February 2007

Defying tradition: An exhibit showcases the art of a Pueblo woman who chose her own path

By Connie Gotsch

In 1918 a baby was born at New Mexico’s Santa Clara Pueblo. Her grandmother named her Tse Tsan (Golden Dawn), and began explaining that women filled traditional roles of mother and wife at Santa Clara.


Then, at age 6, Tse Tsan went to St. Catherine’s Boarding School in Santa Fe. Her teachers gave her a European name, Pablita Velarde. They also nursed her through an illness that caused temporary blindness.

Pablita Velarde transferred to the Santa Fe Indian School at age 14. There, she met art teacher Dorothy Dunn, who was developing a studio that would train many Native American artists.

Ignoring Santa Clara traditions, Velarde studied easel painting with Dunn, and at age 19, began a career creating murals at the new Bandelier National Monument Visitors Center for the Works Progress Administration. By the time she died in 2005, she had achieved international fame as an artist.

“She was very independent, and I think it was that independent spirit. . . that moved her forward as an artist,” says Shelby Tisdale, director of Santa Fe’s Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.

On Feb. 18, the museum will open the exhibit “A New Deal for Tse Tsan: Pablita Velarde and Bandelier.” To Tisdale, the show celebrates the life of a special person. Not only did Velarde experiment with design, pigment, and media, but she dared to pursue a painting career at a time when Pueblo women did not.

If they had art talent, they wove or made pottery. Men painted, and focused on male subjects and themes. “It wasn’t easy for her when she went home to the Pueblo,” says Tisdale.

How, then, did Velarde persevere? Tisdale laughs. “She didn’t take any guff.” A supportive father, the fact that she’d lived away from her family while young, and the illness she faced, all gave her the strength not to care what people thought of her. “She blazed a trail for other women to follow.”

Pueblo muralist Tonita Pena probably also helped her. They worked together on Velarde’s first assignment for Bandelier. “[Pena] may have had many of the same experiences [as Velarde]. She was a good role model.”

Velarde produced 84 paintings for Bandelier in casein, on masonite, matte board, and glass, between 1939 and 1945. When the monument didn’t employ her, she sold paintings in front of the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe.

Velarde developed an innovative style early. Dunn encouraged her students to paint on flat, white backgrounds, with open space. She stressed an art-deco look, with repetitive designs, blocky colors, and close attention to precise, elemental details.

While many Native American artists kept to Dunn’s style, Velarde broke quickly away from it.

“Take ‘The Procession from the Church,’” says Tisdale, of a painting that depicts the beginning of a parade to honor a saint. “People pour out the doors of a beautiful church. You get a sense of something happening in the painting.”

She describes “Pueblo Home” as a “cutaway like when you were a child and you had a doll house. You were working from behind and you had an idea of what was going on in every room.”

Tisdale laughs. When she looks at Velarde’s paintings they engage all her senses. She says she can almost hear the drums beat, the rattles shake, and the bells jingle.

An image of people grinding corn makes her smell the fresh kernels crushed under stone pestles. Seeing basket-weavers brings the odor of fresh-split branches. “I don’t get that with most paintings,” she confesses. Velarde painted all aspects of Pueblo life, including both men and women as subjects. Clothing and hair styles; and everyday utensils fascinated her.

In “Basket Makers,” she not only showed the weavers, but also the young men gathering the willows, and the women preparing them for use.

“Silversmith” includes a detailed work bench filled with the artist’s tools.

“So we have this wonderful documentation of a slice time in the 1930s and ’40s that gives you a sense of what it was like living in the pueblos,” says Tisdale.

Later in her career, Velarde collected rocks and ground her own pigments. She called the paintings she made with them her “earth paintings.” Though they don’t appear in “A New Deal for Tse Tsan,” they are among Velarde’s best-known work.

Tisdale spent a year-and-a-half planning “A New Deal for Tse Tsan: Pablita Velarde and Bandelier.” The project began when Gary Roybal, Bandelier National Monument curator and a member of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture Advisory Board, told her that his museum would soon close for repairs, and that period might be a good time for an exhibit of Velarde’s work in Santa fe.

Tisdale came to Bandelier to look at Velarde’s paintings and “couldn’t pass them up.” Eventually she selected 68 for the show. Most have not been seen by the general public for 30 years.

“A New Deal for Tse Tsan: Pablita Velarde and Bandelier” will include a large portrait of the artist, and a diorama depicting her studio, complete with paints, brushes, glasses, and cigarettes, all lent to the museum by her family. “It’ll be as if she is just coming in to paint,” says Tisdale.

The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture is part of the Museum of New Mexico. Located on Museum Hill in Santa Fe, it’s open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. For information, call 505-476-5100.