Stella Roca

A talented and dedicated artist, Stella Roca created a variety of paintings including desert, plains and mountain landscapes, still life, portraits and village genre scenes. Many of her paintings reflected special interest in Nebraska and Arizona, places she lived for most of her life. However, she also traveled widely, often making long automobile trips, especially throughout the American west: California, Oregon, Wyoming, New Mexico and Colorado. And as a young woman, she was in Mexico where she painted views of village life, monasteries and surrounding countryside. Oil was her primary medium, but she also used watercolor. Her style tended to be Naturalist, but like many artists of her era, she was influenced by Modernist movements especially Impressionism.

Her birth name was Stella McLennan, and she was born in 1878 in Nebraska City, as the daughter of William Kennett McLennan and his second wife, Margaret Frances (Brown) McLennan. Nebraska City was county seat of Otoe County, Nebraska, and was a gateway location from the Missouri River to the American West. Stella’s father was prominent as one of the town’s earliest attorneys, and as an entrepreneur who tried to capitalize in the 1850s on his hometown’s river location by bringing the first steam ferry boat up the River. Naming it the Nebraska No 2, he took it first to Omaha and then Nebraska City; but “after various tribulations this boat sank at Plattsmouth in 1858 or 1859.” (Andreas)

About Stella it was written that she “received her education locally at St. Joseph’s Academy” (Kovinick 261). It was a school in nearby Paul, Nebraska, a few miles west of Nebraska City, and was run by the Catholic Church as part of its dedication to provide schooling for young women. “According to family sources, after graduating, she was simply ‘a young woman at home,’ until entering the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.” (Kovinick 261) This enrollment began in 1903, when Stella was age 25, and ended five years later with her receiving a Certificate of Attainment.

Also ended was any suggestion she might continue as a ‘young woman at home.’ Shortly after finishing in Chicago, Stella received a job offer through the Art Institute to be an art teacher at a large hacienda near Durango, Mexico. She filled that position for two years, and ended with marriage commitment to Lautaro Roca, owner of a silver mine in the Sierra Madre, and Tucson-born son in 1874 of Hispanic parents, Miguel Gonzalez y Roca, of Concepcion Chile, and Josefina Mariana Haro y Samaniego from Bavispe, Sonora.

Stella and Lauturo were wed in 1911 in Nebraska City, and then returned to the mine in Mexico, but “revolution was underway, and all properties owned by U.S. citizens were being confiscated. Mid November 1911, Lauturo and Stella, eight months pregnant, fled by riding mules four days to the nearest train north.” (Shulstad Interview) They returned to Nebraska City, where their son, Paul, was born on December 16.

Soon after, the family moved to California, living briefly in Oakland and San Francisco, and then for two years in Los Gatos, where Lauturo operated a prune ranch. In 1915, with their four-year old son, they settled in Lauturo’s hometown of Tucson, Arizona. By 1917, they were living in their newly built Mission-style revival home at 1018 North 7th Avenue. Stella lived there for most of the remainder of her life.

In Tucson, Stella and Lauturo, utilizing their unique talents, became much respected in the community. Lauturo opened a General Insurance business, and from 1933 to 1939, served on the Tucson City Council, the first Democratic party member to serve with that governing body. Also his ethnicity meant he filled the tradition of always having at least one Hispanic on the Council. In 1930, he was named Honorary Mexican Consul, with responsibility for border crossing issues. At the time of this naming, he was described in the local newspaper as “one of the leading business lights of this city; one of the best loved men in this section of the country. . . .He was a Shriner and 33rd degree Mason.” (Shulstad, Newspapers clippings)

As a newcomer in Tucson and as an artist from the Midwest now surrounded by desert and mountains, Stella was happy, busy and challenged. She said: “From my first glimpse of it, I have been fascinated by the charm of Arizona. The rugged mountains, brilliant skies and soft greys of the desert landscape make a pattern that is a never-ending challenge to a painter.” (Kovinick 261) Titles of her oil paintings show that she traveled the state: Sabrino Canyon, Desert in Spring, Painted Desert, Old Tucson, Early Morning, Sedona; and Catalina Peak. Driving her automobile, she traveled in the West far beyond Arizona to locations in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Washington and California. And returning to Mexico, she painted portraits, landscapes and village scenes with children.

