is a Tewa Indian painter who was born in Santa Clara Pueblo near Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1918. Her given name was Tse Tsan, which in the Tewa language means Golden Dawn. At age five she was sent to a school for Indian children where she was forced to learn English and forbidden to speak her native tongue. Here she was given a new name, Pablita.
Pablita began painting when she was a child, then studied art at the Santa Fe Indian School, where she was exposed by her teacher to the art of the great Indian civilizations. Native American painting began hundreds of years before Europeans came to the New World and has always been a vital means of expression.
She was the only girl in her art class. By the time she was 15 years old, she was already becoming well-known because of two murals about Pueblo Indian life she painted which were exhibited at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. In her painting, she worked steadily and seriously, paying careful attention to detail. After she graduated from school she taught drawing for young people, traveled to the Midwest and the East, and got married. She then returned to her native village and continued to paint in a studio she built there. She had a son and a daughter, who also became artists. Later, she moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Pablita has devoted her life to recording scenes of daily Indian life in the Southwest. Through painting, she records the traditions, culture, religion, and politics of her Pueblo people. The paintings show everyday aspects of Indian life such as corn grinding, basketmaking, planting, making pottery, and ritual life including ceremonies, costumes, and dances. Her paintings show moments frozen in time.
Because her paintings document, which means to prove or show examples of, they are called documentary paintings. They show exceptional detail and color, and include rituals, customs, symbols, folklore, and ceremonies that have been handed down through many, many generations. In her work, colors and designs on clothing, details about houses, pottery shapes, and methods of doing things are exact. Paintings are often used as a source of information about cultures. By telling stories about her culture, Pablita Velarde’s paintings help preserve her people’s traditions and heritage. Because they also show Tewa mythology and legends, they can be called mythic paintings.
But there is something that is not traditional about Pablita Velarde. At the time she started painting, only Tewa men made paintings. Tradition said that women were expected to make pottery and attend to the home and family. In this way she broke from tradition and did something very new, even though her paintings show traditions which are very old. Because she became a painter, some of her people were very angry with her. The traditions that said that only men could paint were ancient and sacred.
Do you think it’s a good idea to change old traditions or create new ones? Do you think it’s OK for young people to do some things differently from the way their parents or grandparents did them? Do you think it’s OK for people from a culture to change something about their own culture? Why/Why not?
Pablita paints in oils and casein, a water-based paint like tempera. She also makes her own paint in the traditional Indian way by grinding natural pigments from rocks, minerals, and wood to produce earth colors (red, brown, white, yellow, black). She grinds colors with a “metate,” a grinding stone traditionally used by Pueblo women to grind corn.
Besides her many paintings, Pablita created large murals at the Museum of New Mexico and the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. She has exhibited her work all over the U.S. and is also a very popular speaker. She has won many prizes, including the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts. In 1988, she was honored in New Mexico as a “Living Treasure.” In addition, she has written and illustrated a book on tribal legends entitled, “Old Father Story-Teller.” Pablita Velarde is considered the leading Indian woman painter of the Southwest.
One of the paintings from her book, a picture called “Old Father,” shows an old man sitting outdoors telling stories to many young people surrounding him. They seem enchanted by his story and also by the night sky above them, which is full of constellations and stars. Also in the sky are ancestors walking across the heavens. The Old Father is pointing upward. In the background are geometric Pueblo designs which looks like steps, and various animals including a spider, turtle and an eagle. The Old Father is painted in neutral browns, tans, and grays and the night sky in black, but the Indian designs are shades of soft red, yellow, and blue. Pablita says the colors symbolize the directions: white is north, yellow is west, blue is east, and red is south. The step designs represent sacred mountains near her people’s homeland. Atop each step design is an evergreen tree, a symbol for life. Long, long ago, the stars and the animals led her ancestors to the beautiful land in New Mexico where they now live.
What story does this painting tell? What do you think the old man and the young people represent? Why is Old Father pointing upward? Why are there ancestors walking in the sky? Why do the stars tell or show? What feelings does this painting give you?