Pop Chalee, Studio Style, and How Bambi Was Born in Santa Fe

 For Native-American children in the American Southwest, the 1930s marked a shift in federal Indian policies at American Indian Boarding Schools that permitted increased freedom to practice native languages and culture (Bernstein, Bruce and W. Jackson Rushing Preface). Within this institutional setting, the non-Native painting instructor Dorothy Dunn founded the Studio school at the Santa Fe Indian School in 1932 with the intention of helping students uncover “an ‘authentically Indian’ way to paint” (Berlo, Janet Catherine and Ruth B. Phillips 217). Students ranging in age from eleven to twenty-one produced works in the “Traditional” and “Studio” styles that are in museums across the American Southwest today (Bernstein, Bruce and W. Jackson Rushing Preface). One of Dunn’s students, Pop Chalee (Blue Flower), born Merina Lujan in 1906 (Van Ness Seymour 165), went on to become symbolic of the strengths and weaknesses of early attempts at cross-cultural arts education and of the movement itself.

While crediting Dunn as well intentioned, the scholar J.J Brody dismisses Santa Fe Studio art as “fatally marred by subject dishonesty…decorative… and emotionally sterile” (Brody 146). He also asserts that instead of finding personal meaning in their work, artists of “The Studio” only painted for financial gain (Brody 190). These arguments attack the authenticity of artwork that can by its very nature never be truly Native-American in the traditional sense since easel painting was a European practice (Anthes Preface xv). W. Jackson Rushing acknowledges the influence of institutions and patrons on the art movement as a necessary and limiting evil that nevertheless defined it (Rushing 7,8).  While the notion of a non-Native teacher like Dunn shaping a system of authentic Indian painting within an almost “prisonlike” setting (Smith 119) is problematic, it doesn’t account for the experiences of the artists themselves and the impact their work had on future artists and popular culture.

In order to present a more complete picture of this period in American art history and explore notions of authenticity within the framework of Native-American artists themselves, it is necessary to ask the following question: How did the content, style and intentions of these painters reflect their unique position somewhere between their own cultural context and communities and a non-Native art market? Looking more closely at Pop Chalee as a commercially successful Native-American artist educated in the Studio school allows for new paths of thinking that are mindful of Native-American religious and cultural practices and that produce an enriched and more relevant description of this influential American art movement. In doing so, it is apparent that the repetitive and seemingly simplistic themes of her paintings only partially mask a much larger Native-American cosmology, that the experience of the visual style and design depends on the viewer, and that these elements combined with the position of Native-American artists supported by non-Native patrons reveal a unique and personal tension in the images that only add to their legitimacy as Native-American art.

Pop Chalee’s story, although exceptional in some ways, is also typical of many of her contemporaries, and offers a glimpse into the Southwest art scene for Native-Americans in the 1930s.  Chalee entered the Santa Fe Studio as a married mother of two, twenty years after leaving the Indian School. She was told in a vision that she should be an artist, although it is more likely she saw opportunities through her connections to the Taos arts commune through her uncle, a Native-American married to a wealthy European art patron. Indeed it was through his intervention that she was admitted to the program despite her age and initially encouraged to become a teacher. Her many paintings of dainty forest creatures including deer, rabbits, and skunks later earned them the pejorative label of “Bambi style”, however, she contends that Walt Disney visited her studio the year before starting sketches for the Bambi animated feature and that it was he who was inspired by her work. Given the timeline and the similarity in style and content, some art historians find this a plausible explanation (Cesa 53, 72). Acknowledging the influence of Studio artists like Chalee, not just on a popular icon like Disney, but also on the painters who followed them calls for a reexamination of the impact of repeated paintings of wildlife and landscape by Native-American artists. The highly stylized and imitated designs indicate an art movement, not merely an economic venture, and that would call for an expanded analysis of the works.

Furthermore, Pop Chalee’s paintings, like many created in the Studio school, are not only notable for what is in the picture, but also for what is left out. Scholar Michelle McGeough, in her overview of the Studio artists, delves into what members of Native-American communities are taught from birth: “In some Pueblo communities, religious tradition prohibited the depiction of ceremonies and the representation of the human figure” (McGeough 65). Since religious practices are learned through secret initiation rituals and passed down orally, the impulse to visually depict clan histories or personal practices would have been limited to subject matter considered public. The focus on vegetation and wildlife are part of that “public” cosmology that reflect the “notion of beauty…defined by harmony, order, and balance”(McGeough 67). Indeed, the color and composition in Studio school paintings generally reflect a specific type of equilibrium centered in the middle of the image that moves to the right and left. At the same time, “the land, the animals, the plant life, and the water are all sacred elements” (McGeough 67) and depictions of them would have connected the artist to their own history, community, and belief system. In this way, personal expression would have been about meeting the challenge of respecting tradition and translating the Native world to non-Native viewers. Studio artists, like other artists at the time, had to create an image that communicated something abstract and internal, however, in their case; it was molded by their specific position between two cultural worlds.

