininity and masculinity are also redefined, creating a more balanced view of people and place, a view that opens up incredible possibilities. It is important that Stout examines how this is done because the process is telling and has far-reaching implications.

In their journeys into the Southwest, in what seemed previously to be restricted by being female, their sex judged too weak and vulnerable for this harsh environment, these female writers found that they are this place--domination of it not even desirable (not to mention impossible once one finds connectedness to it). They found their beings reflected in the stark openness, “the sweep of spaciousness and light” (38). Instead of walls of enclosure, then, the Southwest reflected this wide open freedom of expression and they could know the strengths of their own bodies, minds and souls. Stout states, “Like Austin, Cather conceived of the West in terms of geographical spaciousness and beauty that afforded enlargement of vision. Its clarity of air allowed ‘breathing freely‘ (Rosowski, Birthing 56) in both physical and mental, or spiritual, ways” (192). Stout writes of the photographer Laura Gilpin and painter Georgia O’Keeffe of their work in the Southwest:

The desert was seen by Gilpin and O’Keeffe, as well as by other modernist artists, not in terms of lack but of unclutteredness and integrity of structure, as a space for habitation that not only demands but enforces continuity between place, plant and animal life, and human existence. In both O’Keeffe’s and Gilpin’s representations of the Southwest we see a modernist vision immersed in a powerful geographic vision, and a vision equally rejecting of both a stereotypically masculine and a stereotypically feminine aesthetic (41).

It is no wonder then, why such authors as Mary Austin and Willa Cather were so deeply inspired by the harsh but wide-open expanse of the Southwest where life itself comes strongly, vividly through. Their creation processes become amplified for the visual when examined within the meaningful context of the Southwest. Their deep senses of being and place become more evident as they sought to describe the difference they experienced in this environment. Stout describes the landscape being alive with movement and bursting in color in Austin’s The Land of Journeys’ Ending:

Plant life is especially well observed and put into words, and the emphasis on journeys, movement, and converging trails gives a quasi-visual sense of the large contours of the land. Such journeys are not only those of different human groups, serving her emphasis on multi-ethnicity, but of animals and plant life--pine trees “march” (LJE 34), plants in general make a journey of evolution (LFE 133-36). Even watercourses and their air currents move along trails of sorts. Subtleties of color are dwelt on and lusciously realized, as when she make a distinction between the hues of different trees, “the green of the junipers” being “slightly yellower” than that of the piñons (LJE 33). We see this dwelling on rich color here . . . “bright flecks of bluebirds’ wings, interlacing earth and sky. When the snowdrifts in the shadows begin to take lilac tones, the drift of wild plums is feather white, the rabbit-brush white fluff over green, and the water shadows as green as the junipers” (71).

In a place where the contrast is with starkness and bare existence, the experience of color, light and space is different. It is an awakening. Life itself comes boldly into focus. The backdrop emphasizes the stark reality of the temporariness and fragility of existence. There is no turning away or negating eternity being present and the never-ending harshness and passing of life. These opposites co-exist, framing each other. For Austin, “natural beauty and natural harshness are equally real” (Stout 87). She writes in Land Without Borders, “There is something incomprehensible to the man-mind in the concurrence of death and beauty” (qtd. in Stout 87). Stout explains, “A woman of the desert, though, is not only ‘tawny’ like it, but possessed of a corresponding ‘largeness to her mind’ that accommodates contradictions. Apparently such women need to do so, having experienced both the beauty and the harshness” (87).

It is here then that we can see, while Austin and others struggled with a new reality in environment why they also struggled for new ways to describe and visually present those ideas. What these women writers and artists were coming upon begins something of incredible importance. It is a taking down of divisions and a re-imagining of far-reaching personal and cultural proportions. While Stout concentrates on the important regendering in the artwork and cultural imagination, there is a larger tectonic shift begun because of this. One of the most culturally shifting things that could happen to a masculine-defined society is this reuniting of opposites, for the division runs deep and causes more divisions. In that mindset, all is divided and separate--from each other, from the animals, from the land, water, and the universe itself. And as we know in this mindset, “other” is empty and negated. While we look at the art and culture that had deemed things “separate” and “other,” we can also see the divisions go as deep as language and thought. Of course this then carries through into actions and relations. Because of this, being able to find new methods to describe and present this environment and experience is hugely important. It is the beginning of having to take apart and re-visualize the actuality of being, now becoming free in this space not only from a male-dominated mind-set, but where alterity is to be desired. That through experience in the Southwest this begins to become conceivable is astounding. The qualities of this place harmonize as a whole. Life is not separate from place, nor people, nor stories. Instead of opposites now, there is multiplicity and ambiguity and therefore possibility. It is an opening for culture as large as the Grand Canyon. Later in the book Stout does further examine interconnectedness in Leslie Marmon Silko’s work.

