wild women of the west

While attending college in Pennsylvania, Mary Lawser was part of a group comprised of several accomplished female artists.  They were known as the Philadelphia Ten.

Among the members was a talented painter and sculptor named Mary Louise Lawser.  Like Mary Colter, Mary Lawser was hired by a major rail line company to help promote westward travel.

Born in 1906 in Pennsylvania, she exhibited at a young age.  She attended the Pennsylvania Museum School, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.  Mary’s work was exhibited in galleries in Europe and New York.  She was recognized by her peers as a gifted, bronze work artist.  After graduation she took a position as an art instructor at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and at Bryn Mawr.

In early 1940, she was hired to work for notable architect Paul Cret.  The French-born, Philadelphia architect and industrial designer was impressed with Mary’s design and execution of bronze tablets found inside Alexander Hamilton’s home, The Grange.  Commissioned by the American and Historic Preservation Society, the tablets were made to honor Alexander Hamilton, first secretary of the United States treasury.  In addition to designing buildings on the University of Texas campus and the Pan American Union Building in Washington, D.C., Paul Cret designed railroad cars for the Burlington and Santa Fe rail lines.  While Mary was employed by Cret, she contributed to decorating various railroad passenger cars with sculptures, wood carving, and mixed metal creations. 

When Cret passed away in 1945, Mary was hired by another respected Pennsylvania architect, John Harbeson, to aid him in creating a new look for Burlington’s Pioneer Zephyr.  Although in the employ of Harbeson, Mary was singled out by the Budd Company, a railroad industry manufacturer, to design murals for the interior of the passenger cars that would inspire ticket-buyers to go west.

In 1948, Mary began work on a mural for the California Zephyr’s Silver Lariat.  The train was built as a dome coach, a series of cars that have glass domes on the top where passengers can ride and see in all directions around the train.  Mary painted a mural of the Pony Express in the large dining and lounge car.

Over the course of her five-year business relationship with the Budd Company, she created murals for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, the Denver and Rio Grande Western, and the Western Pacific Railroad.  Mary’s murals generally adorned the end walls of the dome coaches and they always depicted Western historical themes.  She also sculpted the appliques of apples and grapes which hung at each end of the dining cars as well as the lyre-based radio speakers.

Mary Lawser died in 1985 at the age of seventy-nine.