Inside the Utopian Artist Commune that Has Inspired Arizona Creatives for 50 Years
Established as a creative utopia more than 50 years ago, Rancho Linda Vista continues to inspire.
By Rebecca L. Rhoades | Photography by Dave Pisani
Just minutes from the historic mining town of Oracle, about a half-hour north of Tucson, a long dirt road dips down into an open gully surrounded by thick clusters of mesquite trees and manzanitas. Red roofs emerge above the prickly shrub; the aging white adobe homes spread out over the rugged dusty terrain like children’s toys scattered forlornly among the landscape. It was here in the shadows of the northern foothills of the Catalina Mountains, more than half a century ago, that a group of artists came together and purchased a dilapidated grange known as Rancho Linda Vista. Their shared dream was to build a society where art could flourish and the creative-minded could live freely and uninhibited.
Home on the Range
Rancho Linda Vista was founded in 1910 by George Nelson on land that was once a 19th-century homestead and stagecoach stop. Nelson raised cattle on the property and, in 1924, turned it into a guest ranch after movie director Sam Wood chose the site as the location for his 1924 silent Western melodrama, “The Mine with the Iron Door,” and many of the film’s stars and crew wanted to return, including actress Dorothy McKail, for whom Nelson built the first guest cottage so she didn’t have to sleep in a tent.
In the 1920s and ’30s, dude ranches were popular holiday destinations, and southern Arizona had more than a dozen such resorts. A 1936 article in the Arizona Daily Star described Rancho Linda Vista as “a typical cattle ranch, which runs large herds of cattle and horses in the foothill live oak belt near the small mountain community of Oracle, north of Tucson. Accommodations are of the best, with every modern convenience for about 10 persons.”
Local newspapers also reported the comings and goings of the veritable top brass of high society, who traveled from all corners of the country to spend their winters living out their cowboy fantasies among the cacti and brittlebush. Even Hollywood legends Rita Hayworth and Gary Cooper are reported to have spent time at the ranch during its heyday. But by the late 1950s, easy access to commercial airliners dramatically altered where and how Americans vacationed.
“Suddenly, people who took their kids on the train from Chicago to a guest ranch to ride horses could go to Bermuda or Paris for the same price,” notes printmaker Andy Rush, who has been a part of the colony since 1970. “So Rancho Linda Vista, as it was known, disappeared in a period of about 10 years.”
The property languished in scorpion-infested disuse until 1968, when a University of Arizona art professor, Charles Littler, found it listed in a classified ad under “business opportunities.” Littler persuaded a group of friends, including fellow professor Bruce McGrew and his wife, Joy Fox, to purchase the 80-acre, 23-building ranch for $67,500. Ten families—most in their 20s and 30s—put up $1,000 apiece for a down payment and a chance to embrace “a place that was conducive to the arts,” as McGrew described it.
“It was a commune,” notes Arizona State University art professor Turner Davis, referencing the group living spaces that sprang from the era’s counterculture movement. The son of renowned painter James G. Davis and his wife, art teacher Mary Anne, Davis was born and raised on the ranch. He tells tales of playing all day in the rocky foothills until nightfall, when his mom would use a bullhorn to call him home for dinner, and sleeping outdoors on a former tennis court that Nelson had built in 1929. “You could walk from the ranch to Mount Lemmon without seeing another house,” he recalls.
According to Rush, the early settlers were more idealists than rebellious dreamers. “At the time, there was a whole consciousness revolution happening in this country. We, as a community, were deeply influenced by it, but I would say that we were fake hippies because we were all educated. We all had advanced degrees,” he explains.
The ranch was, and remains, set up like a corporation, with members having shares of the property. Residents do not hold mortgages; instead, homes are communally owned and bills are paid in common. “We have to work together,” notes sculptor Imo Baird, who is married to Littler’s daughter, Selina, and has lived on the ranch since 1995. “We have a cooperative agreement that dictates how certain things are handled, such as common ground maintenance and payment of property taxes. We all must agree on how money is spent.”
When one family leaves, the community determines who can live in the vacated house. Homes range from tiny two-room cottages to the U-shaped family-style dwelling with multiple bedrooms that Mary Anne lives in. A small tile plaque on the exterior reads “Office House,” denoting its former life as the business center of Nelson’s ranch. “This is literally where all of the financials were handled,” Davis explains. Like every structure on the property, it is painted in a red-and-white color scheme, and the interiors are covered floor to ceiling with brightly hued pieces from artists who lived and worked on the ranch.
