The Maynard Dixon Home Story: An interview with Susan Bingham, part 1
In 1939, seminal American artist Maynard Dixon and his wife, fellow artist Edith Hamlin, fulfilled Maynard’s lifelong dream of escaping the hustle & bustle of the city for the slower pace of a life in the desert. They chose to build a small log homestead among a grove of cottonwood trees in the quaint town of Mt. Carmel, Utah. Centrally located between some of the country’s most stunning national parks, the idyllic setting couldn’t have been more perfectly suited to an artist. Maynard and Edith spent every spring and summer living, painting and exploring the 20 acres of their property and its surrounding area. The pastoral scenes, sweeping landscapes and endless skies that epitomize the area found themselves the subjects of many of Maynard’s most well-known pieces.
Before his death in 1946, Maynard Dixon's final wish was for Edith to scatter his ashes on the property, which she faithfully fulfilled. Edith then kept the house until 1963, when she sold it to a friend and fellow artist, acclaimed watercolorist Milford Zornes, who honored the artistic spirit upon which the homestead was built by hosting art workshops and artist gatherings for many years.
In 1998 the home was purchased from Milford Zornes and restored to its original beauty by Paul and Susan Bingham, who went on to found the non-profit Thunderbird Foundation for the Arts and the Thunderbird Gallery, with the intention of carrying on the legacy of Maynard Dixon while offering opportunities for modern artists. The property is now a mecca for painters who return each year for Thunderbird Foundation events, including Maynard Dixon Country Art Invitational and its companion event, the Maynard Dixon Country Camp Out.
This is part one of my interview with Thunderbird Foundation co-founder Susan Bingham, who explains the rich history of the Dixon Home and the circuitous route that brought she and her husband to its doorstep.
Savina: Will you please share the history behind how you came to find out about and purchase the Maynard Dixon Home?
Susan: Well, it was probably the furthest thing from my mind, actually. We lived in California, we’d been very active in the Maynard Dixon market finding paintings there and selling them for many years, working directly with Edith Hamlin Dixon, Maynard’s widow, who lived in San Francisco. And we knew that Milford Zornes, the great California watercolorist who had been a friend of Dixon’s had purchased the home from Edith in 1963. He’d lived there and done workshops on the property. He also had a home in Claremont, California and at some point during the early 90s, he called my husband Paul and he said he had a little Maynard Dixon that he would like to sell. So Paul took the painting and consequently sold it for him rather quickly and in the process of that transaction, Milford and Paul talked a little bit about the house in Utah. Paul told him that he was from Utah and that we had actually tried to see the house one time and were going to visit him but he was out of town at the time we came by.
So, I do remember that trip that we came here - it was probably 1992 or 1993, something like that. We’d taken a little trip through the southwest and we’d decided that we would come to Mt. Carmel so that we could maybe see the house and maybe meet Milford. It was kind of something we didn’t plan ahead very well. So we came here and we asked somebody if they knew exactly where it was and they said yes, it’s down there, but Milford’s not home. So we came down here and we peeked over the fence. I remember thinking, “Ah, wouldn’t that be fun to get in there and see where Maynard lived and the house that they had built and so forth? And then we went off on our merry way and didn’t think too much about it.
Well, during this transaction of Paul selling the little Dixon, they talked about the home in Utah and Paul’s Utah roots and so forth. Milford said, “Well, at some point I’m going to sell it because I can’t keep it up anymore - I’m just getting elderly.” So a few years went by and it must have been about 1995 or so, and he called Paul and told him he was going to sell it and would he be interested? Paul said “Well, tell me how much and maybe.” He gave some huge price and Paul said, “Well, that’s a little rich for my blood,” and we didn’t think much more about it.
In the fall of 1997, Paul was in southern California and he’d sold a painting down there called “Mountains in Sunset Light” - it’s a beautiful Dixon that he went down there to sell and he sold it rather quickly. While he was gone, I was in our gallery in San Jose and I got this phone call from Milford Zornes and he said, “Hi this is Milford Zornes and I’d like to speak to Paul” (emulating Milford’s deep voice with a laugh) - Milford was a big tall guy with a big forceful voice. So I called Paul and told him Milford had called and he said, “Okay, I’ll call him.” Well, I didn’t hear anything and a couple of hours passed and I was closing up the gallery getting ready to go home for the day and I got a phone call from Paul and he said, “Well, I just bought the Dixon place.”
Savina: (Laughing) Wow! Surprise!
Susan: (Laughing) Yeah! I said, “You did what?!” (laugh) “You know, I’m not moving to southern Utah!” And so anyway, he said, “Well, I gave him a deposit and told him that we’d go up and take a look around and see exactly if that’s still something we want to do and if we do, he can keep part of the deposit. Not to worry, we’ll discuss it when I get back.” So this was November.
The holidays came up and finally by January it was snowing and we got up here. We came up to see the property and it was a kind of a shock at first because there were a lot of repairs and things that needed to be done. They hadn’t lived there for a while and there were some real - infestations and different things that we had to deal with. But as we walked around the property we actually walked up to the memorial and we looked out over the beautiful view from up there and we looked at each other and we said, “You know, this is - this feels really good. I think this
is definitely something we want to do. And then as we drove throughout the area and we drove up to Jacob’s lake and we came back down into the valley where Kanab is and then up highway 89 and saw the unbelievable beauty looking out toward Zion from the summit of highway 89 - I mean, it was breathtaking. And I remember me, being the one who’d said I really never wanted to move to southern Utah, I remember turning to Paul and saying, “You know, I think we should do something here,” (laughing).
