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Vintage Phoenix Artifact: Leona Caldwell's Patio Wear

Leona Caldwell liked birds.

The late designer, revered in fashion circles by in-the-know locals, screen-printed her garments with roadrunners and owls. She designed ceramic jewelry studded with her drawings of quail, as well as purses and hats printed with cactus and cactus wrens.

Caldwell, who died in 2003, drew inspiration from the desert, where she lived her entire life. Born on a farm near Peoria in 1912, Caldwell married and raised her family there, and returned to school at Arizona State Teacher's College in Tempe to study art, later opening a private ceramics studio. After her husband died in 1954, she opened Leona Caldwell Originals in the Kiva Craft Center on Scottsdale's tony Fifth Avenue in Scottsdale, selling her work alongside local artisans like Charles Loloma and Paolo Soleri.

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Today, Caldwell's simple, colorful, and playful designs — inspired by Hohokam artifacts, as well as by Sonoran plants and animals — are highly collectible and instantly recognizable to desert fashionistas. A fringed yellow workshirt and printed with prickly pear, a magenta shirtdress studded with quail, a sleeveless shift emblazoned with a century plant in full bloom — all are enjoying renewed attention, thanks to websites like Etsy and fashion peddlers like Robert Black, who carries Caldwell's work in his Scottsdale boutique, www.fashionbyrobertblack.com.

"Leona Caldwell represents what was great about the past in the downtown Scottsdale fashion scene," Black says. "Her screen-printed dresses and ceramic jewelry adorned the locals as well as the visitors who traveled from all over the world."

Leona made Arizona look cool, comfortable, and fashionable.

 
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