Space to Create
The heart of the community is the tin-roofed Wilson Barn Art Center, a 1950s horse barn that now houses artist studios. Here, Judith Stewart sculpts thought-provoking female figures out of clay and bronze. A native of Florida, Stewart came to the ranch 29 years ago as a guest artist. “I found my home,” she says. “I wanted a new start, and I thought this place was wonderful. It’s all I need in life.”
A few doors down, ceramist Fox McGrew’s airy workspace once served as the ranch shop. “I’ve had this studio since the beginning,” she notes. “The cowboys would take care of all their maintenance here. There’s even an old anvil and vise that I still use all the time.” Her slow-fired clay sculptures are abstract, constructed from multiple pieces of ceramics, wood and metal scraps.
The rooms are as varied as the artists themselves. Baird’s space is chock-full of scrap metal, buckets of small parts and an assortment of fantastical creatures that he creates out of found objects. Nearby, contemporary painter Matthias Düwel creates in a spartan setting, with just a few canvases on the wall and some brushes on a wood table.
Pre-COVID times, the barn was the site of monthly exhibitions in the spacious gallery, concerts, poetry readings and public events. Art camps and classes for local school children are offered throughout the year.
The Next Generation
Today, the ranch is home to about 14 families. Some residents, such as Rush, Mary Anne Davis, Fox McGrew and Chuck Sternberg, have been a part of the community since its earliest days. And as folks age, pass away or move on, a new generation is stepping up to take their place.
“Younger artists are finding us, and they are so amazed that we’re here,” Rush says. “They realize that we were once those young kids who were looking for something that would change our lives—just like they are now.”
Some, such as musician and audio engineer Austin Owen, came to the ranch seeking a simpler lifestyle that would allow them to concentrate on their artistic endeavors.
Owen and his partner, Tina Bolt, a textile and stained glass artist, moved to Rancho Linda Vista in 2017 after returning to the U.S. following a stint in the Peace Corps in South America. “We both had adjusted to a slower pace of life, and we were wondering if we would be able to live somewhere with a similar vibe in the U.S. It was really cool to find a place like this where the community subsidizes the creation of arts,” comments Owen, who runs an analog studio that is set up in the lodge house, a two-story craftsman-style abode that once served as the property’s sole kitchen, dining area and main social hub. Paintings and sculptures by McGrew, Littler, James Davis and many more fill the rooms. “I’m very fortunate to have the ranch’s art collection in my working space. It’s amazing to see how the visual arts cross-inspire the audio arts.”
Others, like Shelley McGrew and Maggie Rush, Andy’s daughter, grew up on the ranch and have returned to raise their children. McGrew was 4 years old when her parents, Bruce and Fox, founded the community. As an adult, she moved to New York City to pursue a dance career, but the desert kept calling her back. “There’s a type of magic in this place,” she says. “When I lived in New York, I would fly over the property in my dreams. It was like I was a hawk and I could see all of it—the desert, the old dude ranch houses. I couldn’t imagine raising my kids while isolated in a box in the city. I want my son to be able to run and play in the dirt and have the same freedoms that I did.”
Even Davis talks of returning. “There have been other communes that were bigger and better known, but there’s something about the chemistry here. I’ll probably end up moving back at some point, when I’m finished with my teaching career.”
In 1999, Rancho Linda Vista was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district, ensuring its future preservation. Unlike many experimental colonies that popped up during the ’60s and ’70s, it continues to thrive.
“One of the biggest things for my parents was having a place where they had social support for doing their art,” says Shelley McGrew. “But it wasn’t just about having a space. It was a creative exchange. You can exist here and live here and know that creativity is a huge part of why you’re here.”
For more information, see Sources.
of Art History
Numerous newspaper and magazine articles have been written about Rancho Linda Vista, but it was only recently that the story has been told in full. “Bend in the Wash: The Rancho Linda Vista Artist Community” (Tubecat LLC) by Tucson-based author Paul Gold examines 50 years of the ranch. “It’s an unvarnished look at people’s lives and the things that happen in them,” Gold says.
Culled from 15 years of research and personal interviews, this book profiles the founders and artists who lived on the ranch during its early years. It also covers the property’s history, from its days as a working cattle ranch, to the time when an Andy Warhol film shot on the property ended with an FBI raid, to its current residents.
A former student of ranch founder Bruce McGrew, Gold was inspired to write his tome following the artist’s death. Originally, the book was intended to be a monograph of McGrew’s work, “but there is so much about the place,” Gold notes. “It was one of hundreds of experimental communities that sprung up in the 1960s. Most were based on sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, but this one survived. And it did so because it’s based on art.”