Majorie Reed Desert Artist
Marjorie Reed is best known for her paintings of the stage stations and scenes along the Butterfield Overland Stage Route. Born in Springfield, Illinois in 1915, Reed’s family moved to southern California when she was twelve. Shortly afterward her father, Walter Reed, began working as a free lance graphic artist for Mission Engraving and Offset, a commercial art firm in downtown Los Angeles.
According to Ed Ainsworth in “The Cowboy and Art,” young Marjorie’s “inner urge” was so strong she would sometimes walk eighteen miles just to sit on a corral fence and sketch the horses. Although the claim may seem exaggerated, it is known Reed possessed a strong will and was not afraid to travel long distances on foot to find inspiration. In her early teens she would disappear for several days at a time in the San Gabriel Mountains to sketch the wildlife. The excursions frequently took her from her home in Glendale deep into the Arroyo Seco, sometimes as far as Switzer Falls.
Her only companion was Boy, a large Malamute. “I didn’t need much to get by” Reed recounted many years later, “Just a couple apples and a fig. Boy would catch his own food.” Although the episodes caused her parents much worry and aggravation, this innate drive combined with her father’s tutelage helped Reed to hone her natural talent into a marketable skill at a very young age.
Reed started working alongside her father as a free lance artist at Mission Graphics when she was fourteen, drawing and painting commercial work for several major companies including The Popsicle Company, Standard Oil, and Goodyear Tire and Rubber. During the summer between her junior and senior year in high school she designed a complete line of greeting cards for “one of the largest business concerns in the nation.”
After graduating from Glendale High School Reed briefly attended the Chouinard Art Institute. But her most important formal training came several years later, with well known California landscape artist Jack Wilkenson Smith.
Starting in 1935, Reed initially walked the sixteen mile round trip from her home in Highland Park to Smith’s residence on Champion Place in Alhambra, also known as “Artists Alley.” The daily hike soon became too arduous and she began roller skating the distance to and from her lessons. When a near death collision with an automobile prompted the Smith’s to invite the young apprentice to live with them, Reed became the youngest member of Artists Alley.
The next two years provided a good education for reasons beyond her studies with Smith. Artists Alley was a Western artist’s Mecca at the time. Nearby residents included Clyde Forsythe, Eli Harvey, Norman Rockwell and Frank Tenney Johnson.
Reed credited Smith with encouraging her to roam the California countryside for
inspiration. The two made numerous sketching trips in the southern California foothills and canyons, frequently accompanied by well known landscape artist Hanson Puthuff.
During one trip she came in contact with Captain William Banning. Banning had been a stage coach driver for his father Phineas Banning, the owner of a southern California shipping empire. Captivated by Banning’s knowledge of stage coaches and horse teams, this event, along with her first visit to the Campbell Ranch near Vallecito, California, led Reed to embark on a project that would in time represent the pinnacle achievement of her artistic legacy.
Reed first visited the Campbell Ranch in April of 1938 at the recommendation of John Hilton. Hilton believed the ranch’s ambiance would provide a flavorful setting for her work. Owner Everett Campbell had recently finished overseeing a complete restoration of the Vallecito Butterfield station. Reed recalled nearly fifty years later how impressed she was with Campbell’s handiwork, commenting that he was an artist in his own right. She also became intrigued with the history of the route and “what a colorful project” the Butterfield Overland
Stage had been. Her short three day stay on the ranch, combined with meeting William Banning, helped to create Reed’s lifelong artistic mission.
Tracing the Butterfield Overland stage route through California, she created a series of twenty paintings, each one a representation of the various stage stations or other well known locations along the route. For authenticity, and to capture the essence of the route, Reed camped out near many of the stage stations she painted.
The series was finished in 1958 while Reed was living in Julian, California. Three years later, nineteen of the twenty paintings were purchased by James S. Copley, owner and publisher of the San Diego Union Tribune. The success of the California collection led to a series of subsequent projects, portraying the Butterfield route from California eastward all the way to it’s origin in Tipton, Missouri. She completed a set of paintings for every state along the way: Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and finally Missouri. The final canvas was
finished in 1982, over forty years after her stagecoach ride with William Banning and her first stay at the Campbell Ranch.
