Thursday, February 22, 2007

Dreams that Open Doors - Pablita Velarde

Elizabeth Cook-Romero I The New Mexican February 15, 2007

A young woman in two worlds Some biographies of Pablita Velarde (1918-2006) say she was only 19 when a stranger knocked on her door, offering her a job creating paintings of Pueblo life for a visitor center that was under construction at Bandelier National Monument. A few biographies say Velarde was 20. Either way, she had already packed a lot of experiences into her short life. A New Deal for Tse Tsan: Pablita Velarde at Bandelier opens at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture on Sunday, Feb. 18. The exhibit features almost 70 of the more than 84 paintings Velarde made for the park through the Works Projects Administration (the successor to the Works Progress Administration) between 1939 and 1945.Velarde was born in Santa Clara Pueblo in 1918. Her grandmother acted as midwife and named the infant Tse Tsan, but that name would change when she left the pueblo. Tsan’s mother died when Tsan was about 5 years old, and her father brought his four daughters to St. Catherine Indian School in Santa Fe. That’s where Tsan’s name changed to Pablita Velarde.

At the end of each school year the girls’ father would return to Santa Fe and bring them home for the summer, so Velarde learned to live within two starkly different cultures as she grew into a woman. In the sixth grade she transferred to Santa Fe Indian School, where Dorothy Dunn taught painting to Native American boys. Girls were taught crafts like basket weaving and embroidery, but Velarde wanted to paint. In a Living Treasures of Santa Fe interview in 1988, Velarde recalled asking Dunn if she could join the painting class. “It seemed like maybe if one girl started, other girls will come in too. ... Oh, those boys were so mean! Honestly, I thought that first month I was gonna quit, you know, ’cause they teased me, they made fun of what I was doing, and — you know? — and poked fun at me because I wanted to be an artist and all that kind of stuff. They said, ‘You do better washing dishes or washing clothes or scrubbing floors.’”Velarde’s father held the same view as the boys, and for a year and a half he took her out of the Indian School and enrolled her in a school in EspaƱola where he hoped she would learn more useful skills. “I walked the two miles every day to school, you know, from Santa Clara to EspaƱola. And I did take bookkeeping and shorthand and typing, but somehow I just never applied too good at that. ... I wanted to go back to the Indian School, you know, and take up my painting again.”Velarde did return to the Indian School and Dunn’s painting classes. By the time she graduated in 1936, Velarde had spent more than 10 years at boarding schools. There was no market for Native American painting, so Velarde took a job cleaning tourist cabins in Pecos. She moved to Dulce and worked awhile scrubbing hospital floors and emptying bedpans. She returned to Santa Clara to work as an assistant teacher at a Bureau of Indian Affairs day school. She painted at night and occasionally sold her paintings under the portal at the Palace of the Governors for a dollar each.The teaching job ended, and Velarde was hired as a live-in nanny by Ernest Thompson Seton, one of the founders of the Boy Scouts of America, and his wife, Julia Moses Buttree Seton, author of The Rhythm of the Redman. With the Setons, Velarde traveled to Colorado, Nebraska, New York, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. “Then I thought, well, I think I had enough of travel and the baby, so I thinkI’ll go back home,” Velarde said during the 1988 interview. She was only back in Santa Clara for three to five weeks when Dale King from the National Park Service knocked on her door. “There stood this nice-looking man, just smiling at me, and he said, ‘Are you Pablita Velarde?’ And I said, ‘Un huh.’ And he looked at me, ’cause, you know, I looked like The Grapes of Wrath — dusty and everything. And he said, ‘Are you an artist?