She became one of the most accomplished Native American painters of her generation, with solo exhibitions throughout the United States, including her native New Mexico. She was the first woman to receive the Grand Purchase Award at the Philbrook Museum of Art’s Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Indian Painting.
In a 1979 interview she said, ‘Painting was not considered women’s work in my time. A woman was supposed to be just a woman, like a housewife and a mother and a chief cook. Those were things that didn’t interest me.’
Initially ostracized by the leaders of her Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico for pursuing a full-time career as a painter when women were expected to be potters, selling their wares at local trading posts, art fairs and roadside stands, Velarde disregarded custom and went on to become a leading professional American Indian artist, capturing every day and ceremonial life from her childhood.
Her chosen subject was little concern to other Pueblo artists and non-Indian observers at the time, but she persevered as a defiantly independent voice for her gender and won more art awards than any other painter, male or female.
Her early paintings was exclusively watercolors, but in later life she learned how to prepare paints from natural pigments similar to fresco secco.
She obtained the pigments from minerals and rocks, which she ground on a metate and mano until the result was a powdery substance from which she made her paints.
Granddaughter Margarete Bagshaw, a successful painter and Santa Fe gallery owner herself, said, ‘my grandmother was born absolutely dirt poor and survived the school of hard knocks. She and her sisters were left without a mother. Her father sent her off to mission school when she was only about 3 years old. She was proud of the fact that she looked at herself as a plain little ordinary Indian woman who accomplished a whole lot.’
Bagshaw established the Pablita Velarde Museum of Indian Women in the Arts in Santa Fe to honour her grandmother. The museum features the art of women able to trace Native ancestry within 3 generations.
Velarde, her daughter Helen Hardin, (diagnosed with breast cancer passed away in her 40’s in 1984) and her granddaughter Bagshaw are the only three generational full-time female painting dynasty on record.
Pablita Velarde’s daughter Helen Hardin also known as Tsa-sah-wee-eh or Little Standing Spruce started selling her paintings and participated in the University of Arizona’s Southwest Indian Art Project before she was 18 years old. She saw herself as ‘Anglo socially and Indian in her art.
Margarete Bagshaw, (Helen Hardin’s daughter, Pablita Velarde’s granddaughter) was known for her use of colour, composition and texture. She was the featured artist in many publications.
A corner of the Pablita Velarde Museum of Indian Women in the Arts is reserved for its namesake, set up as a re-creation of Velarde’s art studio. It includes a metate and mano (stone mortar and pestle) where she ground mineral and rock element into powders for making earth coloured paint. ‘The Museum is small and humble now as my grandmother was,’ said Bagshaw. In time she hopes it expands to feature painters, potters, weavers, sculptors, jewellers, dancers, musicians writers and poets.
An education outreach program will bring school-age children into the museum to learn about the contributions Native American women artists have made throughout history.
‘My grandmother started something from being born into nothing and now her ground-breaking legacy will endure.’
Pablita Velarde died at age 87 in 2006.
Sadly, her granddaughter Margarete Bagshaw passed away in 2015 at 50 years old from a brain tumor.