In a 1979 interview, Pablita Velarde 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 chief cook. Those were things I wasn't interested in." Velarde, born in 1918 at Santa Clara Pueblo, a tribe of Native American Pueblo people in New Mexico, had decided to follow a more unexpected path than the one that had been laid out for her.
Verlade, born Tse Tsan, meaning “Golden Dawn” in the Tewa language, grew up in poverty and life wasn't easy. Her and her sister suffered temporary blindness when they were young due to a cataract-like eye disorder that obstructed their vision completely. Her father and grandmother used an Indian remedy to wash their eyes and restore their sight, but Verlade still had trouble seeing out of her left eye for the rest of her life.
After her mother’s death when she was five, she was sent away to missionary school in Santa Fe, leaving behind the Pueblo where she was born and the life she knew. At the age of 14, Velarde attended the Santa Fe Indian School, where she met Dorothy Dunn, an American art instructor who introduced her to painting. Verlade became Dunn's first full-time female student, with Verlade later claiming, "I used to think of her as a kind of mother".
Verlade's home of Santa Clara Pueblo is renowned for its engraved black and red pottery and the artist was initially criticized by the leaders of her community for pursuing painting instead of the traditional craft of her culture, but she persevered with her art nonetheless.
Dunn encouraged Velarde to portray scenes from her community and trained her to paint in a style known as “flat painting”. Flat painting is characterized by flat fields of color primarily painted in opaque watercolors; heavy outlines; and tends to portray narratives of ceremonies, dancing, and mythology. Dunn taught Velarde how to prepare paint by grinding up minerals and rocks with a metate and mano (ground stone tools) to make natural pigments, which she used to produce what she called “earth paintings.” This required a great deal of skill, as it is difficult to make the paint smooth and even. Velarde tried to keep true to the colors of the earth, and would avoid mixing colors to make new ones, instead traveling to different areas to find a variety of earth pigments.
When Velarde graduated in 1936, determined to turn her art into a career, she used to sit under the governor's porch at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe and sell little paintings for 50 cents. In 1939, Velarde had her big break when the National Park Service commissioned her to create some scenes of traditional Pueblo life. These would be displayed to visitors at the Bandelier National Monument, an archaeological area that preserves the homes and territory of the Ancestral Puebloans.
She created over 70 paintings of Pueblo culture using memories from her early upbringing in Santa Clara Pueblo that depicted in detail the tradition clothing, architecture and daily activities. Her intimate knowledge and artistic skills proved integral in educating others about her people, helping preserve stories and knowledge, and strengthening Pueblo cultural identity.
From here, Velarde became one of the most successful Native American painters of her generation and one of only a handful of Pueblo to achieve prominence. She held solo exhibits in New Mexico, Florida and California; was commissioned to paint murals; and despite the early criticism, she received acclaim from around the world. She was honored with the Palmes Académiques for excellence in art by the French government in 1954 and went on to become the first woman to win the Grand Purchase Award at the Philbrook Museum of Art’s Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Indian Painting.
Velarde passed away in 2006 at the age of 87, leaving behind an inspirational legacy to future generations of Pueblo artists. Both her daughter and her granddaughter went on to become artists in their own right, making them the only existing three-generation professional painting dynasty in history. Her art retains its significance in fostering intercultural understanding and can now be found in museums and galleries around the world.