SANTA FE – Pablita Velarde lived a litany of firsts wrapped in a manta.
The first Native American woman to paint professionally, she also was the first to produce a book, the first to paint a Works Progress Administration mural (at Bandelier National Monument) and the first to win France’s Palmes Academiques for excellence in art.
She was the first female art student at the Santa Fe Indian School and the first to create her own pigments from ground rocks, Elmer’s glue and water. She was the first woman to own her own home at Santa Clara.
Her work exalted the lives of Pueblo women.
“Pablita Velarde: Out of the Ordinary” showcases her work in an exhibition spanning 75 years of art at Santa Fe’s Pablita Velarde Museum of Indian Women in the Arts.
The exhibition extols such classics as 1958’s “Old Father Story Teller” as well as “Fertility Maiden” (2000), her last earth-pigment painting. Velarde died at 87 in 2006.
Named Tse Tsan or Golden Dawn when she was born at Santa Clara Pueblo, she rebelled from the start. Her mother died when she was 3 years old.
Her father left her marooned at St. Catherine’s Indian School when she was 6. When she was younger, he regularly torched her drawings to ignite the family fire.
At Santa Clara, women were supposed to produce babies and pottery, not canvases.
The criticism drove her from her pueblo home and into Albuquerque as a switchboard operator in 1941.
Velarde’s early work reflected the flat, outlined and filled-in “studio” style promoted by controversial Santa Fe Indian School teacher Dorothy Dunn. She painted ceremonies and dances, as well as daily scenes of bread-baking, grain-drying and rabbit hunting.
The sparkling night sky of “Old Father Story Teller” (1958) hung over the sofa in her Albuquerque home.
“There’s no way we could have had the show without ‘Old Father’ because it’s probably the most important painting she ever did,” said Velarde’s granddaughter and museum co-founder Margarete Bagshaw. “It says, ‘These are the stories that tell the way we came. This is our history.'”
The figure is Herman Velarde, the artist’s father. He sits in the Santa Clara plaza pointing to the constellations as he tells the creation story. Orion (Long Sash) leads the way, twinkling across the Milky Way (Endless Trail). Galaxies slide off to the center of the earth, following the trail of the mole to Mother Spider, Eagle, Bear, Coyote, Lion and Turtle. The step design signals the four sacred mountains.
“It’s totally overworked with detail,” Bagshaw said. “There’s the human world at the bottom, there’s the animal world in the middle. The top is the star world where we came to life.”
For some artists, Dunn’s rigid definition of “traditional” art grew suffocating; sculptor Allan Houser and painter Oscar Howe would eventually abandon it to follow their own muses. For Velarde, Dunn’s teachings outlined a clear career path open to occasional wandering.
“It was the starting point/turning point,” Bagshaw said. “All she did was encourage my grandmother to keep painting and drawing. My grandmother was very loyal to Dorothy Dunn. She felt she was almost a second mother.”
Along her journey, Velarde added backgrounds to her paintings (Dunn had taught her students to leave them white), dabbled in the angles of cubism and started grinding her own “earth pigments.” She drew from petroglyph motifs, pottery and ancient pueblo murals, widening her scope of subject matter.
“The First Twins” depicts koshares emerging from two babies born to an old Santa Clara couple. As they thrived and grew, they left the pueblo to become koshares.
Velarde’s “Turkey Girl” series resembles a pueblo-meets-the Brothers Grimm story.
“(Turkey Girl) lived with her stepmother,” Bagshaw said. “Her stepmother hated her. Her father had died. The only thing she was good at was tending to the turkeys.”
Turkey Girl turned down an invitation to a ceremony because she thought she was ugly. The turkeys flocked around her, picking off her lice, winging her into a river bath, then dropping a new manta (dress) and a red woven sash.
“They just wanted her to look beautiful,” Bagshaw said.
Velarde had never heard the Cinderella story.
She told her granddaughter she was placed on the Earth to paint.
“She didn’t understand why she was put here to do it,” Bagshaw said. “She gave a lot of credit to God for giving her the talent.”