|Viola Passey lost her father when she was young and was raised by her mother and stepfather on their Mesa homestead. Along with her three siblings, she grew up performing farm chores. She graduated from Tempe Normal School (now Arizona State University) in 1913.
After graduation, Viola taught reading and music for five years, attending summer school at the University of California in Berkeley, California, and Columbia University in New York City. In 1914, while visiting Flagstaff she met Joseph Robert Babbitt. They married in 1918 and brought up five daughters and a son in their home on Leroux Street in Flagstaff. Viola played the traditional role of housewife as the children grewsewing dresses for her girls, playing bridge and serving on numerous school and church boards. But by 1950 Viola began turning to painting, working from her studio overlooking the imposing San Francisco Peaks.
Her love of art gradually developed into a career, as she sought a way to fund and sustain the arts in Flagstaff. For example, she raffled off many of her paintings and organized fundraisers to benefit the Symphony Guild, the Flagstaff Hospital, the Nativity Catholic Church and the Flagstaff Art Barn. The Art Barn, at 2300 N. Fort Valley Road (just down the street from the Museum of Northern Arizona) became her special cause. There she taught art classes and staged benefits, creating an environment where local artists could produce, teach and exhibit their work.
The Art Barn begun as a real barn occupied by livestock. Later it was used to store farm equipment. But in the mid-1960s, Viola envisioned it as a potential art facility. She organized volunteers, including students from Arizona State College at Flagstaff, and prison inmates, to tear down the old horse stalls and shovel manure out of the building. When the rehabilitated art center opened in1964, Viola told the celebrants, "Every town should have an Art Barn, weathered and worn, but rich with memories, a heritage from those wonderful, sturdy pioneers who built ita building with strength and meaning, a place to dream and create, a place to work at something you love, a place for recognition and merit, a place to leave something of yourself to posterity."
As she had predicted, the Art Barn restoration signaled a movement in Flagstaff to celebrate all forms of the arts. It remained an arts center until another project of Viola's, the much larger Coconino Center for the Arts, opened in 1981, just next door. Today the 4,000-square-foot Coconino Center houses exhibitions, concerts, films and other creative performances.
In 1976 Viola persuaded Father Vincent Nevulis, pastor of the Nativity Catholic parish, to commission a mural for the altar of Nativity Church by the Hungarian artist, Stephen Juharos. The community recognized her efforts in 1981 by naming her Flagstaff Citizen of the Year. In 1988, Viola's 94th birthday was celebrated at the Art Barn. In 1989 she was recognized with the Arizona Senator's Art Award, and in 2009 the Coconino Center for the Arts created the Viola Awards to "celebrate excellence in the arts in the Flagstaff area." Viola died on August 23, 1994, just a few months after her 100th birthday.
For more information, see Arizona Federation of Business and Professional Women, Women Who Made a Difference, 1921-2003, Vol. III.
Photos courtesy of the Coconino Center for the Arts.