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Recognizing a legacy

SANTA FE, N.M. — Arguably America’s first published female cartoonist, Taos Pueblo’s Eva Mirabal (Eah-Ha-Wah) is finally getting her own show.

That Mirabal’s story is virtually unknown to the world outside her pueblo may be in no small part because she was both Native American and female. But her son, Jonathan Warm Day Coming, says that anonymity may also be due to geography.

“If you’re not anywhere near Santa Fe, which has a huge Native American community, you’re left out,” he said.

If you go
WHAT: “Eah-Ha-Wa (Eva Mirabal) and Jonathan Warm Day Coming” and “Red Willow: Portraits of a Town.”
WHERE: Harwood Museum of Art, 238 Ledoux St., Taos
WHEN: Through May 5.
COST: $10/adults; $8 seniors (65+) and students. Free to children 12 and under and to members, University of New Mexico students and staff, and Taos County residents on Sundays.
CONTACT: 575-758-9826 or www.harwoodmuseum.org

Taos’ Harwood Museum of Art is recognizing Mirabal’s legacy with the exhibition “Eah-Ha-Wa (Eva Mirabal) and Jonathan Warm Day Coming” through May 5.

A student at both the Santa Fe Indian School and the Taos Valley Art School, Mirabal’s name means “Fast Growing Corn” in the Tiwa language.

As World War II exploded in 1943, Mirabal followed a mass exodus of Native American students and joined the Women’s Army Corps, where she drew cartoons for WAC publications. Her character, G.I. Gertie, was a private who stumbled into all kinds of mischief. Harwood curator Jina Brenneman could find no other published female cartoonists before her.

As Mirabal’s skills blossomed, her superiors asked her to create propaganda posters for U.S. war bonds. After the war, she served as an artist-in-residence, teaching and studying at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

The family’s artistic roots extend back to Mirabal’s father, Pedro Mirabal (Beaded Shirt), who served as a model for Taos painters Nicolai Fechin and Joseph Imhof. As she watched the steady flow of artists move between the pueblo and the town, Mirabal realized that art could be a career.

In her book “Native American Painting,” Santa Fe Indian School Studio School art director Dorothy Dunn noticed differences between the artwork produced near the woodlands and mountain rivers near Taos Pueblo and the artistic themes of the more southern villages.

She noted how Mirabal incorporated the native forests and mountains in her work, often painting the daily life of pueblo residents. The artist painted women in their historic everyday dress: a manta (brightly colored shawl), turquoise beads and over-the-knee deerskin leggings. She captured the intricate designs weaving throughout the clothing, as well as the baskets used in food preparation.

The Studio School was the first institution to emphasize painting specifically for native people. Dunn encouraged her students to lift designs from their own cultural traditions, including pueblo murals and pottery motifs, Plains hide painting and ancestral rock art. Dunn advocated a flat “Studio Style” of painting similar to the works of Japanese printmakers. Her students used gouache (opaque watercolors) or tempera to create flat areas of color outlined or defined by darker tones.

Mirabal’s family realized the seriousness of her talent when her work appeared in a Chicago gallery exhibition when she was just 19, Brenneman said. The young artist began painting murals as early as the 1930s; it was another technique she learned at the Indian School. Although she created murals for both the Santa Fe Indian School and Albuquerque’s Veteran’s Administration Hospital, both have since been torn down or painted over, her son said. But a patriotic building-sized mural she named “A Bridge of Wings” lives on at Pittsburgh’s Buhl Planetarium.

“She was fearless,” Brenneman said. “Jonathan has boxes and boxes of photographs, articles and ephemera. There’s a letter to her from Dorothy Dunn.

“A lot of those artists who weren’t recognized made no effort to be recognized,” Brenneman continued. “She was living life to the fullest. I don’t think she gave a second thought to immortality.”

In 1946, Mirabal was the only woman who entered a painting in the First National Exhibition of Indian Painting at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Okla. Next she won the Margretta S. Dietrich Award for the painting “Picking Wild Berries” at the Museum of New Mexico. Dunn included the piece in her own traveling exhibition “Contemporary American Indian Painting,” which opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

In 1949, Mirabal returned home to study at the Taos Valley Art School under the G.I. Bill.

She lived at the pueblo for the rest of her life, immersing herself in the community and its traditional dances.

Today, her son is continuing her legacy through his own artwork and by researching and promoting his mother’s story.

Mirabal died at 48 when Warm Day Coming was just “12 or 13.”

“She painted a lot,” he said. “But when you’re that young, you think that’s what parents do. As my art grew, I began to have more respect for what she did. She was very different and special.”

As a child, Warm Day Coming unearthed a box of paintings, clippings and mementoes from a storage shed near the family home.

“It was this crate; it was kind of mysterious,” he said. “I took everything out of there. As the years went by, we’d go through the box. A lot of the images that were stored in that box were watercolors she’d done as a child.”

Mirabal was exposed to the Taos Modernists when she returned from the war. Founded by husband-and-wife artists Beatrice Mandelman and Louis Ribak, the Taos Valley Art School introduced her to abstraction. The exhibition features her experiments with the new style: an abstracted still life and a deer.

By the 1960s, the Studio School style was considered stagnant and students such as Alan Houser were rebelling against its rigid rules.

“But she went back to that,” her son said. “I think that was her love.

“She had a lot of friends,” he continued. “She introduced my brother and I to a lot of Anglo artists. I visited their homes and studios from a young age. So I knew she was important because of the way they accepted her.”

Mirabal also introduced her son to art materials. Today, his work hangs in the Taos Museum shop and at Hotel Santa Fe.

A well-known storyteller and writer, Warm Day Coming is considered an influential voice within the pueblo. His colorful acrylic paintings tell the story of the daily experience and spiritual life drawn from his many childhood memories. His “Last Supper” drew wide attention because of its political connotations. It shows a pueblo family sitting at home during a meal, looking through a window at silhouetted Spanish conquistadors riding by. The work has gone on to appear in a college textbook, as well as Turner Publishing Company’s “The Native Americans.”

Researching and working on his mother’s heritage and catalog triggered something in her son, who had long shortened his surname to Warm Day. Today, he uses his full Tiwa name — Warm Day Coming.

“It was basically when Jina (Brenneman) asked me about it,” he explained. “I thought, ‘If I’m going to use my Native American name, I might as well use it right.’ “

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