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Pablita Velarde

Born: 1917

by Matthew Martinez
San Juan Pueblo

For centuries, the art of painting and drawing has always been a fundamental practice of indigenous peoples across the Americas. Evidence of recording through drawing can be seen in the petroglyphs found throughout the Southwest, which date back thousands of years. Art, drawing, dance, and song were, and continue to be venues for recording history and cultural practice. Today, American Indian art is widely acclaimed for its beauty and distinctiveness and Pablita Velarde’s paintings represent the strength of Pueblo cultural identity. Her work is strikingly unique and can be found in museums, libraries, galleries and private collections around the world.

Velarde was born in 1917 at Santa Clara Pueblo. Her Tewa name is Tsa Tsan (Golden Dawn). As a young girl Velarde and her sisters were sent to St. Catherine’s school in Santa Fe. This was common among many Pueblo families who went through difficult times. Later, as a young woman, Velarde attended the Santa Fe Indian School in 1932.

During this time, Velarde encountered Dorothy Dunn who came from Chicago to teach art at the Santa Fe Indian School. Dunn had a profound influence on the development of American Indian artists. She encouraged students to draw images from their tribal communities. Dunn taught Velarde how to grind rocks and clay for earth colors in her paintings. This technique helped Velarde find recognition in the art world. Velarde’s early work centered on village life and the women of Santa Clara.

When she was in her 20s Velarde was commissioned to paint 84 images of Pueblo life at Bandelier National Monument for a WPA project, 1939-1946. At times in her life Velarde worked a variety of jobs including nanny and switchboard operator. She married Herbert Hardin in 1941 and shortly after, Hardin was drafted to fight in World War II. Velarde was determined to be self-sufficient and continued to paint and draw. She would put her pictures up at the portal at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe where her artwork sold for only a few dollars. Today, her paintings sell for thousands of dollars all over the world. In her later life, Pablita Velarde painted a mural at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico that included a self portrait, breaking a long standing rule held by Pueblo painters.

Pablita Velarde is also known for her publication, Old Father Storyteller. The stories came from her grandfather and great-grandfather. Velarde illustrated the stories with natural earth tone paintings. The stories reflect aspects of the Tewa worldview. The stories and paintings all include imagery of land, animals, and people. Velarde grew up at a time when storytelling was very much part of the socialization of Pueblo children. She wanted these histories to be passed on by adding a visual element to the storytelling. As a result of writing these stories, the tribal elders began to punish and chastise Velarde. Many Pueblo people believed these stories were not supposed to be written down. Velarde felt compelled to write these stories for her own children as well as to share with the public something about Santa Clara culture.

Now in her late 80s (2005), Velarde still continues to paint images of life at Santa Clara Pueblo. She has lived an unconventional and rewarding life and has received over 50 awards for her work including an honorary doctorate from the University of New Mexico, the Award of Excellence from the Louvre in Paris, and the Lifetime Achievement Award as a Living Treasure from the governor of New Mexico. Pablita Velarde states the following as she reflects upon her life: “My time is coming to go live with the cloud people, when my body will be put in the graveyard at Santa Clara. I hope that my art has made a difference. I hope it will help people remember the traditions and ceremonies of the Santa Clara Pueblo. I hope the stories I have written and the pictures I have painted will teach children and adults everywhere that the Santa Clara are a truly remarkable Indian people.”

Sources Used:

Ruch, "Marcella J. Pablita Velarde: Painting Her People." New Mexico Magazine, 2001.

Sando, Joe S. Pueblo Profiles: Cultural Identity through Centuries of Change. Clear Light Publisher, 1998.

Velarde, Pablita. Old Father Story Teller. Clear Light Publishers, 1989.

Further Reading:

Dunn, Dorothy. American Indian Paintings of the Southwest and Plains Area. University of New Mexico Press, 1968.

Hyer, Sally. One House, One Voice, One Heart: Native American Education at the Santa Fe Indian School. Museum of New Mexico Press, 1990.

Iverson, Peter. “We Are Still Here” American Indians in the Twentieth Century. Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1998.

Sando, Joe S. Pueblo Nations Eight Centuries of Pueblo Indian History. Clear Light Publishers, 1992.

Watchful Eyes: Native American Women Artists. The Heard Museum, 1994.