There’s a place in the Sonoran desert with theater costumes in the closets and wild bunnies in the front yard.
It is a place of history, beauty and genius.
Yet few visitors to Phoenix or Scottsdale see it.
There are artists at Cattle Track whose work fetches international collectors, but they don’t have a sign in front of their studios. They don’t have a website, and even tourism officials offer little information on the place.
Only those serious about art and history venture here. Wild quail stalk the property as if they own it. Hummingbirds skirt the mesquite trees.
From the road, it looks like a dusty collection of adobe-style buildings and modest, rural homes.
Cattle Track is that rarity in the modern world that hums with labor and love — a living, working artists’ compound.
It’s the kind of place where artists come to live apart from society, so they can spent a lifetime on one project.
That desert light can’t be replicated in an urban world.
This was pure desert when engineer George Ellis came homesteading here in the ’20s.
He was a pioneer in desert architecture — no A/C in that era meant designing buildings to minimize heat, and incorporating beauty with practical design. The original Ellis deed covered 1,500 acres; the land later was subdivided into so many ranches that Cattle Track today is only 16 acres.
Ellis pioneered the use of color with concrete, practising on adobe-style buildings that developed into an artists’ compound.
“From the 1920s on, if you had an artistic bent, you came here,” says printmaker Mark McDowell, who has lived here more than 30 years.
Working seven days a week, he uses antique letterpress and wood type to create singular pieces and books. McDowell calls his art “labor-intensive.” Each painting or print takes two to four years. He creates whimsical art and props in less time. A current project, involving individual palladium prints, requires 14-minute exposures of silver and glass photos from 1840-1860.
Frank Lloyd Wright, who developed his own compound later for architects a few miles away, built one of the dozen buildings at Cattle Track.
Cattle Track was once so isolated, artists in the early decades (pre-telecommunications) built bonfires to alert neighbors across the desert that their gallery was open for visitors, McDowell explains.
The matriarch of this place is Janie Ellis, daughter of George Ellis and costume designer Rachael Murdock. The private collection of Murdock’s costumes, hats, and other accessories is so large, yet so detailed, that it’s stored in houses, former barns and even shipping containers in the desert.
McDowell offers his favorite Murdock anecdote about this “cultured woman” leaving the big city to join her husband in the Sonoran.
‘I’m not going to go out there and live in a goddamn tent!’ Murdock said.
So Ellis built her a house from an old horse stable. His earliest water pipes were made of wood.
He salvaged metal and wood for structural supports, and built a mudbaked adobe home. Janie Ellis half-jokingly complains the desert climate is so harsh, she must still regularly paint the outside walls with milk so her house doesn’t crumble in the dust.
Ellis “had a history of salvaging materials,” she recalls. “This was long before ‘green’ and recycling. It was a necessity.”
Cattle Track continues that tradition today. Many outdoor sculptures were created from found material. McDowell moved an entire printing shop here so that he could work in privacy.
Ellis is opening some of her mother’s collection to the public. There’s a book, and a public exhibit honoring her work and Arizona’s 100th birthday as a state.
Ellis, the Balanchine ballet dancer for whom many of these costumes were designed, tenderly lifts a few from their protective sleeves, explaining the genesis of each. Her mother loaned them to area theater groups.
“They’re all show costumes,” she says, explaining the long process of cataloguing and describing each one. “You wouldn’t believe the sewing machines we had out here.”
Rachael Murdock made costumes from discarded curtains and whatever else she could find.
“We were a farm family,” Ellis says. “We weren’t wealthy. People knew we could make anything, so they gave us stuff from their mansions.”
Mother, daughter and son all created costumes from”dumpster diving” too, she laughs.
“We would take the pick-up truck and go up and down alleys in Scottsdale and pick up silk, ultra-suede, you name it.”
Murdock was a teacher, horse trainer, greyhound breeder, and pioneer of desert couture.
As a sign of her whimsy, she created tiny shoes that drew a cease-and-desist order in the ’70s from fashion giant Gucci. Not sure if it was the Goo Chee label they were protesting or the fine handiwork of teensy boots, made by a real craftswoman.