Dreamlike and idyllic, the paintings of this celebrated Tiwa artist are on view at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, New Mexico.
In 1985, Jack Cruz Hopkins Jr. got a call from Albuquerque airport officials seeking his permission to retouch some murals that had fallen into disrepair from years in storage. The Masonite-board murals had been done in 1945 by Hopkins’ grandmother Merina Lujan Hopkins. Better known as Pop Chalee (a Tewa name meaning “flower blue,” given by her Taos Pueblo grandmother), she had painted them for the city’s first modern terminal, a Spanish-Pueblo style building designed to convey both New Mexico’s place in commercial air travel and its image as the Land of Enchantment.
As Hopkins tells it, it was aviation titan Howard Hughes and then-TWA president Jack Frye who had the idea of commissioning Chalee to create artwork for the airport that would reflect the regional culture. At the time, Chalee and husband Otis Hopkins were sequestered at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he was helping build the trigger for the atom bomb. But Hughes and Frye got permission from the Army to release Chalee to paint the murals, which would ultimately grace the airport until Albuquerque International Sunport was built. When Hopkins got the call about restoring his grandmother’s work, he suggested that officials speak to the artist herself. Flabbergasted that Chalee was still alive, they contacted her, and she helped to restore the paintings. In 1990, they were hung in the remodeled Sunport, where you can see them today.
You can also see her work in the exhibition Pop Chalee: Blue Flower Rooted, co-curated by her grandson, currently on view at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, New Mexico.
The painter of mythical horses and leafy woodland settings with wide-eyed animals came to her art as an adult in the 1930s under the tutelage of Dorothy Dunn at the Santa Fe Indian School. As a child, Chalee had attended there when it was a boarding school. Forced to cut her hair, wear a uniform, and march to class, she endured “having the Indian taken out of the Indian.” Under Dunn’s enlightened leadership, it was an entirely different place. Chalee thrived, and her ethereal paintings quickly gained national recognition (it has even been suggested that Bambi might have been inspired by a Pop Chalee painting). If Chalee’s work made an impression, so did the artist: With her full bangs, waist-length braids, and booming laugh, she possessed a sunny disposition that won her a legion of benefactors, including the influential Wrigley family of Chicago. In 1950, her winning personality prompted Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to send the 4-foot-11-inch Chalee, clad in a white buckskin dress, around the country to promote its film Annie Get Your Gun. Her promotion work would continue with second husband Ed Lee Natay, a tall and handsome Navajo singer, as guides on the Super Chief, the “Train of the Stars,” and she would continue to speak frequently throughout her life about Native America to white audiences.
“When her work in helping to promote Annie Get Your Gun was finished, MGM gave her half of a headdress that had been worn by Sitting Bull in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows,” Hopkins recalls. “Before she passed, she gave me, her son, my brother, and several of her relatives and cousins two eagle feathers each. I have them in a shadowbox with a plaque that reads ‘These are feathers from Sitting Bull’s ceremonial bonnet worn during Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show given to Pop Chalee by MGM in appreciation for her work on the movie Annie Get Your Gun.’ To have my grandmother give me feathers that were worn by the great Sioux chief Sitting Bull, that’s what I cherish the most.”
The exhibition gave Hopkins the opportunity to contribute those two eagle feathers, along with paintings, photographs, news clippings, ephemera, personal items, and a buckskin dress; it also allowed him to clear up a misunderstanding about his grandmother’s heritage. “We used to joke that my grandmother was double-Indian,” he says, explaining that Chalee was born in 1906 in Utah to an East Indian Mormon mother — not Swiss or Swedish as is often reported — and a full-blooded Indian father from Taos Pueblo. Her nuclear family split up early in her life, and her young years saw her living on the pueblo in the summer and in Santa Fe during the school year. When she and her sisters went to live with their mother as young teenagers, she rejected her children as “little black devils.” Resenting her mother’s strictness, Chalee left home at 16 and married Otis Hopkins, an Anglo and a Mormon. They had two children and moved frequently between Taos and Salt Lake City, with Chalee giving lectures to increase awareness about Native Americans.
In the 1930s, she began her art career, which blossomed throughout the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. After divorcing Hopkins in the mid-1940s, she married Ed Lee Natay, a Navajo singer and performer. The marriage lasted until the mid-1950s. In later years she lived with relatives and returned in the 1980s to Santa Fe, where she lived until her death from a stroke at age 87 in 1993.
It’s gratifying for Hopkins to see his grandmother’s work at the prestigious Harwood. He particularly loves the painting Mythical Horse because it reminds him of how she would tell him stories her grandfather used to tell her about a mythical horse that flew over the pueblo every night to make sure all the children were safe for the evening. “I used to sit and watch her [painting] for hours,” Hopkins says. “If you look at one of her mythical horses, the mane and the tail look like silk. Each one of those hairs that come off the mane and the tail is made with a brush that had only one hair. She’d sit for hours painting one hair at a time. ... The mane and tail almost look like clouds. I think she did that because the horse that flew over the pueblo obviously was flying in the clouds.”
Images: Mythical Horse, watercolor on paper, courtesy jack cruz Hopkins jr. / Pop Chalee Untitled – Forest Scene n.d. Tempera TA-155; Gift of Katherine Rust 1992; Courtesy of the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts / Scrapbook Cover, Painted by Pop Chaleee, CA. 1945, MS26, Pop Chalee Collection, Iaia Archives, Santa Fe, New Mexico; Courtesy the Iaia Meseum of Contemporary Native Arts.
From the January 2019 issue.