In The Spirit of Tradition: Three Generations of Women Artists

In The Spirit of Tradition: Three Generations of Women Artists

Article by  Tony Gengarelly 

Click HERE for a slideshow of the images in this article.

Margarete Bagshaw is in her studio and painting a large picture — this one is 80” high by 110” wide. Using just her hands initially, she applies a film of primary colors and then, with the aid of drafting tools, introduces a geometry of lines and circles. Bagshaw takes her time and considers every step. The geometry is highlighted with color and then overlaid with the tracing of five images, all in a row and suggestive of the lines incised in the wet clay when she creates her pottery. After she fills in the newly registered spaces with color tones, she turns the picture upside-down, masks off sections, then introduces more patterns, including some traditional cloud symbols. Right-side-up, once again, the picture reveals kachina-like heads with exotic crowns and flared necklaces.

The completed painting, Ancestral Procession, 2010, from Bagshaw’s “Mother Line” series features a horizontal line of five figures, two figures traditionally stylized after her grandmother Pablita Velarde’s work and two after her mother Helen Hardin’s work. The central image is a self-portrait, “the wild child,” says Bagshaw, who has given us a glimpse of her artistic process.

Summing up, she says: “This painting started out (as almost all of mine do) as a three-color, abstract geometric painting with no idea of figures.” Yet, figures do emerge, invoked by Bagshaw, whose artistic lineage is rooted in the Pueblo Indian memory-painting tradition. “As you can tell, everything I paint comes from a spiritual place that is in large part connected to Mom and Grandma.”

When Pablita Velarde (1918-2006) was enrolled in the Santa Fe Indian School, around 1931, at the age of 14, she entered a world that would transform her life and others — that of her artist daughter, Helen Hardin, and her artist granddaughter, Margarete Bagshaw. In her art classes Verlarde befriended Tonita Pena, who introduced her to what J. J. Brody (in Pueblo Indian Painting) has termed “Pan Pueblo painting.” This style originated in the northern New Mexico pueblos, primarily San Ildefonso, around 1905. Pena was one of several artists from that area who had been encouraged in elementary school to create scenes featuring native life and rituals. This group of artists developed their craft and subsequently moved to Santa Fe. Their work was patronized by the new anthropology-focused Museum of New Mexico and a budding colony of Anglo-American artists, including Marsden Hartley.

Pena and others, such as Alfonso Roybal (Awa Tsireh) and Velino Shije Herrera, had made modest reputations during the 1920s with their depictions of Pueblo life. Using opaque watercolors, they painted in a flat, decorative style with sharp outlines and a full color spectrum. Drawing inspiration from local native pottery and the ancient petroglyphs of Anasazi ruins, as well as recently excavated murals on kiva walls in sites around San Ildefonso, these artists combined naturalistic elements with pictographic geometry to create powerful and moving commentaries on Indian life.

The opportunity to embrace a native-painting tradition provided a lifeline for Velarde in a world where, at age five, she had been torn from her home and culture in Santa Clara Pueblo to attend a Catholic boarding school in Santa Fe. Later, she was ostracized by her own people for being a woman painter. Pueblo women were supposed to be the potters and the mothers; painting was for men.

Pena’s influence on Velarde was soon augmented by Dorothy Dunn, who took over the painting classes at the Santa Fe Indian School in 1932. Dunn, while a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, had been trained in the modernist decorative aesthetic and found current native genre images perfectly suited to a contemporary art style. The Santa Fe Indian School had recently embarked on a program to recognize and conserve native culture. Dunn quickly embraced this trend and encouraged her students to create pictures of traditional life.

Dunn developed what has been called “The Studio Style” for her young students. Her goals, according to Bruce Bernstein (Modern by Tradition), were: “to produce new painting in keeping with high standards already established by Indian painters; to study and explore traditional Indian art methods and production in order to continue established basic painting forms. . . .; and to maintain tribal and individual distinction in the paintings.” Criticized later for prescribing art subjects and methods for her students, Dunn had simply used her own techniques to reinforce the already established decorative art idiom and take it to new levels.

