David Yellowhorse walked into Mother Nature’s Flower Shop in Glendale, Arizona. He wasn’t there to purchase flowers but rather to visit the woman who ran a small jewelry shop in the 10-foot wide gazebo in the back. The woman he was there to see was Peggy Lanning. A newcomer, not only to the industry but to the workforce, Peggy was fortunate to have had the opportunity to be a stay-at-home mom. The wife of an Air Force fighter pilot and mother of three, Peggy’s youngest—four-year old Kimber—had just started preschool, and Peggy wanted something to do. Her dear friend and shop owner offered Peggy the gazebo space where she, and sometimes young Kimber, could sell jewelry. Yellowhorse, a brilliant Navajo jeweler, was there to sell his hand-crafted work. He showed Mrs. Lanning his creations and she agreed to purchase three of his pieces. “Who do I make out this check to?” Mrs. Lanning asked the man. “David Yellowhorse,” he replied. Peggy laughed with an air of naivety and surprise. “No, really,” she chuckled, “What’s your name?” “David Yellowhorse,” the man stated. Peggy wrote the check, and so it began. The year was 1971.
It is not easy for a Bilagáana, or white person, to make their way into the heart of the Navajo, or any of the other original American tribespeople. So, how was it to be that this young woman, nearly 50 years ago, would come to be one of the greatest Southwest connections between Native American artists and art collectors? Trust. Trust and respect. She gave them her trust and they came to respect her greatly. Enter 2017. After five decades in the art gallery business, representing a myriad of artists—Native American, American, European, Asian, jewelers and painters, bronze and wood sculptors and ceramicists—Peggy Lanning left the industry and retired at 82 years young. However, retirement does not always mean that one is out of the game for good. Prior to her departure from the two galleries that she had birthed and raised into becoming their own thriving beings, the Booth Western Art Museum approached Ms. Lanning.
The Booth, in association with the Smithsonian Institution, is a 120,000 square foot art museum in Cartersville, Georgia. Visitors See America’s Story through contemporary Western artwork, Civil War and Presidential galleries, and an interactive children’s gallery— Sagebrush Ranch. The Booth Western Art Museum opened in 2003 and is the only museum of its kind in the Southeast. It was named the 2016 Escape to the Southeast Travel Attraction of the Year from the Southeast Tourism Society. Executive Director Seth Hopkins had, over the years, built relationships with gallery owners who specialized in Western and Native American art. It was through these relations that Seth came to know Peggy. When he approached her with the idea for an exhibition, the Booth Museum was hoping to host, Peggy had a brilliant solution—to gather a group of the most renowned Navajo master artists to exhibit. It has taken nearly two years of diligence, planning, and organizing for all involved in this incredible project. Much help has come from Peggy’s daughter Kimber, no longer a little girl in a jewelry shop gazebo but an entrepreneur, business leader, and community development specialist who works to strengthen the Arizona economy. The Lanning women, Peggy and Kimber, formed a partnership with the Arizona Office of Tourism, Visit Phoenix, and the Sedona Chamber of Commerce. This alliance rallied their support around Peggy and afforded her the resources necessary to create a full color catalog for the exhibition and secure the shipping, crating, and insurance expenses for all the artwork coming from the Southwest region to the museum in Cartersville.
The Six Navajo Masters exhibit will open in the Temporary Exhibition Gallery on May 16, 2019, and run through August 4, 2019. While the museum has exhibited Native American and Navajo artists throughout its tenure, it is the first time ever that the Booth will be hosting an exhibition for a group of elite Navajo masters. As liaison between the artists and the museum, Peggy Lanning will have the distinguished honor of being The Booth Museum’s guest curator for the duration of the exhibition.
“We couldn’t have done it without her,” raved Lisa Wheeler, Director of Curatorial Services for the museum. In response to my asking, Lisa provided great detail of her position at the museum. “So, you are the curator and Ms. Lanning is your assistant,” I stated, confirming my notes. Lisa laughed jovially. “In my opinion, she is the curator of this exhibit and it’s my job to put it together.” Having built close-knit relationships with four of the six artists featured, this should be a fun-filled and exciting walk in the park for Peggy Lanning.
David Johns and Peggy have been colleagues and friends the longest. Coming to know one another in the early 1970s, the two have forged a beautiful bond over the last 40 years. Both Larry Yazzi and Tony Abeyta have been working with Peggy for just over 30 years now and it was through the representation of Tony Abeyta that Peggy came to make the connection with Bahe Whitethorne, Sr. It was a one-man show for Tony Abeyta at the Museum of Northern Arizona in 2017. While standing upon the podium, Tony said, “I would like to introduce you to Peggy Lanning who has represented me for 30 years; and I’ve been an artist at least 25.” Peggy laughs when recalling this moment as we discuss her relationships with each of these incredible artists. “I had known Bahe for many, many years but it was through the influence of Tony that I came to represent his work.” Lanning’s influence in the art world has resonated throughout the southwest and many on the Navajo Nation know her.
““Shonto Begay and Emmi Whitehorse are two phenomenal Navajo artists,” Peggy expressed in her soft, southern tone that five decades in Arizona has not diminished. “Though I’ve never had the pleasure to represent or feature their works.” She does now. ”
Story written by: Kimberly Shilkaitis Photos provided by: The Booth Western Art Museum