We catch up with Western Spirit Board Member Stephanie Johnston as she is leaving a meeting at the museum. During our conversation, Stephanie strolls through Western Spirit’s stunning Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust Theater, taking in some of the movie posters from “The Dr. Rennard Strickland Collection of Western Film History” that are displayed in rotation there.
Q: A great deal goes into events like Saddle Up III, Western Spirit’s annual gala, that will be held this year on Saturday, October 15th. And you are in charge of planning. Would you tell us a bit about that?
A: I’ve been called the “Perle Mesta” of house parties—you might recall Perle Mesta was a prominent Washington hostess in the Truman and Eisenhower years. Like Perle, I’ve learned one thing: if you provide good food, good drink, and good entertainment, your guests will be happy. In our case, the happier our guests are, the better off the museum will be. We will have top notch catering at Saddle Up III, as we did last year, and a special dessert created for the evening. We’ll also have a signature cocktail. This year’s will be a Turquoise, a margarita in a beautiful shade of blue. And we have lined up some stellar entertainment, including Emmy Award-Winning Singer/Songwriter Jim Salestrom and Phoenix country rock-sensation, DaisyTrain.
But the important thing is to showcase Western Spirit, to approach the gala as an opening, featuring the art, and the fact that we are a museum, and offering a first look at a future exhibition. This year, Saddle Up III will offer a sneak preview of The Fran and Ed Elliott Southwest Women Artists Collection. In a field dominated by men, it’s fascinating to learn how many exceptional women artists worked and made careers in the West. Our invitation highlights a work from the Elliott Collection as well as informative text written by curator, Dr. Tricia Loscher.
Q: How did you come to be associated with Western Spirit?
A: Mary Meyer was the one who suggested I join the Board. My husband and I are avid collectors of Western art and have always loved it. Twenty years ago, when we were first coming to Scottsdale, I saw an ad in Phoenix Magazine for the Suzanne Brown Gallery that featured the art of William Matthews. I told my husband we had to go, and we did. “I found ten that I have to have,” I said. “Choose one,” he said. Two hours later, I made my choice. But every year, for my birthday, a crate would arrive, bearing a new Willie Matthews. It was a thrill. He is an incredible artist in every medium, but especially in watercolor. And if you are ever in Fort Worth, you have to see his 60-foot wide glass mural, Los Caballos, at the new Dickies Arena!
Q: What do you say to encourage people who haven’t visited to make Western Spirit a stop on their cultural tour of the area?
A: I start with the building. Studio Ma’s eco-friendly design—the cement walls that intentionally resemble saguaro cactus spines that deflect the heat; the steel walls and water features—make for an enriching experience on their own. Inside, the museum is a very giving place, with something for everyone. And then there are the exhibitions, like the Edward Curtis show on view now. The images are arresting and astounding. I think back to last year and Saddle Up II, when we were fortunate to have the foremost Curtis impersonator on hand, telling the story. Seeing everyone leaning forward in their chairs—you could hear a pin drop. There are many ways to tell the story of the West, and Western Spirit is open to all of them.
Q: Is there an object in particular that you recall that caught your attention?
A: Previously there was a sculpture of a man in a canoe and if you looked inside it, you would have seen a little dog, and food, and other things. Hidden, but there. There’s always something new to see at Western Spirit—if you look closely.
Q: How do you envision Western Spirit’s future?
A: Following the stalwart leadership of former Chairman Jim Bruner and founding C.E.O. Mike Fox, and now with Bill Ridenour as our new Chair, we have a visionary with a lifelong passion as a collector. What he has and what he has given us for Saddle Up III is incredible. Aside from that, I see the paramount importance of the museum’s efforts in education, introducing them to people from the past whose achievements give them a sense of purpose and ignite their imaginations. Wade and the docents in the education department are phenomenal at making these connections.
I’m looking right now at the poster for the film The Indian in the Cupboard and thinking how isolated kids are these days on their screens, and how the museum reminds them to imagine and dream, and lets them know they’re never alone. Imagination, dreaming, a sense of togetherness—that’s part of the meaning of the word “Spirit” in Western Spirit.