The subject matter also was ingrained in the young native painters. Geronima Cruz Montoya, one of Dunn’s prize students who took over the Studio after Dunn was forced out in 1938, recalled: “[Dunn] did a lot for us. She made us realize how important our own Indian ways were, because we had been made to feel ashamed of them. She gave us something to be proud of.” Margarete Bagshaw, referring to her grandmother and other Studio artists, said, “[Dunn] gave them the tools to go forth and do what was in their souls.”

For Pablita Velarde, this meant representing her culture in paint. In her art she was able to create a spiritual home by connecting with her Indian heritage. Velarde celebrated Indian life in the murals she helped create at Bandelier National Monument from 1938 to 1945.

In the 1950s, Velarde followed the innovative path of fellow Studio artist Joe Herrera and painted traditional abstract and symbolic imagery using earth pigments. Herrera experimented with abstract forms derived from ancient kiva murals and Anasazi rock art during the ’50s. (His use of stippled backgrounds inspired Velarde’s daughter, Helen, in the 1960s.) Velarde’s earth pigments, however, were unique. She ground them herself, adding water and glue to create paint that she meticulously applied layer upon layer to create images adapted from traditional native iconography. (Pablita Velarde, Germination Kachinas
, circa 1971).

Velarde’s deep connection to the values of her people is reiterated in her comment for a 1931 exhibition catalogue: “I feel that I am keeping the old art alive by painting in the ancient way with my earth pigments and traditional designs. I feel I’m keeping them alive, and they’re keeping me alive.” In Pablita Velarde’s art the spirit of tradition is strong.

Helen Hardin (1943-1984) grew up in the shadow of a famous woman, her mother. In 1954, Velarde, along with other significant contributors to Native American art, had been awarded the prestigious Palmes d’Academiques, a French award given to cultural and educational notables, including foreigners. Hardin, who evidenced an early talent in art, was seen as a competitor by Velarde. Mother and daughter were further alienated when Velarde’s marriage to Herbert Hardin ended in 1957. Velarde’s anger and Hardin’s grief over the loss of her father drove an emotional wedge between mother and daughter. Like her mother, Hardin also led a double spiritual life. She attended parochial schools where Catholicism became her religion. But she found an equally compelling spiritual world in the Indian painting pioneered by Velarde. She said at one point: “I can see now that I had decided, way back then, to be Anglo socially and Indian in my art.”

Hardin, disassociated from Velarde, felt divided between Anglo society and her native roots. Her personal life with an abusive partner had reached an unbearable stage. In 1968, taking Margarete (then four years old), Hardin fled to South America. in Bogota, Colombia, she joined her father and continued to paint, displaying her art to enthusiastic audiences.

When Hardin returned to New Mexico, something had shifted for the artist. She no longer focused on genre-based pictures done after the work of her mother and Joe Herrera — but launched a different artistic trend into geometric abstraction. She invested her art with her personal struggle and expressive spirituality. Coinciding with her return to the States, an article in New Mexico Magazine featured Hardin as a “new look” in Native American art. Thus, she had achieved a greatly enhanced reputation and an independent market base.

Hardin’s art took on a personal, yet accessible, iconography that featured a cubist dimension of circles and geometric outlines reinforced by strong colors. Native Pueblo archetypes, such as kachina masks and sacred bird symbols, began to punctuate her work. For Hardin, kachinas were heavenly messengers (cloud people) who interceded between “earth surface walkers” and the spirit world, similar to the venerated saints of her Catholic upbringing.

