Lecture: Berta Wright, Design Icon
Berta Wright was a major design figure in mid-century Tucson's design community. Her work impacted the post WWII style of southwest.
Join with members of the Wright family for personal memories of this Icon of the Old Pueblo.
Born in Lithuania, Berta Stiglitz grew up in Tambov, Russia before moving to Cuba with her family. The colors and cultural milieu of Cuba would resonated and would influenced her future art and work. In 1935 at the age of 14 Wright moved to Boston. She matriculated into the Massachusetts School of Art graduating with a degree in graphic and fine arts and then studied at the Boston Museum She was an art director for the prominent Detroit department store Crowley Milner and Co. before becoming an advertising designer on national accounts working for the firm of Aubrey Moore and Wallace, Inc. in Chicago. In Chicago she met and married Adolph Wright.
Adolph and Berta Wright moved to Laramie to attend the University of Wyoming, where she received a Masters of Arts degree and taught courses in sculpture and design for four years (1946-1950). While at the University of Wyoming she began teaching silk screening as part of an adult extension course and established a design workshop. During this time she taught a summer creative arts workshops focused on applied designs and textiles.
The young couple moved to Tucson in 1950 for Adolph to begin graduate program in geology and soil science at the University of Arizona. Berta opened a small studio shop in Desert House called Wright Designs and Associates where she began production of silk screen designs on fabric. Continuing in the tradition of teaching and arts workshopping Wright began to offer classes and give lectures throughout Tucson and Arizona, a tradition that would last the length of her career. On October 15, 1950 the Round Up in the Arizona Daily Star noted that Wright Designs would begin offering fabric and silkscreen classes at Desert House. In December of 1950 she demonstrated printing fabrics in silkscreen at the Tucson Fine Arts Gallery in the Chamber of Commerce. In an Arizona Daily Star article from 1951 Wright noted that, “Tucson is a wonderful place for artists. Its bright colors and foliage remind me of Cuba” (BW: Fahr, John, ADS 18 Nov 1951, Crafts Show Chairman pg 27)
The choice of Desert House as the location for her studio-shop was an important inflection point of her assimilation into Tucson’s art community. Desert House was founded in 1946 by John Tanner at 2841 North Campbell Avenue. Tanner had moved from Chicago to Tucson in 1932 and with a background in merchandising and sales and appreciation of fine craftsmanship of the Southwest. He established Desert House as an arts and crafts center that promoted local artists. The site included an array of artist-craftsman with various skills including furniture manufactured by Tanner and John Kelso, sculptor Oscar Davison, Wright and her silkscreen fabrics and artist Nathan Robinson. Located on the northeastern edge of Tucson and a few miles south of the Santa Catalina Foothills (a wealthy, high-end housing enclave that was home to numerous writers, philanthropists and notable American families.) the artist hub flourished. Throughout the early 1950’s Desert House added Tom Bahti, Gila Pottery, photographer Fritz Kaeser, the Charmion and Robert McKusick pottery, Libby McNeill leather craft, Chandler Smith Ceramics and Signa of the Signa Dress Shop
In addition to the cultural synergy of Desert House, Wright began to show her work in galleries and exhibitions in Tucson, throughout Arizona, and across the country. By October of 1950 her textile silkscreen West Forms were displayed at the 261 Gallery in Tucson featured in the Arizona Daily Star.
The early 1950s, following WWII was an economically prosperous time and a significant moment in Tucson’s artistic development. The city, home to the University of Arizona, artists, architects and designers was becoming a major cultural hub in the American Southwest. In 1951 the Tucson Festival Society launched the Tucson Festival of the Arts. Artist, advertising man and graphic designer Erni Cabat developed a logo called the Tohono. Wright began the design and production of Tohono cloth. In a 1951 interview Wright and her colleague Sylvia Jacobs noted “The Tohono symbol is a designer's dream [...] This opinion by two of Tucson’s fabric and fashion designers is shared by many fashion editors from Maine to California. The Tohono design was introduced in 1951 as the identifying symbol of the Festival (Tucson Festival Society). As a part of the Festival program local designers were asked to create original Tohono dress fashions using the symbol.” Jacome’s, the premier department store in downtown Tucson sold the Jacobs and Wright designs.
