Virginia Adams Spreads Native American Art from the Southwest to Yosemite

(The Ansel Insider)

Ansel Adams’ trips to the Southwest—often with his wife, Virginia—were as much about connecting with people as they were about connecting with landscapes. Through the traders and locals that they met, Ansel and Virginia connected with a number of Native American artisans and craftsmen. And it was Virginia who first decided to include the work of those Southwestern artisans in the gallery in Yosemite.

Virginia at the University of Arizona in front of pottery by renowned artisan Maria Martinez gifted from her and Ansel’s collection 

“Starting in 1929, she started buying for her family business—her father’s business at the time,” says Michael Adams, Ansel and Virginia’s son.

“She bought Indian rugs, and jewelry, and she was very careful about what she bought—only high-quality, authentic items.”

Virginia began collecting jewelry, pottery, blankets, kachinas, and other items. She would continue her buying trips to the Southwest on an annual basis—taking trips to meet with her favorite traders in Arizona and New Mexico, from Flagstaff to Gallup, and purchasing Native American folk art for display in the gallery.

The Ansel Adams Gallery still represents Native American artisans first introduced by Virginia Adams. Photo taken of beautiful handmade jewelry in the gallery, May 2019

In and of itself, this was remarkable act, and ahead of its time. Today, questions about inclusivity in the gallery are common, but in the early 20th century, the notion that Native American handiwork would find its way into a gallery space was far from a foregone conclusion.

“Those early trips were very important to the later years of what the gallery came to stand for,” says Adams.

Virginia (right) with friend and writer Ella Young on a trip to the Southwest, 1929

Of his mother’s attraction to the Southwestern aesthetic, Adams offers this simple explanation: “She fell in love with it.” And that love extended into their own home. “We decorated our home with it,” remembers Adams, “We had wonderful Indian rugs on the floor, slung over chairs. They were always showing us beautiful new things that would come in.”

Virginia’s decision to display the wares of Native American artisans was not merely aesthetic, but economic as well. For many visitors to Yosemite, the gallery was their first exposure to the work of Southwestern artisans, and the handcrafts were an immediate success. The sales of their goods enabled many Southwestern artisans to ride out leaner times during the Great Depression.

“That’s the ethic of wanting to support quality work, wanting to have quality work on your wall” says Adams, “You want to make sure that good artisans survive and continue making that quality work.”

Current represented Native American works in The Ansel Adams Gallery

It’s a conservationist impulse. In the same way that Ansel Adams felt the need to conserve the natural environments that provided the fodder for his photographs, Virginia recognized the need to preserve and sustain the people who created these beautiful crafts.

“Good things happen to good people,” says Adams, “If you find someone who’s doing an exceptional job, you do what you can to support them. And because of our position in Yosemite, we felt a particular obligation to support Native American handcraft.”

By Ethan Simon, Creative Writer for The Ansel Adams Gallery