This experience in the Southwest is not in any way “imposed.” In Austin’s writing, “Spirituality seems to spring directly out of the earth itself; it is not an abstraction imposed upon it. The ineffable is a ‘strange, surging warmth which came out of the stars and trees and mountains and made itself felt inside you’” (93). Stout writes that place is so important to Austin, in fact, that Austin wrote in her essay “Regionalism in American Fiction” that “in a true regional literature place itself should be the ‘instigator of plot . . . a vision for lives come to them only in place, this place’” (81). What was separate before is inseparable here. Remarkably, this effect carries through into a complete vision where more divisions can fall away. Having been that “striking otherness” as a female in the Southwest, this experience is liberating. Stout remarks on “Austin’s attempt to merge her response to physical environment and concern for its wise use with a respect for Native peoples and an insistence on gender equality. Her fusion of feminism with interest in place and environment in her writings about the West is one of her greatest distinctions” (83).

It is almost shockingly wonderful how this continuity and connectedness occurs with place, especially a place that was deemed in many ways empty, inhospitable and only for masculine adventure. It is here where Austin’s “evasion of generic borders as well as geographic ones” becomes a different way of “seeing.” Austin describes this in her Land Without Borders: “Out there where the borders of conscience break down, where there is no convention” (qtd. Stout 87). It becomes a place where what had been separate in the mind finds the separateness as having been imposed and confining. As the divisions fall, there is a new imagining of what actually is. As the pre-conceived, ingrained beliefs about masculinity and femininity do not hold up here, Austin was able to re-imagine what this could open. Important to her was “an awareness of how different the relations between the sexes ought to be” (87). Stout examines this in Austin’s “Walking Woman” who “had walked off all sense of society-made values, and knowing the best when the best came to her, was able to take it” (qtd. in Stout 90). What is left are the essentials of being and the possibilities. Stout writes,

. . . Austin’s text is also, in a sense, silent. The argument that it makes about its own place vis-à-vis the prevailing tradition of literary and artistic representation of the West is a tacit one. What matters about the West, it argues implicitly but never in so many words, is not derring-do but natural presence, not conquest but harmony with a frequently stern natural order.

In this way, being takes precedence.

Stout describes Georgia O’Keeffe’s work and that of photographer Laura Gilpin as practicing “an art stripped to essentials, an art that directs us to forget the visual density and clutter of other places and whatever incidentals may distract us even here in order to focus our eyes and our minds on what is most important in this stark place.” She continues this thought in relation to the prose of some of the female writers here as a “stylistic equivalent of that personal stripping to essentials . . . to find more authentic selves in the Southwest” (34). It is here, then, and through these women that we can see the very process of un- and re- creation that happens that makes the Southwest the place where unnatural constructs can’t hold true. The Southwest offers, like no other place, “a geography of possibility” (qtd. in Stout 34).

A different, realized center of being where constructs of definition have fallen away is certainly evidenced in the works of Georgia O’Keeffe. It is in the Southwest where she was able to take apart any prescribed demand and be able to “re-see”--her work, her self and the connection to the natural world. To borrow e.e. cummings words, the Southwest is a place that “doesn’t love a wall” and one will notice, as pointed out by Stout, O’Keeffe’s walls, instead of being imposed structures, seem to swell from the ground itself. Her strength of being and visualizing this connection gives life to the art. What becomes of place and being in this is essentially her. In a natural progression, her strength of vision grew the more she understood and could express this, growing well past the boundaries of unnatural social constructs waiting “outside” to be applied. Those restrictions, while threatening, could diminish in existence for her. Her own transformation as a being and an artist are evidenced in the powerful images that then are transformative for a culture, for who can overlook O’Keeffe’s work of the strong feminine flowering to life in the clarity of the stark light and space of the Southwest? If being female had been “unrepresentable” by human constructs such as language and the visual image, O’Keeffe and others were finding the expression for their beings in this experience with landscape. It is both a redefining of femininity and of being. Stout points out that in Austin’s work, something else was also happening. She was seeing “the spirituality associated with landscape is also associated with the female” (97). Stout states, . . .

Austin’s statement of what the West is “like”; like a woman of a certain kind--strong, adequate, and free. The desert, or more expansively the West, is like the Walking Woman, the sturdy wayfarer who serves as a spirit of place, who has “walked off all sense of society-made values (Land Without Borders 208). Desert values must come from nature, from bare reality. The interpersonal values of honesty and fair treatment, then, which Austin endorses in her stories of the desert, are to be taken as absolutes of reality, not as mere social conventions” (101).

