Against the wrought-iron terrace railing, overlooking the cobblestone courtyard—abuzz with merry chatter and the bubbling waters from a Spanish fountain—one might feel like a Shakespearean Juliet. Where for art thou, Romeo? Emerald green vines line domed apertures surrounding this fantasy-like arena. Narrow stairways, fashioned of stone and brick, lead the way to magical destinations like the one I have found here. Away from the bustling crowd below, I turned from the Elizabethan daydream and into another poignant era of history. I stepped into the time when cattle and buffalo roamed free the plains, and herders and tribespeople made their way across the Southwest territories. Within this welcoming space, visitors walk among Native American hoop dancers, hunters and water bearers, stroke mighty buffalo and gaze into the eyes of majestic eagles—all timelessly captured in sculpted bronze. Alongside wild mustangs, viewers race or, better still, stop to smell the sweet fragrances of flora—all perfectly preserved upon pristine canvases. Welcome to Mountain Trails Gallery, an Arizona icon located in Sedona’s historic Tlaquepaque Arts & Shopping Village.
“For Sedona in general, we are one of the last true representational galleries in this town,” Julie Williams, owner of Mountain Trails Gallery, conveyed. She explained that Arizona, primarily, has seen a shift away from the classic cowboy-art for which it was initially known. Julie is dedicated to preserving that traditional, iconic western beauty and to maintaining the integrity of the gallery itself. Behind an appropriate set of classic saloon doors—on an appropriately dry, Southwestern afternoon—Julie shared her story. A year after they married, Julie and her husband Christopher relocated to Sedona from New York. It was late fall, 1992. Julie, not ready to leave the city, made Christopher promise their return to New York after two years. Making the most of her new situation, albeit temporary, she took a position at a hotel next to Tlaquepaque. Back east, Julie worked in advertising, but there were no leading design companies in Sedona. The hotel position would work for work, for now. After all, it would only be for two years.
That was 27 years ago; Sedona is her home. Julie, having raised her two daughters here said of the gallery, with sincerity and love, “This is my third child.” She found her niche among the artists, collectors, and other gallery owners who contribute to the renowned arts destination Sedona is today. “I’m not going to leave this,” Julie expressed emphatically. “I’m really proud of it. I love when people walk in here and say, ‘This is the most beautiful gallery.’ That makes me feel great.”
Julie did not give birth to the gallery. She adopted it. In early 1993, the [then] gallery director worked-out in the hotel gym where Julie worked. She took notice of how effortlessly Julie interacted with hotel guests and offered Julie a job. “I said, ‘Wow, I’m flattered, but I don’t have any art background. I’m not an artist. I took two semesters of art history in college, but I’m a business major.’” Julie laughed as she recalled her reaction and response. But that didn’t matter. The gallery didn’t need someone who knew the fine details of fine art. They wanted someone who could engage people with ease, someone who was positive and friendly, someone who was a quick learner. The moment that I met Julie Williams, I knew that these were, most assuredly, some of the exceptional qualities she embodies. Considering the offer, Julie decided to join the gallery’s close-knit team and embraced the new challenge.
“It was really the perfect combination for me. I was a business major with a minor in history. Every day I was basically a history teacher,” Julie explained. At the time of Julie’s introduction to the fine-art scene, renowned Western artist Ken Payne owned the gallery. Julie described the classic scene of a sculptor, working in the gallery, telling stories about the pieces created at that time. Ken, with his relaxed demeanor and extensive knowledge of the west, regaled his gallery’s visitors. Eventually, it would be Julie’s job to step, to continue those conversations, to answer questions, and guide clients through the personal journey of selecting a perfectly befitting piece. “This gallery,” Julie confided, “educated me in everything I know about art in this industry.”
Over the next several years, Julie’s education continued. She learned to communicate the history behind every work of art and understand the needs and interests of each client. And, she discovered, accurately, how to manage nearly every aspect of the business. “And now, over 25 years later, I have a pretty good arsenal of information, and I’ve been through a lot.” The economic crash met Sedona. It was 2008; Julie had been with the gallery 15 years. “When the economy turned, I was doing everything. I was packaging. I was cleaning. I was catering. I was doing everything you have to do.” Julie took off work a few years to be home with her daughters. However, she maintained her relationship with the gallery and eventually came back, as Gallery Director. Then, in 2016—after almost 25 years with Mountain Trails—Julie was offered the opportunity to become the owner.
“At first I was like a deer in the headlights,” Julie exclaimed animatedly. “Then I realized that I already ran it like I owned it.” The gallery had become Julie’s second family. It was her education, an introduction to a world that embraced her, just as she embraced it. Julie, as she did when first hired, met the challenge and never looked back. The Mountain Trails’ legacy is one that Julie hopes to keep alive and see it thrive as she guides it into the future.
“Our style of work is the Grand Canyon. It’s traditional beauty,” Julie relayed with reverence. “Not one thing in here doesn’t have longevity. When you look at it today and say it is beautiful, you will look at it in ten, twenty or thirty years and it will still be beautiful in your mind. I love that. That is how I want to collect artwork.” Even as contemporary art becomes more seemingly prominent, one can still feel the heartbeat of original western artists through their artistic mastery. Across valley walls and desert plains surrounding this unique community, one can hear the vibration of that heartbeat. Listen. The winds whisper tribal songs of hoop dancers. Thunders echo stampeding Mustangs. Lightening screams the majestic eagle’s cry and Mountain Trails Gallery stands—an iconic tribute to that heartbeat, and to the western traditions that are rooted in this community.
It’s quite the treat for visitors to experience and witness first-hand the artist breathing the uniqueness of the life before him into the sculpture at his fingertips.
“I’m not going to leave this. I’m really proud of it. I love when people walk in here and say, ‘This is the most beautiful gallery.’ That makes me feel great.” - Julie says”
Story written by Sara Knight Photos provided by Mountain Trails Gallery Portrait by Stephen Henderson