Armer, Laura Adams (1874–1963)

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Armer, Laura Adams (1874–1963)

American artist and author whose works were influenced by Chinese culture and visits to a Navaho Indian reservation in the Southwest. Born in Sacramento, California, on January 12, 1874; died in 1963; youngest of three children; studied art at California School of Design in San Francisco, 1893; married Sidney Armer (an artist), in 1902; children: one son, Austin, 1903.

Selected writings:

(illustrated by the author and Sidney Armer) Waterless Mountain (1931); Dark Circle of Branches (1933); Cactus (1934); (illustrated by the author) Southwest (1935); (illustrated from photographs by the author) The Traders' Children (1937); (illustrated by the author) The Forest Pool (1938); Farthest West (1939); In Navajo Land (McKay, 1962).

Laura Adams Armer, who spent most of her later life living and working in the expansive, undeveloped environment of the Navajos in northern Arizona, grew up in cosmopolitan San Francisco. Her artistic interests were sparked early: "Chinese lacquer boxes held my mother's tea," she wrote. "Japanese paper parasols flaunting the life of the Far East vied with Mexican pottery to create a world of rich fantasy for a little girl of New England ancestry." Influenced by the illustrations of Howard Pyle that appeared in Harper's Young People, Armer studied under Arthur Mathews at the California School of Design. She credits Mathews with instilling in her a sense of individual expression with comments like, "Be yourself. Don't touch the system with a ten-foot pole." In 1902, Armer married fellow art student Sidney Armer, who later provided illustrations for many of her books.

Armer was age 50, having raised her son Austin, when she first visited the Navajo region that would eventually figure so prominently in her writings. Inspired by a Navajo song describing the journey of Dawn Boy, translated by Washington Matthews, the Armer family took off from Berkeley, California, in their Buick

touring car; they were accompanied by a friend who had lived among the Navajos and studied their language and customs. This first trip took them to the Grand Canyon and a chance meeting with some Navajos repairing a road. Enamored with the turquoise earrings worn by the Navajo women, Armer followed them back to their camp to acquire some for herself. Thus began "the turquoise trail which was to lead to the house of happiness among the cliffs."

In the spring of 1925, Armer set up a wilderness camp at the base of the cliffs of Blue Canyon. There, in the most beautiful spot in the Hopi mesas, she lived with only a young Navajo girl to cook and interpret, while she immersed herself in Indian culture, including the religious ritual of sandpainting. The results were a series of books and other projects, which were produced from 1931 to 1939. When asked if she was lonely after spending weeks by herself in the canyon, Armer remarked: "I have learned that one must win his own place in the spiritual world, painfully and alone. There is no other way of salvation."

Armer won the Newbery Medal in 1932 for Waterless Mountain, and the Caldecott Medal, in 1939, for The Forest Pool. Upon winning the Newbery, she confessed that, as an amateur in the field of literature, she had never heard of it and had never worked consciously for an award. "They made me happy," she said, "in verifying the unconscious approach to art, the unsophisticated passion which lies within us all." Laura Armer's last work, In Navajo Land, was published one year before her death in 1963.


Commire, Anne, ed. Something about the Author. Vol. 13. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Armer, Laura Adams (1874–1963)

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