These values are also represented in Pop Chalee’s numerous deer paintings. She describes her own Hounds Chasing a Deer [Figure 1]: “This is a scene that my grandfather and I saw up in Taos. We were going up after wood, and we saw this beautiful deer and two hounds going after the deer. And of course, the deer is sacred. When an Indian kills a deer, he prays. They have a ceremony for the deer before they cut him up” (Van Ness Seymour 188). The deer becomes more than an animal: it is a symbol for the sacred that it represents. It is a reminder of the ceremonies related to the deer and the prayers of thanks for food provided from the heavenly realm. The repetition of it over multiple years of artworks is then potentially part of a larger spiritual practice that crosses over from traditional methods like basket weaving to the canvas. In this respect, there could be few subjects more authentic to Native-American artists than forest creatures and scenes of nature. When Chalee places the deer in the woodlands, the ones “near Taos are represented by the pine tree and the plants,” she also explains that the “flowers are very important to the Taos Indians, part of their religion. There is beauty” (Seymour 188). Specific flowers and trees stand in for ideas of home and the Taos region as well as embodying Native-American concepts of harmony, beauty, and ceremony. When looked at in this way, Chalee’s deer paintings could be categorized as self-portraits within a framework that forbids images of her own face. Few genres of painting are more personal and honest than that. This interpretation of the painting’s content can only be reached by taking Chalee’s intentions and background into account. Unfortunately, art collectors at the time were as unaware of the traditional significance of content in Studio paintings as they were of Native-American visual training when viewing painted canvases.

     While design attempts were made through color and pattern to reduce the admittedly flat appearance of Studio school paintings, they would not have been two-dimensional to Native-American viewers. In some ways, Navajo sandpainting, “an ephemeral art made of crushed minerals of the earth itself,” (Berlo 10) is the closest related traditional art form to easel painting in that it is performed on a flat surface. More importantly, “Navajo sandpainting-like related imagery in other media such as weaving or drawing-seeks to be merely a reminder of a multidimensional universe in which there is no viewer per se, only participants” (Berlo 10). Created during a healing ritual, the images are used to summon spiritual beings who exist in the past, present, and future as well as in all directions (the four of the earth and the two of the sky towards the center of the earth) and who act on the individual who sits inside the painting (Berlo 10,11). When approached in this way, paintings on canvas would be experienced as having depth to those who are accustomed to viewing space as layered. The habitual act of looking at a painting or image from the center towards the sides as well as the top and bottom instead of straight on would have been second nature to Native-American artists. For Pop Chalee, this distinction would have made it challenging for Dunn to explain European ideals of three-dimensionality and even more difficult for Dunn or art collectors to recognize the multi-layered depictions presented to them. Either way, the style and form used by Studio school painters under Dunn’s guidance would still have been inherently rooted in a way of seeing images that existed before they were in school. The fact that non-Native art patrons were the greatest consumers of the images (Cesa 67) only compounded misunderstandings about the artists’ intentions.

Many of the misconceptions about Pop Chalee and others from Dunn’s Santa Fe Studio School are based on the analysis of the scholar J.J. Brody in his book Indian Painters and White Patrons written in 1971. Brody concludes that this initial foray into easel painting for Native Americans could never be authentic to the artists themselves. He argues that since they were taught by a non-Native and stood to make unprecedented amounts of money by selling their work to wealthy white customers, their only motivation would have been financial gain (Brody 190). As an expert on Native-American art and culture, he dismisses the Studio school as “fatally marred by subject dishonesty” (Brody 146). His demand of accuracy in ceremonial details, rejection of stylistic elements unique to the period, and honest sentiment from a culture he studied from the outside reveal a unique standard when judging Native-American art that is not apparent in expectations of the non-Native dominated art world at large at the time where creative license and non-realistic representation were the norm. Brody also states that Studio paintings were “decorative, but emotionally sterile, and lacked the saving grace of being informative” (Brody 146). Again, as part of his generation of critics, an ethnocentric bias meant that the works would be analyzed not only in comparison to the European canon but also to the European interpretation of Native-American traditional arts and crafts. Since easel painting was European, it would be impossible to categorize it as an authentic Native-American tradition anyway (Anthes Preface xv). It is precisely Brody’s attempt to position the work of Studio artists as rooted only in the past that prevents seeing them as active participants in a present time where the collision of two worlds produces something totally new.