Reed’s early start allowed her make her living as an artist for over sixty years. As a result she left behind a very large body of work, consisting primarily of Western themes. Although best known for her Butterfield paintings, her oeuvre covered a wide range of subjects including burros, conquistadors, cowboys, Arizona trading posts, and California missions. She also painted “quite a lot of (Grand) Canyon scenes” and hundreds of paintings of the Navajo country.
One of Reed’s best known series is a large collection of canvasses she signed “Harvey Day.” Reed claimed in a letter, written the year before her death, that she used her husband’s name to “get a little break from a too busy life.” She also stated the paintings were created in the early 1940s, when Day had a job near the Grand Canyon.
However the Harvey Day paintings were actually created in the mid-1950s, several
years after Day’s death, as part of an arrangement with a Los Angeles dealer who sold the paintings through a Western furniture store chain. A different signature was used so there would be no conflict with any of her existing art gallery obligations. The steady cash flow provided by the agreement allowed her to devote her time and energies toward the completion of her first California Butterfield series.
Harvey Day was Reed’s second husband and, according to those who knew her best, the great love of her life. Her first husband, Harry Lindgren, was regarded as Hollywood’s premier sound engineer when the two married in 1939. The marriage produced two children; a daughter, Judy, in 1940 and a son, Steve, in 1944.
However by 1945 the two were divorced.
Reed then went from a large home in the Hollywood Hills to a living in rustic desert and mountain shacks. By 1946 she had hooked up with Day, an itinerant ranch hand who was in and out of prison numerous times for crimes ranging from forged checks to auto theft. He committed suicide in 1952 while an inmate at the Montana State Prison.
In 1955 she married Lynn Molgard, Day’s brother in law, and the two operated mink ranches in Colorado for the next year. After divorcing Molgard, she returned to Julian, California where she spent the next two years creating both her Harvey Day and California Butterfield series. Shortly thereafter she met her fourth husband, Cecil Creese. Reed’s marriage to Creese lasted
over twenty years, more than twice as long as her first three combined. Although he may not have been the great love of her life a la Harvey Day, he helped provide a stability that had been missing for most of her adult life. Creese was a prospector and mining engineer. The pair lived in various areas throughout the West, including the Salmon River in northern California and Arivaca and Amado in southern Arizona. The union ended with his death in Tombstone, Arizona in 1978.
In the early 1970s Valley Bank of Arizona commissioned Reed to do a series of paintings on the Trading Posts of Arizona. Not long afterward a private collector commissioned her to do a series of nine paintings of Hopi scenes in the Three Mesas area. In addition to the original Butterfield series, she created several hundred additional paintings of both Butterfield and
other stage scenes.
Reed claimed to have moved over eighty times in her life, spending most of her years in Arizona and Southern California. Her longest stay in one place was in the Tombstone area, where she owned and operated the Old Adobe Gallery in the 1980s and early 90s. Located in an original 1880s adobe building, the gallery had no running water or electricity, but the ambiance provided the ideal setting for her work. The Old Adobe was only open on weekends. At this time Reed’s popularity was at its peak and the gallery was frequently sold out by early Saturday afternoon. She provided free art lessons to local children on Sunday nights, which were held by candlelight while a mesquite fire roared in the beehive fireplace.
After her marriage to Cecil Creese, Reed converted to Catholicism and became deeply religious. She once stated in a letter she “never painted anything. I just held the brush
and God did the work.” She also claimed her art was inspired partly as a result of the frustration she felt in being denied a ranching life. The pleasure experienced by those who enjoyed her work alleviated her frustration “by returning the gift of the Creator.”
During the 1980s Reed made eleven trips to Israel, which she always referred to as
“The Holy Land.” She was deported by the Israeli government for encouraging peaceful protests by the Palestinians during her last trip in 1988.
Reed died the Friday after Thanksgiving in 1996, while raking leaves at the old Campbell Ranch in Vallecito. A true Western romantic until the end, her death certificate provides a fitting summary: “Occupation: Artist, Kind of business: Western Paintings, Years in occupation: 65, Final Residence: 33925 Great Overland Stage Route of 1849, Julian, California.”