Stout adds her opinion about Austin’s and Cather’s writing:

Both would become leading voices in reconceptualizing the West and Southwest in ways usually thought of as feminizing what had been a strongly masculine--and masculinist--view. My own reading is that it was not so much a feminizing as a dual gendering of the West. They developed an aesthetic that incorporated and perhaps balanced what we are accustomed to thinking of as masculine and feminine (41).

Willa Cather’s work, while also redefining gender and regendering the Southwest, calls into question the imposition of outside culture on it. Stout shows here one point of view wherein Cather’s Southwestern classic Death Comes for the Archbishop is seen as imposing religion and culture onto the native cultures already present. Stout makes a case for this in her examination of Cather’s life and work. While there are conflicting views about what Cather finally accomplishes in her fiction about the Southwest, she clearly was inspired by the difference in environment and culture enough to put into her title a coming together of these two opposing outlooks very much representative of the place and what is being imposed: death and the foreign religion (in which she clearly did find some beauty). For while those in Rome overlook what seems to them to be a vast, empty, uncultured land, Cather knows differently when she writes, “You can scarcely understand what it means . . . that enormous territory . . . the cradle of faith in the New World . . . the beginning of momentous things.” In this, she does not show immense hope for Rome there, although it may be implied. The “momentous things” seem to come to be a reference to the possibility and spirituality of the place itself and the experience in which sometimes, as in the title, loss is greater than gain. Catholicism in the Southwest is a vast subject, but the experiences in Death Comes for the Archbishop is a prime opportunity to look at what ultimately happens with experience in this place.

Throughout her book Stout describes what happened with the commissioned artists for illustrations that would accompany Austin’s and Cather’s texts, and therefore help define them and shape the experience of their texts. Often, completing a vision through the illustrations by other artists proved difficult as their conception was different. Sometimes they were able to work with the illustrator; the visions change for the worse when they are not. In one instance, for example, “these half-title decorations . . . were placed so high on the page, so near the print, that it fails to convey a sense of a big sky” (63). In many instances the openness of space and impact of place is lost in the provided illustrations. This was a loss of the visions in both Austin and Cather’s works. In illustrator E. Boyd Smith’s work for Austin’s The Lands of the Sun, for example, “there is far less willingness . . . to use white space for emphasis. We might note, too, . . . the cattle here are rendered less convincingly and with less affective quality” (64). The resonating descriptions in the women’s texts are often not given representation, and their vision becomes limited in that way. The scale of place and their own experienced and deeply-felt visual impressions are of course of immense value in the experience of reading their works. In Austin’s The Land of Journeys’ Ending illustrations for this work by John Edwin Jackson while “very competent to be sure, and they greatly add to the interest of the book as a total reading experience . . . fail to move beyond a certain inertness” (72). In another instance in Cather’s work an image for a dust jacket with its “darkly blackened boldness conveys a muscular masculinity little in keeping with Cather’s characterization” (161). Throughout Stout’s study, while showing some successes, it is evident how difficult it was for these women writers to have their visions brought to the illustrations. Stout is thorough in her examination, providing insight into the processes of bringing new realizations to the visual image.

Stout’s accomplishment is to show how the West and Southwest is indeed regendered through the visions of these writers and artists. In her last chapter she shows the continuing tradition in artists such as Leslie Marmon Silko, Margaret Randall, and Barbara Byers. She writes of Silko:

In much the same way as Austin and Cather, Silko regenders the West not simply by feminizing it but by insisting on a strong female presence free from limitation by preconceptions of role or propriety. Like them, she renders a previously masculinized space androgynous. Unlike Austin and Cather, however, Silko shows that one of the primary ways this is accomplished is through complimentary and collaboration between the sexes (218).

All of these artists alike understand the “book-as-object as being importantly a visual presence” (225), for it is these writers and artists who are able to “see” the possibilities and know the need, both in themselves and for others, to express and give visualization to it. As Stout points out, Margaret Randall “sees the West as a harsh and frightening terrain but at the same time a place of habitation and community, a place of embrace. This multifacetedness--not merely a duality but a rich range of perceived qualities and meanings . . .” (227). It is this multiplicity that signals a shift in world view and opens the possibilities, where reality is laid bare. Stout writes,

If Randall shares with other writers of the southwestern landscape the sense that she is confronting the ‘absolutely real’ (Tompkins 3), in its hardness and impersonality, she also shows that love, human connection across time as well as space, and the sad sweep of human justice and injustice are as much a part of that reality as the harsh rocks and declivities (236).

The furtherance of this tradition promises to be an experiment in a coming together of the whole.  The Southwest seems to not only lend itself to this experience, but also to making the real, what was unseen before, vibrantly visual.