Eva Mirabal was a firebrand, a painter and muralist and likely the first female Native American cartoonist.
Seemingly born with a spirit of adventure, this Taos Pueblo woman joined the Women’s Army Corps during World War II and raised two children all in her brilliant but brief life.
Lois Rudnick and Mirabal’s son Jonathan Warm Day Coming have chronicled her legacy in “Eva Mirabal: Three Generations of Tradition and Modernity at Taos Pueblo” (Museum of New Mexico Press, 2021.)
After her 1968 death, Mirabal’s two sons discovered a treasure trove of her life story housed in an enormous pine box she had nailed shut. The artist had placed scores of drawings, photographs, newspaper clippings and hundreds of letters related to her life and work from curators, gallery owners, friends, boyfriends and teachers across her 48 years of life.
The author of “Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company: American Moderns and the West,” Rudnick initially had no interest in writing another book. But the more she learned about Mirabal, the more she was charmed.
“Literally, I fell in love with her,” Rudnick said in a telephone interview from Santa Fe. “She was this extraordinary woman who went out and said, ‘If I want to be a WAC, I’m going to be a WAC.’ It was her boldness.”
That determination surfaced early when Mirabal asked her parents to let her attend the Santa Fe Indian School under Dorothy Dunn. Art was in her blood; her father Pedro Mirabal had posed for the Russian painter Nicholai Fechin, as well as members of the Taos Society of Artists. He also sat for a bronze by Mabel Dodge Luhan’s third husband Maurice Sterne. Her father’s artist friends gave her art supplies.
Joining the Army was not the typical trajectory for a Taos Pueblo woman in 1943.
“She was basically the only WAC fully-charged as an artist,” Rudnick said. “She was doing murals for the Air Force bases. They created her own space as a studio for her. I just found it all remarkable.”
Mirabal also decorated canteens and dance halls.
She was soon penning her own cartoon series with “G.I. Gertie.” Her sergeant said he didn’t have to teach her anything; she already possessed the skills.
When radio interviewers asked about her Native background, she barked, “We’re not dead!”
“She said, ‘Pay attention to us! Ours was the first original American art,’ ” Rudnick said. “She was right.”
When one of Mirabal’s superiors asked if she dreamed about returning home, Mirabal replied, “We have a war to win, corporal!”
“She gained such a reputation and had so much confidence and poise,” Rudnick said. “She came from a world so entirely distanced from an army.”
After the war, Mirabal worked as a visiting professor of art at Southern Illinois Normal College. When she returned to Taos, she studied at the Taos Valley Art School under the G.I. Bill.
Mirabal’s husband Manuel Gomez was a career Navy man who spent most of their marriage away from his family. Essentially a single parent, Mirabal juggled supporting her sons Jonathan and Christopher, and funding her art supplies with caring for both the Gomez and Mirabal properties. She grew increasingly bitter about her marriage.
Mirabal’s son Jonathan Warm Day Coming (an illustrator, painter and children’s book author) remembers his mother working at a drawing table someone had given her.
“She treated it almost like housework, a daily thing, so it must have been important,” he said in a telephone interview from Taos. “She needed to be alone, so we left her alone.”
She passed on her legacy to her sons when their father told them to clean out the family shed. It was there that they found the nailed plywood box in a corner.
“We drug it out onto the lawn,” Warm Day Coming said. “We found a painting in there and papers about her art. That’s when we found the painting on the (book) cover.
“My eyes were wide open then,” he continued, “How beautiful her work was.”
That painting, “Prairie Fire,” with its traditionally-clothed horseback riders galloping in and out of abstracted, writhing flames, was Mirabal’s last.
Despite her powerful persona, Mirabal died of alcohol poisoning, spending her final years in and out of VA hospitals. Jonathan says he thinks she began drinking during the war to fit in. She continued to paint as part of her therapy to help with her depression and addiction.
When Mirabal died, her sister Tonita eventually took the boys in.
“She just treated us like her kids,” Warm Day Coming said. “If she hadn’t been there, I think we would have been adopted out.”
Before her death and the discovery of her papers, Warm Day Coming knew nothing of Mirabal’s life before she became a wife and mother.
“She was absolutely of an adventurous spirit,” Rudnick said. “I attribute it to her name Fast Growing Corn (Eah-Ha-Wa); she could not wait to get out there.”