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know.’”The next day King returned to the pueblo and drove Velarde to Bandelier. She stayed for six months; at night she slept in a garage. Then the National Park Service’s art funding ran out, and she returned to Santa Clara. Over the next five years she returned to Bandelier whenever King had money to hire her. King cut and primed the panels Velarde painted on, sometimes cutting the figures she had designed out of masonite. In 1988, Velarde told her interviewers,“It’s sad now, because the backgroundpaint that Dale used is now so dry after 40-something years, you know, it’s so dry now that it’s peeling off the masonite, and it’s flaking off my paintings as it goes off. So they took most of the paintings and put them in storage.”The Bandelier commission was a big break, but it didn’t mean the young artist could make a living from painting. When the WPA money ran out, Velarde moved to Albuquerque and worked as a switchboard operator. Years later she would begin to win major awards for her painting, and she would write and illustrate the children’s book Old Father Story-Teller, which would make her art known around the world. But in 1945, Velarde was just a woman working in an Albuquerque federal building. When Velarde’s paintings were installed in the 1940s, they were tacked or screwed to the visitor-center walls, said Gary Roybal, museum technician and archivist at Bandelier. Velarde created them to support the main exhibits, which were taken down in the late 1970s and early ’80s. At that time many of her paintings were matted and framed behind glass and put into storage. Only four or five paintings, including Governor Greets the Tourists, needed extensive restoration, and during recent years the Friends of Bandelier paid for that work. Paintings of everyday experiencesMost of the paintings Velarde made for the visitor center at Bandelier are included in the exhibit, but the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture has an Indian Advisory Panel that found a few of Velarde’s subjects too sensitive. “Times change and politics change; during the 1960s Native Americans started to get involved in movements to protect their sovereignty and culture,” said Shelby Tisdale, the museum’s director and curator of A New Deal for Tse Tsan. “Since the 1980s we have been working with tribal members to make sure art is presented in a respectful way.” The main reason works were not included, Tisdale continued, was for lack of space, but the museum declined to borrow at least four paintings because they might violate religious sensitivities. A three-story Pueblo home with one missing wall fills the left side of Velarde’s Pueblo Home Life. A kiva, a woman baking bread in a traditional outdoor oven, a tree-lined irrigation canal, another multistory building with its walls intact, and a structure under construction fill the rest of the painting. The National Park Service hoped that Velarde’s paintings of ceremonies and everyday life in a contemporary pueblo would help tourists understand the civilization that once existed at Bandelier, Tisdale said. Velarde carefully recorded differences in the outfits worn by members of different pueblos; crafts like drum-making, basket weaving, and silverwork; a rabbit hunt; corn grinding; and the drying of meat. Governor Greets the Tourists, the image the museum has used on much of the publicity for the exhibit, shows the pueblo’s governor holding one hand up near a car with Anglo passengers. Indians stand on rooftops facing into the pueblo’s plaza — a common sight during ceremonial dances. The painting used to be interpreted as an Indian governor telling tourists the pueblo was closed because of a ceremony. But now the painting has been reinterpreted, leaving the impression that the governor is welcomingthe tourists.Velarde painted a horse roundup in a desert landscape with stepped mesas silhouetted against a clear-blue sky. Scrubby plants and rocks recede into the distance, creating an austere Southwestern version of the flower-strewn landscapes depicted in Persian miniatures. One horse has his head pressed to a tough-looking scrub; another appears to be munching on the pointy leaves of a yucca.Some of the smallest paintings in A New Deal are extraordinary; Velarde made tiny casein studies of New Mexican fauna and flora. Her paintings of bears, mountain lions, and bald eagles show a familiarity with the living animals. Velarde’s creatures are not always anatomically correct, yet they embody the power of living beings. A geometric border frames each piece.Her plant studies are masterpieces of composition; an ear of brilliant-blue corn is perfectly balanced by an elaborate yellow tassel and a second ear of corn still in its husk. The colors in some plant portraits have faded, and because the paint was thickest where Velarde’s brush first touched the masonite, those places have faded less, and we can now see the calligraphy of each stroke. A New Deal is saturated with evidence of Velarde’s sensitive attention to detail. She painted the Corn Dance, the Buffalo Dance, and the Taos Pueblo feast-day pole-climbing ceremony from memory. “I read that oftentimes she dreamed these paintings,” Tisdale said. “This commission had to be a life-changing experience for her. The door opened and she walked through it. And it changed her life.”

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