By 1951 Wright began teaching extension courses at the University of Arizona and collaborated with Robert Spray to elaborate the Tohono symbol to highlight the four arts and worked with Dolores Gonzales to produce new dress designs for her company and store Dolores Resort Wear. Throughout this period Wright continued to give presentations and talks on silkscreen production The same year she began the development of modern interpretation of southerwetern motifs into her fabric designs. She collaborated with the Arizona Shirt Company and continued the partnership with Dolores Resort Wear shop in Tucson reaching new audiences both locally and nationally .
Important local commission elevated the status of her work. The draperies in the University of Arizona faculty dining room featured her designs, the high published, architect Art Brown Ball-Palyor House included her fabrics and numerous publications highlighted her designs.
In November 1951 Wright served as the chairman of the Tucson Fine Arts Association Craft Show. The exhibition was a formal recognition of artist-craft. Wright noted “the exhibit serves many purposes. The public is given an opportunity to become acquainted with the fine work of local craftsmen.” (ADS 16 Nov 1951, Fine Arts Exhibit, Demonstration to Open Monday, pg 22) “ and “for local craftsman to display their work to the public. So many furnishings for Tucson homes are custom made, and Tucsonans can become acquainted with the work of local artists in various crafts” (BW: Fahr, John, ADS 18 Nov 1951, Crafts Show Chairman pg 27)
In July 1952 Wright was selected to participate in the Tucson Festival Society costume exhibit. The same year she again taught a class at the University of Arizona focussing on creative approaches to ceramics and decoration. Wright Designs and Associates was growing into a successful business and after the completion of his graduate degree Adolph and Berta decided to remain in Tucson and expand the business and gallery which would represent prominent designer-craftsmen of the southwest. Berta would design and Adolph would support the fabrication process.
In 1952 Wright served on the advisory board of the Tucson Fine Arts Association and was a presenter at the Arizona Country Life Conference showcasing studies on applying color, line and design in the home. (ADS Five Workshops to be featured at conference, 23 March 1952)
The September 1953 issue of National Geographic Magazine included the feature story From Tucson to Tombstone and included a color photo of Adolph and Berta Wright with Sylvia Jacobs in the Wright Studio producing silkscreens. The popularity of the fabric was surging and Bullock's Pasadena, a major west coast department store and taste maker advertised in the Los Angeles Times and sold the “Hohakam dress with yoke hand screened by Berta Wright of Arizona.”
Popularity of Wright’s regionally-inspired fashion design continued and in November of 1953 she participated in the Tucson Festival Society “Arizona Towns on Parade” with a dress design inspired by Pima County which incorporated the Tohono design. These dresses were featured nationally and highlighted in newspapers across the country.
In February 3, 1954 the Tucson Daily Citizen reported that Wright was part of a group of five local craftsmen which included Erni Cabat, Charles Clement, Andree Dupree and Catherine Lancaster who were joining together to form a new organization called Tucson Craftsmen. By March the group had organized into the Craft Workshop Group and the membership expanded to include: Ligoa Hoskins, Vergina Hammil and Ray Walker.
Locally, Wright was becoming a cultural force and in January of 1954 appeared on KOPO-TV show “Visiting With Virginia.” In April 1954 two of Wright’s dresses designed with her hand screened fabrics appeared in the feature story Southwestern Style and fashion spread in the New York Times by fashion editor Virginia Pope. Wright continued to gain national attention and in November 1954 Wright’s fashion designer were included in the CFC Fashion Show in Los Angeles. Her yucca blossom dinner dress was constructed from a silky pima cotton and used two Arizona colors: palo verde green and sunset gold. Shirley Phillips, writing for the Arizona Daily Star, stated: “The molded bodice is complemented with a gracefully controlled full skirt and cummerbund. One panel of the skirt is of gold as is the cummerbund. Individually hand screened on the dress to follow the somewhat rounded contours are brown outlines of the yucca blossom.”(Phillips, Shirley, ADS Tucson Fashions Are a Big Hit with Nation's Fashion Editors, 21 November 1954). The same month Wright participated in the exhibition “Tucson Crafts in Use” mounted by the Tucson Fine Arts Association in partnership with the new Craft Workshop.