So one thing led to another and by August of the next year we were there, helping the Zornes move out and starting to make all the repairs and working on the grounds. We did that for a couple years and by 1999, by the end of that summer, we were pretty well finished with the restoration. We still had things to do, but the major part of it had been done. And that’s how that happened.
A few years later, we relocated to Salt Lake City and then we would spend our summers here and then go back to Salt Lake. And then about 8 years ago we built this new gallery here. We bought the property adjacent to the Dixon home and we spend a lot more time here now.
Savina: And how was the property different when you first found it?
Susan: Well, it was just run down. There was a lot of fixing that had to be done. The studio had broken windows and it had dead squirrels and mice and holes in places where they could get in; the same with the house. There was a hole in the foundation because they’d had to repair a broken pipe. And there were some plumbing issues and we had to totally take out the bathroom. We saved everything that belonged in there - a lot of cupboards and things that were original to the house we saved, but we put a whole new floor and new plumbing.
We had to fix electrical issues and we had to jack up part of the house with piers and the same with the studio - the piers underneath had to be strengthened. A lot to do with the landscaping as well; we had to have 30 cottonwood trees trimmed and a lot of painting and cleaning and scrubbing and painting trims and doing landscape projects and putting in sprinkling systems. And we put some lawns in and we made flowerbeds and we put paths and we made a driveway going up toward the back of the property so that we could keep the front gate closed and keep it private so that people didn’t just drive in there. And we just had a lot of things like that to do. Roofs that needed to be fixed and repairs; just a lot of fixing.
And we actually took the studio - which the back part of the studio, Milford Zornes had built an addition onto the garage which was the back part and it was just a storage area with this cement slab and we went in there and we made it more like the front of the studio, because we wanted to use that back area as an exhibition space. And we also put in new electrical and plumbing and we put a little bathroom in the studio and things like that, just because we were going to use the property in a little bit of a different way than they had used it. But the house and the bunkhouse
and the studio itself - the footprint wasn’t really changed, there were just some minor alterations.
Savina: When you first bought the property, was it your intention to give tours, or what were you thinking about its future use?
Susan: Well, when we initially did it, we weren’t quite sure what we were going to do with it, but several years before that, there had been a couple of things: one was that Paul had gone to New York to a trade show there and he had some extra time, so he drove up the Hudson River and ended up in Nyack, NY. That’s where he stayed and the next morning, he was walking along the street just looking around the town and he saw Edward Hopper’s family home where Edward Hopper grew up and how it had been restored and taken care of. That kind of gave a little idea in the back of his mind. And at some other point we had visited the Florence Griswold Museum, which was the home of a woman who had a boarding house basically for artists from New York, so people like Twachtman and all the different impressionists would come over there and spend weekends and paint - a whole colony of them would come over there on the weekend and spend time on the property (it sits on the river). And after she passed away in, I don’t know, 1946 or sometime around there, the town of Old Lyme took that over and made it into a little museum. And they’ve just recently, in the last 10 years or so built a real museum there for the art work of those people. But the artists had all painted on panels that surround the dining room and things, so it’s just such an interesting history. When you go and you see where an artist has lived or where an artist has spent a lot of time, when you see the landscape that inspired their work, it helps you understand. When you see a John Twachtman, for instance, you really get the feel for what he was seeing all in that area and why he painted the way he did. And so I think that was one of the things that was in our mind.
We also are children of Utah, we grew up in Utah, we’re used to the culture, the type of things here that Utah has to offer. So we felt kind of like we were coming home, in a way. So that was also part of the thing, but we weren’t sure exactly what we were going to do with it. We didn’t have some grand plan, we just felt that it needed to be saved, because we didn’t want someone coming in who didn’t have an appreciation for what we think is one of the greatest American artists that painted the southwestern landscape like no one else and we felt like if somebody else came in that didn’t appreciate that, they may just really alter the house or tear it down and build something new. So we just kind of wanted to save it.
Milford was happy. We made a deal with him that he got what he needed out of it; he needed to buy a house in Claremont and he needed a couple of other things and so, we were both happy with the deal that we made and we were able to come in and do what we did. And then one
thing after another, it just - as we got into it, we kind of had a reverence for the place and we realized that we were sort of just caretakers, even though we were putting all of our money into it! (laughs). We were still just the caretakers of this property, but it’s the history and the romance of the artists that have visited this area and people that knew the Dixons that came to stay there and their life there and Milford Zornes’s life there. It became evident to us that this was a little oasis and a sort of a mecca in this region that would be really interesting to a lot of artists because of the natural beauty here - the same kind of thing that spurred Maynard Dixon to come here. And so one thing after another, it just kind of evolved. And that’s kind of what happened.
Over a couple year period, we had a pretty clear plan as to what we would do and we started doing the tours shortly after that, and having artist retreats. Then we hired a Director out of Salt Lake that started to do a lot of other programs and we initiated Maynard Dixon Country and invited artists to come and paint and show their work and have a show every year. And so, it’s been a great, wonderful life and we’ve met wonderful people.