Margarete Bagshaw once remarked that her earliest memory was the smell of fresh paint. That first recollection speaks to the legacy that Bagshaw was born into as the last of a three generational dynasty of women who were working painters—the only one noted in Western history. Preceding Bagshaw was her grandmother, Pablita Velarde and Velarde's daughter, Helen Hardin. The three women are being honored and their work is being explored at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center on March 13 at 1pm during the first of an ongoing series, A View into the Collection.
“It's not just who they are … [it's] the content of the work [that] is so rich and unique. It's like nothing that exists anywhere else,” said Emma Lee Clark, the curator of the event. Clark saw a need to bring the center's collection of work by the three artists out of the vaults and into the light because “art is activated when people experience it … The art happens when you and I have a dialogue,” she explained. As such, the paintings of Velarde, Hardin and Bagshaw will be presented as a one-time-only roundtable sort of experience. “[At the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center] we are heritage keepers and we preserve Pueblo culture. We also need to use the work [like this] to perpetuate that culture, to have the public view it in a way that's never been done before.”
The work of the three women, while inherently bound by blood and culture, is surprisingly divergent, not constrained by the traditions established by the matriarch of the family, Velarde, nor by those of the Santa Clara Pueblo where the women were from. “They [all three women] [were] always talking about this dichotomy—‘I'm a modern painter, but I grew up in a traditional pueblo,’ or ‘I'm a woman but I'm doing a man's work,’ ‘I'm in a westernized world, but I'm a Native American’ … There's all these layers of dualities, that's why it's so complex,” Clark suggested as we flipped through reproductions of their work—Velarde's depictions of Pueblo life, Hardin's layered, cubist figures and Bagshaw's abstract, colorful paintings.
Velarde, whose Tewa name was Tsa Tsan, (“Golden Dawn”) was born in 1917 and sent to the Santa Fe Indian School in 1932, where she had her first, life altering encounter with painting. It was during this time that Velarde discovered her talent and learned to create natural pigments from rocks and clay, a technique that helped her to find recognition in the art world. Her paintings largely depict day-to-day existence at Santa Clara Pueblo and the activities that she observed. “She presents her perspective on pueblo life … but she does it in a unique way, like showing women grinding corn … she honors women's work and domesticity … and what might otherwise be invisible. No one was really painting those things before. It elevates the story of connection, family and womanhood. A lot of people connect with that,” Clark suggested about Velarde's work, which is also on permanent display in the form of murals at Bandelier National Monument and at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.
Clark points out that Velarde made a name for herself in a time when “women of color were not being honored in the art world” and as such, she is “an example of perseverance. [Each of these women] was courageous and bold and determined to create this work and to raise a family that felt just as empowered.” Hardin's need for independence and her unique aesthetic and material, wildly different from her mother's, is just another indicator of that empowerment, as is, in turn, Bagshaw's catalog of singular work.
“These women use art to make their own statement to the world without apologizing. There's this unapologetic truthfulness [for them] in the medium of painting … [They] used that to express their identity despite what [was] happening in society,” Clark said. In taking the time to appreciate and honor these women, participants in the discussion may find a wellspring of inspiration, particularly those who have been marginalized and “don't always have a format to share their moments of empowerment.” “Maybe someone will come and feel empowered by looking at this artwork and hearing these women's stories,” Clark continued. “And who knows what kind of art will come out of that [experience]. It could change the world.”
In many ways, the world, particularly the landscape of the arts in New Mexico, has been changed by the careers of these three women. “These women started a new kind of tradition,” Clark said, and their existence has created pathways for artists to come. Their ability to live unabashedly with their feet firmly planted in two worlds and their legacy of empowerment and innovation is a powerful example of what it means to be innately driven and at your core, a creator. They “utilized an art medium to have a voice. [To say the things] you can't always say aloud,” Clark said as our conversation neared a close, sometimes “you have to rely on the connection between your mind and your heart and your brush.” Encountering the paintings of these women is powerful instruction on how to do so with grace and courage.