Up The Road: The Grace Hudson Museum and Sun House

Sep 8, 2016

Now that school’s started again and autumn is on the way, we’ll visit more indoor destinations—starting with some unique north state museums. Today we head up the road to Mendocino County and Ukiah—easy to remember: haiku spelled backwards—and that little city’s amazing Grace Hudson Museum and Sun House, located in a four-acre park on South Main Street.

Sweethearts, 1903 painted Grace Carpenter Hudson.
Credit florador / Flickr, Creative Commons

As the museum puts it: “The Grace Hudson Museum and Sun House in Ukiah, California, is an art, history, and anthropology museum focusing on the lifeworks of artist Grace Carpenter Hudson (1865-1937) and her ethnologist husband, Dr. John W. Hudson (1857-1936). Changing interdisciplinary exhibitions and public programs highlight Western American art, California Indian cultures, histories of the diverse North Coast region of California, and the work of contemporary regional artists.” There are some 30,000 items in the museum’s collection, including stunning Pomo Indian basketry, only a small portion displayed at any one time.

But to fully appreciate art it helps to know something about the people who made it—in this case, who lived it. That story begins with Grace Carpenter, born in 1865 in pioneer-era Potter Valley near Ukiah, though she came from atypical California pioneers. Her parents were photographers, and quite well educated. Journalist, newspaper publisher, and active abolitionist Aurelius Ormando Carpenter fought alongside John Brown at the Battle of Black Jack in the bloody free-state struggle over the future of Kansas Territory. In California Carpenter’s landscape and panoramic photography documented Mendocino County’s frontier days. While recovering from his pre-Civil War wounds Carpenter met and married Quaker and fellow abolitionist Helen McCowen, a teacher who became a portrait photographer, writer, artist, musician, and civic whirlwind as well as mother of four children. She also deeply admired the artistry of local Pomo basket makers and began to collect their work, an appreciation she passed on to her daughter Grace.

Grace and John Hudson.
Credit Photo used courtesy of Grace Hudson Museum & Sun House
The Carpenter children lived and breathed the arts, and the freedom struggles of suffragists and abolitionists.
The Sun House at the Grace Hudson Museum in Ukiah, Calif.
Credit Photo used courtesy of Grace Hudson Museum & Sun House

The Carpenter children lived and breathed the arts, and the freedom struggles of suffragists and abolitionists—rarefied air in and around Ukiah in those days. At age 14 talented Grace Carpenter began formal art studies at the San Francisco School of Design, now the San Francisco Art Institute. An elopement with a man 15 years her senior ended art school—the marriage ended within a year—but Grace continued painting and illustration when she returned to Ukiah.

She became Grace Hudson—and remained notably unconventional—when in 1890 she married John Hudson, an M.D. from a prominent Nashville family who shared her passionate interest in Native American culture. Thus began his career as an amateur, then professional, ethnologist, and her considerable fame for intimate portraits of Pomo people she had known since she was a child.

Art at the Grace Hudson Museum in Ukiah, Calif.
Credit radiowood / Flickr, Creative Commons

Once you’ve toured the museum galleries—a new exhibit on the Pacific Flyway runs through November; the Person Gallery introduces notable members of the Carpenter-Hudson family—you’ll want to tour Sun House if at all possible. (There’s construction going on outside; call ahead.) It’s a 1911 Craftsman home built of local redwood, designed by architect John Wilcox in collaboration with Grace and John Hudson. They lived their entire married life here, she with her large art studio, he with his relatively small study, and modest shared living space.

This year the Grace Hudson Museum is turning 30—the big dinner-dance is Saturday, Sept. 10 —so this is a perfect time to visit and celebrate a small but surprising and extraordinary Northern California museum. For other local information, go to visitukiah.com.

Kim Weir is editor of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project dedicated to sustaining the Northern California story. A long-time member of the Society of American Travel Writers, Weir is also a former NSPR reporter.