In 1955 Wright participated in the Chamber of Commerce Rodeo Fashion Show at the Pioneer Hotel ballroom and on the 24th of February the Arizona Daily Star noted “Recognized as one of the Southwest’s most brilliant young artist-designers is Berta Wright.” During 1955 the Craft Workshop was re-named the Craft Guild and the group of artists emerged within the guild with a particular interest and engagement in textile design including Virgina Hamil, Ruth Brown, Berta Wright, Cele Peterson, Sandy Rosenthal and Ben Wallis
In 1958 Wright opened a new gallery in Ash Alley at 35 West Council Street. Ash Alley was a burgeoning new downtown arts district and featured numerous galleries and studios. Throughout this period Wright continued to participate and show with craft organizations in Tucson, Arizona and throughout the Country. In 1959, her work was included in the American Institute of Decorators Show at the American House, New York and her work was held for a special solo exhibition. In September of 1959 Wright’s fabric designs of spanish iron were used in the new interior of Tucson’s Pioneer Hotel ballroom.
The same year the Arizona Designer Craftsmen, a statewide organization, was established to promote the fine art craft work throughout the state and to work nationality to increase interest in top level craftsmanship. The selection jury for the first members included Ben Goo from Phoenix, Charles Loloma from Scottsdale, and Maurice Grossman of Tucson. The founding members included 28 designers of whom 10 were from Tucson.
Including Adolph and Berta Wright, the first applications for membership from Tucson included: Sylvia Cuomo, pottery; Tina Chester Russell, weaving; Ruth Brown, weaving; Eva Friendly, marionettes; Maurice Grossman, ceramics; Ernie and Rose Cabat, ceramics; Charles and Louise Clement, mixed media; Frank Patania Jr. Jewelry; and Phillip Bellomo ceramics.
In 1960 Berta and Adolph Wright created a “Primitive Series” of men's neckties exclusively for Ernst Ties of San Francisco. The 10 designs included: Variations, Trees and Trees, Basketry, Babylonian Script, Hon Plaque, Slave Stripe, Primitive People, Primitive Animals, Mimbres and Permiante Row. All of the hand screen printing was completed in Tucson and the fabrics sent to San Francisco for cutting and production.
In 1962 Wright began teaching silk screening classes and textile design at the Workshop Center for the Arts at 1402 North Alvernon and in 1963 she was featured in the national magazine Creative Crafts which include images. That year she moved her store from Ash Alley to 1736 East Speedway. The new store was designed by Charles Clement and during this window she participated in high fashion shows at the Skyline Country Club and at the Skyroom downtown.
In 1965 wright attended the First World Congress of Craftsman at Columbia in New York. Throughout the 1970s, 80s and early 90s the Wright Gallery represented Arizona’s important craft artists and remained a relevant and important cultural touchstone in the American Southwest.
