I had heard that a new museum had opened in Santa Fe. We already had 8 that we were members of, what could a new one offer? A few days ago I set out with the purpose of finding this new museum and learning what it had to offer.
I found it just off the beaten path temporarily housed in a building attached to St. Francis Cathedral. It is called the Pablita Velarde Museum of Indian Women in the Arts. Pablita Velarde (1918-2006) was one of the most famous artists working in the pueblo tradition. Born on the Santa Clara pueblo She signed her paintings with her Tewa name, TsehTsan (Golden Dawn). She was sent to the St. Catherine’s Indian School in Santa Fe and at age fourteen became one of the first Studio Art School students started by Dorothy Dunn in 1932. Dunn taught “flat-style painting” and mentored many of the great Native American artists from the Southwest. I was looking at some of the awards Velarde had received, they began in 1939 for her work with the WPA and she continued to get accolades and awards until 2005, aside from her doctorate from the University of New Mexico, they included an award from the Minister of Education in Paris, and she was declared a Santa Fe Living Treasure. Speaking to the basic concept of the museum in support of women artists, when she received her award in Paris in 1954 there was the perception that all good artists were male. So her certificate is made out to Monsieur (Mister) Velarde, Pablita.
Pablita Velarde, Santa Clara Pueblo, Green Corn Dance, from Clara Lee Tanner
“Southwest Indian Painting”, Clara Lee Tanner, “Southwest Indian Painting”
Velarde’s daughter, Helen Hardin (1943-1984), also became extremely well known but due to the competitive nature of her mother she did not come into her own right until the late 1960’s. Her breakthrough came when she spent six months with her father who was stationed with the State Department in Bogota and he arranged an exhibition for Helen at the American Embassy where she sold almost everything. Helen then came back to Santa Fe with a new confidence. From then until her premature death from breast cancer at the age of 41 she flourished. As if making up for lost time there have been a number museum exhibitions of her work, and fittingly both as an act of tribute and compensation. it is a Hardin retrospective and the first exhibition at the Pablita Velarde museum.
Helen Hardin’s last finished painting,
“Guardians of the Sun”, Private Collection, Ithaca, New York
Hardin’s daughter, Marguerete Bagshaw, decided that she wanted to build a museum in Vekarde’s honor to celebrate the many wonderful female Native American artists who, like their Anglo counterparts, have not gotten the credit that their male peers have. Ms. Bagshaw is an accomplished artist in her own right. She is a painter as well as a potter and has a gallery called Golden Dawn in Santa Fe which focuses on her work as well as that of her mother and grandmother. All three women have been included in museum exhibitions around the country.
Marguerite Bagshaw, “Hatshepsut
“The Lady Pharaoh”“ Golden Dawn, Gallery
“Helen Hardin: A Straight Line Curved” is the intriguing title of the current exhibition and also the title of the monograph on the artist by Kate Nelson. Hardin was the child of a Native American and an Anglo and as such was not allowed to fully participate in the rituals of the tribe. As any child would do she rebelled in her own way by substituting ideas that came to her to take the place of a rite that may have been kept from her. Also, like all children she started out painting in the style of her mother, Pablita Velarde, and then was one of the first to adapt a new style bringing a modernism to Native American painting without leaving the roots of her people. To paraphrase what Kate Nelson told me about the title. Helen’s daughter, Margaret Bagshaw, told Kate that Helen painted using straight lines and as she was growing up always went directly for what she wanted. After visiting her Anglo father she gained the insight into her own work and made up her mind to become a full time artist. She was so driven that she found it difficult relating to others and her health suffered. At that point she decided in the Indian way to live life more within the circle. The Anglo might call it a balanced life, in other words not to be as driven but accept the people around her and the world she lived in. Once she decided to bend she created some of her best work.
The exhibition includes some 30 works mostly borrowed from private collections. Along with the exhibition there is a video about Hardin narrated by her daughter which she makes very personal by referring continuously to Mom -- a nice touch in this day when everybody seems to speak in the third person. At the birth of a pueblo child they hold a naming ceremony where family members give many names to the infant and a few stick. Helen was given the name Tsa-sah-wee-eh by her grandfather Herman Velarde. It means Little Standing Sprurce in her native Tewa language and that is how she signed her paintings with a tiny picture of a spruce tree painted after the name.
These three generations of successful Indian female painters is a rare if not unique phenomenon and something to be celebrated in its own right. As far as the museum’s lasting significance is concerned, however, it will have to find its own path that goes beyond the Velarde, Hardin, Bagshaw legacy. I met the director Amber-Dawn Bear Robe of the Blackfoot Nation and I believe that she will move the museum in the right direction. As I said, I got to the party late and this show ends on September 30. The next one opens on November 29 entitled “A Gathering of Dolls”. It includes dolls created by artists from Native Nations around the country.