Iconic Cattle Track compound nurtures Scottsdale’s artistic heritage
From its early beginnings, Cattle Track was built around a single ideal: to roam free.
A pack of dogs. Kids on horseback. Rambling structures. The desert patch of land. Artists’ imaginations. Whether thread through a needle, painted on canvas, shaped at the lathe, or sung from the stage, everything at Cattle Track was free to roam.
Eighty years later, the Cattle Track Arts Compound is still guided by that philosophy. Homesteaded by pioneers George and Rachael Ellis, the compound is overseen by daughter Janie Ellis and is home to 35 working creatives devoted as much to their craft as they are to the place.
“It’s a very eclectic bunch, age and discipline wise. Photographers, sculptors, architects, a blacksmith,” Janie Ellis says. “But they all help each other and encourage each other. They all understand what we’re doing here.”
Rustic Cattle Track sits outside the pedigreed Old Town Scottsdale gallery district. The compound is both a destination with world-class offerings and a quiet refuge from the world. Janie, a former dancer who forged a career in the theater, is the driving force. She is also a board member of the nonprofit Cattle Track Arts and Preservation, which promotes Scottsdale’s cultural heritage.
Janie lives on site in the low-slung house her engineer father built and home her mother created for the three Ellis children. She is the keeper of history and the storyteller.
The story of Cattle Track begins in the 1930s with a pack of greyhounds. George and Rachael had been living in the city, along with Rachael’s beloved greyhound and a litter of busy puppies. City life didn’t suit the pack and the couple gamely took a chance on 10 desolate acres located on the “wrong” side of the Arizona canal.
Cattle Track began with a simple one-room home that George built from reclaimed redwood irrigation pipes. The compound evolved as the family—and their many pursuits—grew, making way for everything from an adobe brick operation, to costume shop, to sprawling farm.
As the city grew up around it, Cattle Track defied the odds. It is still spread out over 10 acres and stands as a historic icon, with the family home listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the larger compound designated as one of the city’s historic treasures.
Through the decades, Cattle Track remained devoted to nurturing arts and culture in the city. It boasts a roster of working and well-known artists, past and present. Among the most prominent are painter Philip Curtis, considered the dean of art in Arizona who lived on site, and Fritz Scholder, a revolutionary painter who turned the concept of “Indian artist” on its head.
Despite its sleepy desert-hideaway feel, Cattle Track has a full slate of exhibitions and concerts during the year, and cadre of artists like Mark McDowell at work daily in their studios.
McDowell started hanging around the compound in the 1970s and never really left, eventually setting up a home there, raising his two kids and building a career. Cattle Track, he says, has an “honest patina” earned not from a group of artists prone to pontification, but to hard work. That goes for undertakings big and small.
In the big category, it’s a high-profile collaboration with the new luxury Andaz Scottsdale Resort and Spa, which features works from Cattle Track artists throughout the property. The small projects—tackling an issue on the property or solving a problem for someone in need—bring the artists together just the same.
“Everyone who crosses Cattle Track is of generous spirit, willing to give of themselves,” McDowell says.
To support the mission of its nonprofit, Cattle Track has plenty of projects on the drawing board. Standing at her kitchen table in the old family home, Janie shows off a book in the works about Don Barclay, an actor and prolific caricaturist who lived on site. She is eager to share his story and art.
“Isn’t this great?” she says, flipping through pages. “With each project, we try to preserve a little bit of history related to Cattle Track and Scottsdale.”
Story by Susie Steckner
Photography by Mark Lipczynski