Randall Davey: Explore an Artist's Legacy | SantaFe.com
Exterior of Randall Davey Audubon Center and Sanctuary.

Santa Fe painter Randall Davey (1887 – 1964) eschewed the larger art world, knowing that he could have had more success in bigger markets out East and elsewhere.

But he preferred to live in the place that invigorated him and paint for himself and get along with his teaching, an occasional portrait commission, and the little amount that came from raising chickens.

Davey experimented in several mediums, from oil, encaustic, and pastel, to charcoal, ink, and watercolor. Although has never accrued the status enjoyed by many of his contemporaries in the hall of American 20th-century art, he flourished in his community, and he was completely in accord with the artists of his time who called themselves modernists.

A Sliver of Santa Fe’s Cultural Heritage

The curious life and history of this passionate, prolific artist can be observed by visiting his home and studio on Upper Canyon Road in Santa Fe, preserved at the Randall Davey Audubon Center and Sanctuary, where the complete experience may be appreciated in many forms.

“A lot of people from town come to sit in a nice, quiet space,” said Carl Beal, center director at the Randall Davey Audubon Center and Sanctuary. “It’s as much a sanctuary for wildlife as it is for people. Being just three miles from the plaza is convenient for a lot of folks in town.”

At 7,500 feet elevation, the property sits roughly 500 feet higher than the center of the Santa Fe city plaza, ensconced in quietude. Dozens of wild turkeys often roam the grounds of the Davey property, and the

This downy woodpecker is an example of birds that can be seen at the Randall Davey Audubon Center and Sanctuary in Santa Fe.
Downy woodpecker at the Randall Davey Audubon Center and Sanctuary in Santa Fe. Photo by Tom Taylor.

acreage has developed into a popular destination for birders and bird walks. Offering a typical pinyon-juniper woodland habitat, its common flora and fauna include native apache plume, currants, chamisa, yucca, cholla, and three-leaf sumac.

Some of the birds most commonly sighted on the grounds include spotted towhees, scrub jays, Steller’s jays, canyon towhees, robins, northern flickers, mountain and black-capped chickadees, house finches, woodpeckers, grosbeaks, and cedar waxwings. In the winter, dark-eyed juncos are frequent, while summer sees regular visits from various hummingbird species.

Indeed, there is always a multitude of surprises transpiring during the migration seasons. When a feisty squall shakes the atmosphere, birds get bumped from their intended route, sparking something interesting at the Davey center to get the birding community keyed up.

Another curious feature of the property’s history is that Davey’s house once served as the first sawmill in New Mexico, and it was there that the timbers were cut to support the U.S. Army’s construction of Fort Marcy in the late 1840s. The property eventually became a grist mill, and it changed ownership a couple of times before the Martinez family endowed it with modern agriculture, harvesting a variety of crops, as well as planting extensive orchards of apples, pears, and apricots. This shaping of the landscape can be seen to this day.

Independent, Spirited Artist

Mr. Davey is that rare being, a man who loves life in just about all its phases, in all its various and conflicting passages — even in its teeming idiocies — just so long as it continues to leap and glow and throb as he does himself every day, day after day. — Robert Bright

Born May 24, 1887, in East Orange, New Jersey, Randall Davey studied architecture at Cornell University for three years, before receiving an “honorable dismissal” in 1908 and then briefly enrolling at the Art Students League in New York City.

In 1909, he began studying art with Robert Henri at the New York School of Art. Henri was a profound teacher and one of the principal members of the Ashcan School, an artistic movement that painted commonplace city scenes and objects. The following year, Davey traveled with Henri in Holland and Spain and participated in the “Independent Artists” group exhibition in April.

In 1913, Davey exhibited one painting in the International Exhibition of Modern Art, organized by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors. He spent several months in 1917 painting in Havana, Cuba, to avoid the U.S. draft. Two years later, a motor trip from New York to Santa Fe with Florence, John, and Dolly Sloan would forever change his life. Within one year, Davey purchased 135 acres of property in Santa Fe for $3,000 and began converting an 1847 Army-built sawmill into his home and studio, and moved permanently to the New Mexico capital.

Painting supplies at Randall Davey's studio.
Painting supplies at Randall Davey’s studio. Photo by Judy Kohn.

Randall Davey’s Santa Fe Years

Davey organized the Santa Fe Art Club and then became an associate member of the Taos Society of Artists, issuing his only portfolio of etchings.

