A walk into the Institute of American Indian Arts’ library brings you to the “Enchanted Forest,” a 1943 painting depicting animated blue deer surrounded by other vibrant woodland creatures.
In addition to her animals and forest scenes, Native American artist Pop Chalee was widely known for what was later called her “Bambi art” because of her deer’s resemblance to the Disney character – or Bambi’s resemblance to her pre-existing paintings, as she always asserted.
Inside IAIA’s archives – coincidentally located through the door next to this display – there’s a more intimate look into Chalee’s life: a personal scrapbook and various photo albums now housed at the institute.
Her wooden scrapbook, which also has the iconic blue deer painted on its front, contains nationwide newspaper clippings about Chalee and her work, some early enough to still refer to her by her given name of Merina Lujan Hopkins.
Other books have more personal keepsakes: photos of her as a traveling entertainer during the promotional tour for the 1950 “Annie Get Your Gun” movie, and the picture she took of movie mogul, aviator and entrepreneur Howard Hughes, along with other photographic portraits, including ones that show her posing in a floor-length animal print coat.
“She really was an international superstar,” said IAIA archivist Ryan Flahive, who received the gift of Chalee’s personal archives from her grandson, Jack Cruz Hopkins of Taos, back in December.
Now, with a grant awarded in mid-May, art scholars will be able to use her personal books for research purposes.
The New Mexico Historical Records Advisory Board gave the archives about $3,300 to make it all accessible to the public. Flahive will unbind, protect and make high-resolution copies of each page of her fragile scrapbook and albums, with items ranging in time from the late 1920s to her death in Santa Fe in 1993 at age 87.
Chalee was born in Utah, but had New Mexican ties through her father who was from Taos Pueblo, time spent in Los Alamos while her husband worked as a machinist during the Manhattan Project and most notably for her studies at the Santa Fe Indian School’s Studio School under Dorothy Dunn. Chalee’s work can be seen today at the Albuquerque International Sunport – especially in the old terminal building – and in museums across the Southwest.
Also known as “Blue Flower,” she gained prominence in the 1930s, through Dunn’s teachings, in New Mexico and around the country as one of the most well-known Native American artists at the time. Before working with Dunn,Flahive says she also honed her craft working with the Taos Society of Artists, which had established an art collective.
Her best-known works are her paintings of animals, like horses and deer, and forest scenes such as “Enchanted Forest,” all of which are painted with a fairy-tale-like look. Her images were unlike the realistic depictions most artists were doing at the time.
Hopkins got the idea to give the materials to IAIA from Richard Tobin, executive director of Taos’ Harwood Museum of Art, because of the institute’s background and mission, which are similar to the Santa Fe Indian School’s former art school and the IAIA’s robust archival resources.
Hopkins said he hopes to orchestrate a retrospective exhibit of his grandmother’s work at Harwood with IAIA’s assistance, a project he’s been trying to start for the past 15 years, and for which he hopes the grant will help garner interest. Tobin says a Chalee show would be something that the IAIA could initiate with Harwood as a potential showing space.
“She keeps popping up in history, but a lot of people didn’t know who she was … . Through [Flahive] and, hopefully, the Harwood, we’re going to reintroduce her to the art world,” Hopkins told the Journal.
He said he plans leave more Chalee memorabilia to the IAIA upon his death, including a buckskin dress she made for the “Annie Get Your Gun” tour – as part of the touring show, she told stories, lectured and sang, although she’s not in the movie – as well as several national and state awards.
Flahive said he hopes use of the collection will do more than help “illuminate” her status as one of the few well-known female Native American artists of the 20th century. It should also allow artists to better understand her work’s impact, he said. Though the same keepsakes were used during research for her 1997 biography with the help of the family, Flahive said he wants historians, researchers or others who view them to be able to come to their own conclusions.
“What I’m hoping comes of this is a somewhat more critical view of her artwork and life in relation to art history – just looking at her art and seeing how it transformed things,” he said.
Chalee’s scrapbooks also give insight into an evolving view of Native American art, Flahive says, specifically through the newspaper articles that describe which galleries displayed her work and how.
“Native art is mostly presented as ethnographic material and we’re always trying to get to the point, ‘When does it become fine art?'” said Flahive. “The only way to do that is to look at who’s exhibiting what and how. These clippings will give us a better indication.”
The pieces are slated to begin their six-month preservation process at the end of August or early September and be ready for use early next year.