In addition to creating artwork, Stella found marketing and exhibition venues. In 1920, she displayed her paintings at Moore & O’Neall Congress Street Bookstore in Tucson, and later she placed her work with Studio Strange. She also entered paintings in Phoenix Art Expositions in 1923, 1926, 1931 and 1932. In 1932, she was a founder and first President of the Tucson Fine Arts Association, which according to a 1932 Omaha World-Herald account “has a membership of more than two hundred men and women who are either painters or interested patrons of painting—this in a city with a population of between 30 thousand and 40 thousand.” (August 7, 1932) For several years, she chaired the Association’s Exhibitions Awards section. Re-elected as TFAA president in 1933, she successfully headed the merging of Tucson Independent Artists with Tucson Fine Arts Association. She also became a founder of the Tucson Brush and Palette Club, and in 1934, had employment as a WPA (Works Progress Administration) artist. One of Stella’s close friends was Lucy Drake Marlow, a portrait artist and participant in these art groups. In 1925, she painted an almost life-size portrait of Stella, which is treasured by her descendants; years later, she did a pastel portrait of Stella’s two-year old granddaughter, Mariana.

As Stella’s reputation grew as a fine-art painter her exhibition activity expanded to include venues in Arizona, Nebraska and beyond. In Arizona, she entered artwork in the State Fairs, Phoenix Fine Arts Association, Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, San Marcos Hotel in Chandler, University of Arizona State Museum, and Tucson Fine Arts Association. In Nebraska, she had entries in shows of the Lincoln Artists Guild, Art Institute of Omaha, and Omaha Society of Fine Arts. In 1922, her entries at the Omaha Society of Fine Arts were of Tucson and titled Just Before Sunset and Cloud Shadows. (Omaha Society of Fine Arts Second Annual Nebraska Artists Catalogue)

She sold her paintings through the Whitmore Gallery, located in Omaha at 1517 Dodge Street. She also showed work at the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe, and the Foreign Travel Division of the American Automobile Association. Her work is now in the collections of the Department of the Interior in Washington DC; Union High School in Yuma, Arizona; and the Tucson Women’s Club.

Stella’s return trips to Nebraska became increasingly frequent, especially from the mid 1920s when her son Paul was reaching maturity and when her marriage with Lauturo was troubled, ending in divorce in 1923. In Nebraska, she was often in her hometown with her older half-sisters, Ida (Mrs. David Benjamin. Tait) and Augusta called Gus (Mrs. Walter McNamara). Over the years, Ida and Augusta, and their family members lived together in one house, and a returning Stella was hosted by them. Of being back in Nebraska, Stella told a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald: “somehow or other, with all the charm of Arizona, there’s something about eastern Nebraska, the home of my youth, that grips my heart and makes me glad to come back.” (August 7, 1932).

And there were other newspaper accounts of Stella spending time in Nebraska:

Omaha World-Herald, “Social Affairs” section headline, September 10, 1925: “Swedish Painter Makes Portrait of Mrs. Roca.” Work is by Axel Linus, Swedish painter who decided to make Omaha his home. “The painter came to Omaha about three months ago from Chicago on a visit. Now he wants to stay.” Painting hung in the Whitmore Gallery on Dodge Street and is “said by local critics to be a splendid piece of work. It will be shown at the third annual exhibit of the Omaha Society of Artists under the auspices of the Art department, Omaha Women’s Club, this fall. Mrs. Roca, former student at the Chicago Art Institute, came to Nebraska City some time ago on a visit. She decided to study portrait painting under Mr. Linus in Omaha. She sat recently for the painting, which is now completed.”

Omaha World-Herald, December 7, 1926 review by Dr. Robert F. Gilder, an artist, of the Fifth Annual Art Institute of Omaha exhibition: “All Mrs. Roca’s paintings are desert subjects, and her work shows how intensely she loves the land of her adoption.”