Professionally, he completed a mural for the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell, a government commission (now in the New Mexico State Capitol) and painted murals for the Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun in Colorado Springs and later was commissioned by the U.S. Treasury to paint a mural for the post office in Claremore, Oklahoma, honoring Rogers.

Soon Davey became known for his pulsating racetrack scenes and vital and effervescent portraits of female nudes. Perhaps his most famous nude, titled Nude with Geranium, a large depiction of his wife, Isabel, is the focal point of the upstairs family parlor.

In painting racing pictures Davey said that his interest was in the “nervous excitement and intensity of the occasion” and “through the balance of static and moving shapes to develop sensations of suspense, anxiety, and moods,” he said he experienced at the racetrack. He was intensely interested in thoroughbred horses and their use in composition, specifically “their sensitive and vigorous movements, their jockeys, the crowd,” all of which helped him in arriving at some color, shape, and appearance outcome.

In 1932, Randall married Isabel Holt (1893 – 1963), who had been a student of his at the Broadmoor Art Academy, in Colorado Springs.

In the mid-1940s, Davey taught painting at the University of New Mexico and was once a member of the board of directors of the Santa Fe Opera, designing posters and covers for the 1961 and 1962 seasons. His passion for painting, hosting parties, taking motor trips, and attending horse races never diminished.

Davey died on November 7, 1964, from injuries sustained in an automobile crash, near Baker, California. He was 77.

“Apparently, Randall was at a party in town, and he got a wild hair,” said Carl. “His wife had died the year before. He was having an affair with a married woman in Santa Barbara. He took his four-door Jaguar and fell asleep at the wheel.”

Photo of Randall Davey in his Santa Fe studio, circa 1925.
Photo of Randall Davey in his Santa Fe studio, circa 1925.

Preserving Randall Davey’s Legacy

Randall’s only child, William Davey, and Kate Cullum, sister of Isabel Davey, inherited the property. Kate purchased William’s portion and later remodeled the stable to serve as an art gallery for marketing the deceased artist’s work. After Kate died in 1981, the estate was left to the Randall Davey Committee, and, two years later, the committee donated the property to the National Audubon Society.

“There was an auction of Davey’s work in 1985 to spark some interest in his legacy,” said Carl. “Kate Cullum, who had moved in after he passed away, was keen on protecting the property and keeping his legacy alive. There was a committee of local folks looking for someone to take on the property and keep the house open. That committee evolved into the Randall Davey Foundation and in the early 1980s, one of the board members reached out to the National Audubon Society, and the rest is history.”

In 2020, on the hundredth anniversary of Randall Davey’s purchase of the property, a new pavilion and Nature Discovery Area were dedicated at the 135-acre Randall Davey Audubon Center and Sanctuary.

Possibly what’s most appealing about the state of the artist’s house and studio is that they’ve not undergone an overabundance of restoration, now virtually in the same form and order as it was when the Daveys lived in it.

“His great-niece visited here about five years ago. She had visited him in the ‘50s and ‘60s and was blown away by how similar it was to when she was here as a kid,” said Carl. “It has that patina of age and that feel of how they (Randall and his wife) lived. It’s appropriately dusty. Because it has paintings and original furnishings, it still feels lived in, and very livable, and it’s very warm in that sense. The lovely, natural setting makes it even more special.”


Kids' Discovery Area at the Randall Davey Audubon Center and Sanctuary. Photo by James Wood.by
Kids’ Discovery Area at the Randall Davey Audubon Center and Sanctuary. Photo by James Wood.

Visiting the Randall Davey Audubon Center and Sanctuary Today

The Randall Davey Audubon Center and Sanctuary is open to enjoy the hiking trails and gardens Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. At 2 p.m. each Friday, tours are available by reservation to visit the Randall Davey House and Studio for $5 per person. Then, each Saturday morning at 8:30 a.m., free bird tours led by local birding experts are offered. There is also a nature store onsite, open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m.

The gardens are wheelchair accessible, but the larger trail system currently is not. As this is a nature sanctuary, dogs are not allowed. The kids will enjoy the recently developed play area just for them!

Learn more about birding at the Randall Davey Audubon Center here.


Story by Brian D’Ambrosio • Photos courtesy Randall Davey Audubon Center and Sanctuary

This article was posted by Cheryl Fallstead

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