Comfort in Sequence - Albuquerque Journal

Comfort in Sequence

Margarete Bagshaw’s paintings trace a creative heart line from her grandmother Pablita Velarde to her mother Helen Hardin, then dance to an expression defiantly her own.

The sole survivor of the only documented three-generation lineage of full-time female painters, Bagshaw is the focus of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture’s “Margarete Bagshaw: Breaking the Rules” opening on Feb. 12.

Her first memory was the smell of paint.

Bagshaw grew up surrounded by her mother and grandmother’s artwork. R. C. Gorman and Fritz Scholder were family friends. But she never wanted to become an artist. She dreamed of becoming a doctor.

“I just grew up with little old ladies pinching my cheeks and saying ‘Are you going to be an artist?’ ” she said. “It was belittling the way they asked me. Everybody expected me to. I wanted to be a doctor, because I knew (doctors) that were friends to my mother and my grandmother and those were important people.”

The tsunami of her mother’s death from breast cancer at 41 shook her both personally and professionally. In the midst of her pre-med studies at the University of New Mexico, Bagshaw was shattered. She was just 19.

She married and gave birth to two children. But the creative muse still smoldered. During her second pregnancy, she began drawing in the shadows of night when she couldn’t sleep. Her early pastels reflected her mother’s geometric style through a chalky blend of rough imagery.

Loathe to be labeled by genetics, she entered blind-juried shows and made her first sale at the Helen Hardin Memorial Fund auction for the New Mexico Women’s Foundation. Blue Rain Gallery in Taos picked up her paintings and she shifted into oils and acrylics.

Velarde was famous for her flat, “Indian School” adaptation of the teachings of Santa Fe Indian School instructor Dorothy Dunn. Velarde depicted pueblo people at work and in traditional ceremonies in casein and earth pigments. Her choice was a rebellion against Santa Clara Pueblo norms; women were supposed to be potters, not painters. Helen took a more contemporary spin on abstract expressionism combined with traditional Native imagery such as katsinas.

“Margarete has continued” the family lineage, curator and museum director Shelby Tisdale said. “But her paintings are very different from her mother’s. She’s much more of an American modernist than an Indian artist. If you did not know of her lineage, you could not say, ‘That’s a Native American artist.’ ”

Layering her pigments allowed her to delve more deeply into her own universe, Bagshaw said.

Personalized visions of her ancestry surfaces in Bagshaw’s geometry, along with echoes of Pablita’s headdresses and Hardin’s katsinas.

The large-scale paintings shimmer with layers of color in a meticulous balance of action, abandon and technical restraint. Delicate arches dance across the surface in stylized shapes in a blizzard of kinetic movement. Fragments and shadows of figures and feathers fade and advance in vibrant pigment — Kandinsky meets katsinas. Her heroes are the great European modernists Picasso, Braque, Leger and Mondrian.

“Picasso was so comfortable in his own skin,” Bagshaw said. “You don’t have to follow a path following somebody else’s instructions.”

Bagshaw’s work often echoes a Cubist approach, then takes a left turn into the unexpected, Tisdale said.

“And then you have works that appear very Native American,” she continued. “They’re not katsinas, but they’re kind of spirit beings.”

Bagshaw continued to develop as an artist in the 1990s. She began to show and sell her pastels at Silver Sun Gallery on Canyon Road in 1995. Her paintings soon found a place in group exhibitions ranging from the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis to galleries in Dallas, Aspen and Palm Springs. When she began showing her work at Canyon Road’s Ventana Fine Art in 2003, she found herself more recognized as an American modernist than as an Indian artist.

When her grandmother died in 2006, Bagshaw moved to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, where she continued to paint, incorporating the rich colors of the tropics. She also experimented with micaceous clay, alternating between Mimbres influences and the geometry of Mondrian and Kandinsky.

It was while watching an island sunrise on the beach one morning that Bagshaw felt a spiritual summons home from her grandmother.

Tisdale traced a shift to a bolder palette in Bagshaw’s move from St. Thomas back to Santa Fe in 2009. She opened Golden Dawn Gallery, the English translation of Pablita’s Tewa name.

“I would go down there and see her, and I started watching her paint,” Tisdale said. “That was when I learned how this whole layering technique works. She’s only been painting for 20 years, and what she’s done in that 20 years is really amazing. That lineage is very important to her. But she doesn’t want to be known just for that.”

Many of the paintings bear poetic, oblique titles like “Teaching My Spirit to Fly,” “Out There From in Here” and “Musings and Miracles.”

The latter is a symphony in turquoise, all angles and arches coalescing into three silhouettes at once familiar and mysterious.

“That was my way of putting us all together into a dialogue,” Bagshaw said. “I wasn’t channeling, because that sounds very Santa Fe. But what I was doing was calling on a woman being that was my mother, my grandmother and myself.”

“Ancestral Procession” combines non-representational with recognizable imagery in five silhouettes.

“You have Pablita’s headdresses,” Bagshaw said. “Then two after those represent images my mother painted. The two middle ones are (my own). The water one with the flying plumes, that’s mine.

“Let’s have them wear moccasins,” she continued. “Let’s give them faces, let’s give them this immediate, wild but harmonious coloring. And it grew into ‘Ancestor’s Procession.’ ”

Voraciously creative, Bagshaw is completing a memoir as she seeks funding for a Pablita Velarde Museum. Tisdale is working on biographies about both Pablita and Helen.

For Bagshaw, the number three grounds her to both nature and nurture, as well as the divine. Astrophysicists instantly recognize her appropriation of the golden ratio and the Fibonacci sequence in her paintings. In the latter, the next number is produced by adding up the two numbers preceding it: 0, 1, 1, 2. The numbers appear in nature through seeds, flowers, petal, pine cones, fruit and vegetables.

“I just love that,” Bagshaw said. “For me, it gives a natural balance. Everything in the universe –– looking at the galaxies the way they spiral out, look at the butterflies, look at the shells.

“I hated mathematics; I could never get why I needed to do that,” she continued. “I realized it pertains to just about everything that happens. Everything in this world is structured in some mathematical sequence. When I stand in front of my painting, I can either do it intuitively or I can try to put some sort of sequence together. There’s a lot of hidden math stuff in my paintings.”

The ancient Kaballah used mathematical sequences in religious rituals, she added. That fascination with a mathematical exploration of the universe culminated with her “Woman Made of Fire.”A spiral of blue dots emanates from the figure’s mouth: Bagshaw incorporated a Fibonacci sequence in composing the grid anchoring the composition, adding paint layers in the same pattern.

Mother, grandmother and daughter are in balance.

“This is my perception of the female image of God,” she said.

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