Omaha World-Herald, October 23, 1928 listing artists of note exhibiting with the Omaha Society of Fine Arts exhibit: “Miss Stella M. Roca, Tucson, Ariz., who has painted with Dr. Robert F. Gilder, three lovely landscapes in oil.”

Omaha World-Herald, August 7, 1932: Mrs. Stella McLennan Roca of Tucson, Ariz, who is passing the summer at Nebraska City, the place of her birth, . . . .has found that which satisfies her craving for natural landscape in the deserts of Arizona. . . . She has lived among the Mexicans in the sequestered mountain villages where her husband’s mining business has taken them; and knows these people intimately, and it is this close acquaintance that has enabled her to get to the soul of her subject.”

The Lincoln Star, August 27, 1933. “Mrs. D.B. Tait is exhibiting a group of oil paintings of local scenes, the work of her sister, Mrs. Stella McLennan Roca of Tucson. Mrs. Roca was a guest of her sisters, Mrs. Tait and Mrs. Walter McNamara, for several weeks and spent much of her time sketching places she had known well in early youth. Two of her pictures greatly admired are a water and wood scene at Springdale, country home of John Larsh near Union, Neb. And a landscape of the vine-covered home of Mrs. Edgar Clayton southeast of here.”

Omaha World-Herald, October 10, 1943: “Mrs. Stella Roca of Tucson, Ariz. was honored at two bridge parties by her sisters Mrs. B.D. Tait and Mrs. Walter McNamara, with whom she has been spending the summer.”

Meanwhile by 1933 Stella’s son, Paul Roca, had graduated from the University of Arizona in Tucson; in 1934, he had served on the staff of U.S. Senator Carl Hayden in Washington DC, and by 1941 with a law degree from George Washington University, he had passed the Virginia and Arizona Bar Exams. During Paul’s years in Washington DC, Stella had spent much time there with her son, but in 1941, he returned to his home state and settled in Phoenix. In 1950, he and Arizona friend Orme Lewis founded a law firm in Phoenix named Lewis and Roca, which in the 21st century is one the larger firms in the Southwest. Paul also became a scholar of southwest history, with several books published by the University of Arizona Press. His wife was Elizabeth Anne Yeager, and the couple had a son, Mike Roca, and two daughters, Mariana Roca Shulstand and Ellen Roca Single. These granddaughters have special memories of their grandmother:

Ellen Single wrote: “My sister and I spent a lot of time with my grandmother in the summer, especially the year my brother, Mike was born (1948). . . .We went out into the desert most mornings at dawn and ‘painted’ while my grandmother worked on her picture that featured morning light, and then we would return to Tucson and spend the day doing delightful things at home Mah Jong was a favorite or visiting her artistic friends. . . .Then in the late afternoon, we would go out into the desert again and ‘paint’ while she worked on her picture with the afternoon light. . . .Quite a bohemian life for those days.”

Mariana, two years older than Ellen, recalled that her father Paul always called his mother “Chicky,” (apparently because he loved the chickens the family raised in Los Gatos) and that she, Mariana, changed that nickname to “Nana Chickey.” Mariana emphasized how much fun she had with her grandmother, whom she remembered as a combination of scatterbrained about every-day matters but full of energy and determination about her painting routines. “She would take me out into the desert; we went everywhere, and she would work while I played in the cholla. . . .her home had wonderful hollyhocks, and windows everywhere, but she had none of her paintings hanging in the home. . . . She was a fabulous cook of Italian food, took us for ice cream, and swimming, and she always took time with me.”

Stella Roca died on April 20, 1954. Members of the Tucson Palette and Brush Club were pallbearers at her funeral, and she was buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Tucson. In 1962, Mariana and her father, Paul Roca, traveled from Arizona to Nebraska City to celebrate the 100th birthday of Paul’s Aunt Ida, a woman who had treasured her half-sister, Stella, and who, with her sister, Augusta, had made sure that Stella was always welcomed as a returning Nebraskan.
Portrait by by Lucy Marlow