Another theory about limitations to authenticity in Studio paintings comes from a Native-American art expert.  According to W. Jackson Rushing, an obstacle to viewing an artist like Pop Chalee as legitimately “Native” is the institutional environment where her works were created and sold (Rushing 7). He claims that it would be unlikely for a non-Native teacher like Dunn to produce artists who thought for themselves or felt comfortable painting what they wanted in an oppressive school environment that attempted to get rid of their Native side. To Rushing, the very nature of the Indian Schools was confining and therefore the art produced there could only be seen in light of that forceful discipline. Both Rushing’s and Brody’s arguments, however, fail to see artists as creative actors operating independently of their surroundings.

This alternate approach to the material is gaining steam among scholars, like McGeough, who rightly noticed that most research on the Studio school was conducted with little or no input from the Native-American artists themselves (McGeough 11). Others, like Van Ness Seymour, who compiled a book of interviews with Native-American artists, note that while art collectors and critics at the time praised the paintings, they never actually understood what they were looking at (Van Ness Seymour 21). The research of Native-American art scholar Newsome is a convincing unraveling of Brody’s theories that treat the Native-American artist as “passive recipients of influences that first destroyed the authenticity of their true identities and then replaced them with fictions that would prove equally destructive” (Newsome 110). Artists bring their personal point of view to their work whether they want to or not, why would Native-American artists be any different? How, indeed, would a Studio school artist take on the exact point of view of Dunn or other white art patrons like a blank slate and replicate them without their own identity involved in the process? Newsome concludes that it would be impossible and that to assume otherwise incorrectly puts Native-American artists in an inferior position. Instead, she describes an individual “aesthetic experience” based on the artists’ own “subjectivities of memory, viewership, and self-awareness” (Newsome 136). In this way, Chalee’s life and work provide ample material to re-consider the Studio school movement from her point of view and start a new discussion of authenticity and purpose from within the Native-American community instead of from outside of it.

Moreover, if the theory that the style and content of the paintings were inherently based on Native-American beliefs and experiences is convincing, then the presentation of those images to a Non-native public would have felt highly personal to the artists. Some of Chalee’s early works, two untitled paintings from 1935-36, have such a unique look and feel, that it would be a stretch to conclude the artist herself had nothing to do with it. One painting features two deer, a tree, and a bushy tailed squirrel [Figure 2] and the other is of two buffalo [Figure 3] (McGeough 135). Both images have a central element in the middle, dual semi-symmetric objects to the right and left, generous white space, and harmonious colors that distribute attention equally around the picture at once. The lines and lack of shading produce a flat, two-dimensional image, however, one can imagine a different spatial relationship when the six directional Native-American concept is applied. Chalee’s consideration of subject matter that meant something to her, but didn’t betray her community’s secrets in presenting the images to a non-Native buying public radiates through the works. The open canvases reveal the gap between Chalee and the culture she was confronted with at the Indian School and a futile attempt to translate her cosmology to an audience who looked at the world in a different way. The alienation of that effort has remained ever present in her works that were nonetheless dismissed as empty of Native-American authenticity.  In the end, the tension created by this defines her work and validates Chalee as a Native-American artist producing some of the first paintings of their kind in the world.

Ultimately, the tendency to encapsulate the Santa Fe Studio school movement of the 1930s within the commercial art market, the oppressive institutional norms that it came out of, or the European viewing standard has left out the voices of those who matter most.  Ideas about what constitutes authentic Native-American expression need to have a starting point in the notion that Native people live in the present time and are part of a living and active culture that, although rooted in ancient traditions, is continuously in flux. This is true of todays Native-American community and it was the case when Pop Chalee learned to paint on canvas and created hundreds of images of deer and other forest animals that connected her to the sacred nature of her religion and even helped produce the iconic imagery of Disney’s Bambi. It is important to remember she did both at the same time. This ability to exist in multiple worlds at once and to interpret that experience into a body of work and, indeed, an entire art movement situates the Studio school as a vital link between Native-American beliefs and traditions, multi-layered visual space on flat surfaces, and the changing identity that resulted from entering a non-Native art market. Including the intentions and experiences of artists like Pop Chalee fills in the blank spaces in a way that respects her active role as an individual and creative being.