WOMEN WHO PAINTED THE WEST (PART 3): ILA MCAFEE

by Linda Osmundson

(Author, freelance writer, and historian, Linda Osmundson is a good friend of mine who inspires me with her knowledge of the American West. Her expertise is art of the Old West. She has written three books in her How the West Was Drawn series: Cowboy CharlieFrederic Remington, and Women's Art (the last one is my favorite).

This third post, in honor of Women's History Month, strikes a chord with me because McAfee drew inspiration from and painted both in the mountains of Central Colorado and in Taos, two of my favorite places on earth.

You can learn more about Linda and her books at: www.LindaOsmundson.com or find her on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.)

Young Ila McAfee (1897-1995) found little paper in her home so she drew her first full-sized horse on a page of the family Bible. She also painted on old envelopes, boxes and other books.

Growing up near Gunnison, Colorado, McAfee says about riding to school ten miles each way, “Spending two or more hours on a horse every day, I became pretty well acquainted with them.” Not only did she know horses, she became so familiar with nature around her that she easily incorporated it into her future paintings.

McAfee graduated from high school and studied first at West Lake School of Art and Hay Art School in Los Angeles. Upon her return to Colorado, she attended Western State then headed to the Chicago Institute of Art. Eventually she studied at The Art Students League and National Academy of Design in New York City. There she worked as an illustrator and on the side painted portraits of wealthy owners’ and breeders’ horses. The horse became her totem.

In 1926, McAfee married Elmer Turner, also an artist. They honeymooned by driving in their new Ford convertible through the Colorado mountains and later on to California to fulfill a mural commission. Arriving in Taos, New Mexico, they were awestruck by the scenic beauty, local culture and the great artists who lived there. They introduced themselves to some of the members of the Taos Artists Society (known as the Taos Ten) – Blumenschein, Berninghaus, Ufer, Hennings and Higgins. Two years later, they returned and made Taos their permanent home.

"It was so different then," McAfee said. "The village was small and the Indians remained uninfluenced by the invaders. Once I asked one of them, 'What did you call this country before the Europeans came?' 'Ours,' he told me."

The Turners built their home - The White Horse Studio - on an alfalfa field that is now Civic Plaza Drive. Her “pueblo-revival” adobe home and studio looked out on the mountains. "There was nothing between me and the mountain when we first got here," McAfee said. She decorated with hand-carved mirror frames, pine chests, display cases and furniture.

She and her husband often painted together. However, Turner’s career came to a halt when he developed a neurological illness which made him unable to paint. McAfee nursed him and used her art work as a source of solace and strength. After his death in 1966, McAfee discovered her own artistic voice. She painted tranquility and recollection like horses pausing to drink, Indian riders quietly crossing a stream, horses toiling uphill pulling a wagon to bring weary travelers home.

“I spend more time looking at the painting in progress than I do actually painting. I work out the composition and let the painting flow from there,” she said.

In 1981 she was voted Taos Artist of the Year. Then in 1993 she moved home to Colorado and died in Pueblo.  

Ila McAfee was one of the first truly western-born artists. Her works document the land, its wildlife and people from an intimate perspective.