Select Group Exhibits
1950 Tucson Artists 261 Gallery, Tucson, Arizona
1950 Art for Living - Art for Giving 261 Gallery, Tucson, Arizona
1950 Craft Show Tucson Fine Arts Gallery in the Chamber of Commerce 1951 Art Week 261 Gallery, Tucson, Arizona
1951 Craft Show Tucson Fine Arts Association
1952 Fabrics Arizona State Fair, Arts Exhibition
1952 Fibre, Clay and Metal Show St. Paul Gallery, St. Paul, Minnisota
1952 Group Membership Exhibit 261 Gallery, Tucson, Arizona
1952 Craft Show Tucson Fine Arts Association
1953 Development of Abstract Art Tucson Art Center
1953 Group Show 261 Gallery, Tucson, Arizona at Temple of Music & Art
1953 Watercolor Art Show Tucson Fine Arts Association
1954 Today’s Interiors - Tomorrow’s Heritage Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum
1954 Tucson Crafts In Use Tucson Fine Arts Association/Craft Workshop
1955 Crafts Exhibition Pima County Fair Exhibition
1955 Viewpoints Art Exhibit Arizona State Fair
1956 Tucson Crafts in Use Tucson Fine Arts Association/Craft Guild
1956 Independent Open Show Tucson Fine Arts Association Art Center
1956 Crafts Temple Fine Arts Gallery
1957 Crafts Guild Exhibition Tucson Fine Arts Association Art Center
1957 Tucson Crafts in Use Tucson Fine Arts Association/Craft Guild
1959 Craft’s - ‘59 Tucson Fine Arts Association/Craft Guild
1959 American Institute of Decorators Show American House, New York
1959 Arizona-Designer Craftsmen Heard Museum, Phoenix
1960 Arizona Crafts 1960 Tucson Fine Arts Association Art Center
1960 Arizona-Designer Craftsmen University Art Gallery, University of Arizona
1960 Arizona-Designer Craftsmen Heard Museum, Phoenix
1961 Contemporary Craftsman of Far West Museum of Contemporary Crafts, New York
1961 Arizona Crafts ‘61 Craft Guild/Tucson Fine Arts Association Art Center
1961 Arizona-Designer Craftsmen Arizona State Museum, Phoenix
1961 Arizona-Designer Craftsmen Heard Museum, Phoenix
1962 Arts and Crafts Show Pendleton Handweaving Studio, Sedona
1962 Arizona Crafts Craft Guild/Tucson Fine Arts Association Art Center
1963 Arizona Crafts Craft Guild/Tucson Fine Arts Association Art Center
1964 Arizona Crafts Craft Guild/Tucson Fine Arts Association Art Center
1964 Western Crafts American Craftsman Council and Century 21, Seattle
1964 Arizona Crafts ‘66 Craft Guild/Tucson Fine Arts Association Art Center
1967 Decorative Crafts Exhibition Heard Museum, Phoenix
1969 Arizona Designer-Craftsmen Heard Museum, Phoenix
1969 Decorative Crafts Exhibition Heard Museum, Phoenix
1973 Tucson Festival Exhibition Tucson Art Center
1974 Fibers 74’ Arizona State University, Tempe
1998 Tucson Early Moderns University of Arizona Museum of Art
2019 Crafting Opportunities San Diego Central Library, Art Gallery
Library of Congress, Washington DC
University of Illinois
Select Solo Shows
1959 Berta Wright American House, New York
1965 Art on Fabric L’Atelier Galerie, Cedar Falls, Iowa
1974 Berta Wright and Charles Clement Tucson Art Center
Selected Public Collections
Tucson Museum of Art, Tucson, AZ
Joslyn Memorial Museum of Omaha, “Directions”
Collection of Mingei International Museum
1950 Fabric Printing Prize Tucson Fine Arts Association, Certificate of Award
1951 Watercolor Prize: Dancing Trees Pima County Fair, Tucson Fine Arts Association
1952 Watercolor Prize Pima County Fair
1952 First Prize Fabric Design Arizona State Fair
1953 Certificate for Outstanding Clay Work Tucson Fine Arts Association
1953 Certificate for Fiber Work Tucson Fine Arts Association
1955 Craft Award Pima County Fair
1957 Award Tucson Fine Arts Association Art Center
1958 Hand Printed Fabrics Award Arizona State Fair Fine Arts Show
1960 Hand Printed Fabrics Award Arizona State Fair Fine Arts Show
1961 Award American Craft Council
1961 Arizona Crafts Award Tucson Fine Arts Association
1961 Hand Printed Fabrics Award Arizona State Fair Fine Arts Show
1963 Arizona Crafts Award Tucson Fine Arts Association
1963 Hand Printed Fabrics Award Arizona State Fair Fine Arts Show
1964 Creative Accomplishment Award Tucson Fine Arts Association
1967 Arizona Designer-Craftsmen Award Arizona Designer-Craftsmen
1969 Heard Museum Textile Award Heard Museum
1977 Textile Competition Prize Arizona State University