Hardin would call on these messengers again and again as she began to live more completely in the native world of her art. These spirit forms with their circular masks and geometric bodies would be recaptured in her daughter’s work 35 years later. Prayers of a Blue Corn Mother, 1974, with its powerful spiritual message, is a monumental example of Hardin’s abstract design composition. The earth-bound corn mother has achieved divine stature in the presence of holy kachinas, represented by medallion-like masks that appear to be floating in a layered geometry.

The 1980s brought Hardin’s self-portraits as well as a resolution to much of her struggle for personal fulfillment. She was almost completely focused on the energy of the kachina mask, and her paintings, such as Metamorphosis, 1981, began to represent the tormented pieces of her life. According to Hardin’s biographer Jay Scott’s description of this painting, “The features were contained within a perfect circle, a Jungian archetype of psychic wholeness and the symbol for Hardin of life itself, but everything else about the painting was fragmented, jagged and asymmetrical.”

Changing Woman, 1981, is another self-portrait. Again there is division, but now there is also harmony and balance in the bifurcated face, which looks simultaneously outward and inward with the hint of a cubist profile. Medicine Woman, also 1981, and Listening Woman, 1982, reinforced the process of integration and became the artist’s guardians and healing spirits. With her “Changing Woman” series, Hardin invoked powerful female energy — the divine feminine being — for reconciliation and self healing. This energy extended to her relationship with Velarde, who now championed her daughter’s art and independent reputation.

In 1981, Hardin was diagnosed with the cancer to which she would succumb three years later. The losing struggle with her disease brought new peace of mind, however, as Hardin continued to bring her life into harmonious balance through painting. She even reconciled her Catholic faith with native spirituality, recognizing Jesus as a holy kachina and friend. Before her death, she said: “It’s very strange. . . but I feel so at peace with myself, everything seems to be in balance, even though I am physically falling apart.” In Helen Hardin’s art the spirit of tradition helped to reconcile the artist with herself, her family and her community.

Margarete Bagshaw (born 1964) did not begin to paint until several years after her mother’s death. She began tentatively with drawings and pastels that she exhibited through “blind juries.” Early success encouraged her. She began to paint in oils and to exhibit regularly in Santa Fe galleries. By the time she had settled her grandmother’s estate in 2006, she had become a recognized and celebrated artist.

Bagshaw, however, felt the need, like her mother and grandmother before her, to find out who she was in relation to her native tradition. Three years in St. Thomas (U. S. Virgin Islands) brought her to the conclusion that she needed to return to her roots in New Mexico, to paint and to bring her ancestral artistic family into alignment. In 2009, Bagshaw founded the Golden Dawn Gallery in Santa Fe with her husband Dan McGuinness. Golden Dawn is the English translation of her grandmother’s Tewa name, Tse Tsan. Here, only her art and that of her mother and grandmother is marketed and sold. The three generations of women artists are featured on the gallery website.

Concurrently, Bagshaw initiated her “Mother Line” series of monumental paintings as “a heartfelt homage to my mother. . . and grandmother.” To date, there are five “Mother Line” paintings. In a sense, they are a synthesis of the work of all three remarkable artists.

In the first painting in Bagshaw’s series, Messages and Miracles (60 in. high X 96 in. wide), Velarde’s earth pigments radiate from the tactile application of the under-painting. The applied geometry suggests both Velarde and Hardin. Bagshaw’s search for identity and originality is present, similar to the quest of her mother. The mask-like figures with their attributes bring together aspects of native tradition that each generation cherished as healing and empowering. Yet, these bows to the past reveal the new Native American world as well.

The little girl sitting between her mother and grandmother in a 1968 photograph has grown up to be a recognized artist in her own right. Bagshaw remarked in a recent article about her gallery and work: “I am strong enough in my own compositions, and in form and subject matter, that I can take something [my mother and grandmother] have done and turn it into my own.” In Margarete Bagshaw’s powerful and brilliantly executed art, the spirit of tradition reaches into the 21st century.

TONY GENGARELLY is Professor Emeritus of Art History and Museum Studies at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

As seen in the Folk Art Messenger:

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