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Earth Notes: Gene Field Foster, Artist of Glen Canyon

A painting in a gold frame of a woman working on a painting of herself
Courtesy of the Museum of Northern Arizona, painting donated by David L, David B, Harry B. and Chelsea Foster.
Self-portrait of Gene Field Foster

Gene Field Foster was born in Wisconsin in 1917 and attended art school in Chicago. But her destiny lay in the West, where she used her artistic skills to document the beauties of Glen Canyon.

Foster moved to Arizona in the 1940s and began to do river trips in Glen Canyon. She worried about pothunters stripping the canyon of archaeological objects before scientists could study its rich cultural heritage. Plus, there were rumors that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation wanted to build a dam there.

So Foster set out to document Glen Canyon’s treasures, funding river trips from her own pocket. It was the first attempt at a systematic survey of the area’s archaeology. She made hand-drawn maps and took color and black-and-white photographs of petroglyphs, pictographs, and stone dwellings.

Foster was never trained in archaeology, but she learned techniques from her partner Katharine Bartlett, an archaeologist at the Museum of Northern Arizona. The two women made a few river trips together in 1957, just as construction began on Glen Canyon Dam. But it was uncommon at the time for women to do field work, and Foster was denied the chance to further her research.

Her unpublished manuscript on Glen Canyon’s archaeology resides in the Museum of Northern Arizona’s collections along with hundreds of her photographs. Today, researchers use that priceless archive to study the cultural sites that are re-emerging from the water as drought shrinks the reservoir.

Though unrecognized in her own time, Foster’s legacy, and her love of Glen Canyon, live on.

This Earth Note was written by Melissa Sevigny and produced by KNAU and the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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