Artist Pop Chalee (1906-1993) was known for her influential and stylized depictions of forest scenes and wildlife, with graceful paintings of deer that bear a resemblance to the lithe young Bambi in Walt Disney’s animated classic. During the making of the film, released in 1942, the appearance of Bambi went through many changes, and the character reached its final form under the hand of animator Marc Davis. Critics have often assumed that Chalee adapted the so-called “Bambi” style to suit her own work — but it could well have been the other way around. “There is a story told that Disney saw the work being done at the Santa Fe Indian School through Dorothy Dunn,” said Chalee’s grandson, Jack Cruz Hopkins. “When he looked at what they were doing, he wanted many of them, including my grandmother, to help work on his animation. The problem is that none of the Indian students would go to California.”
Though anecdotal, this is the same version of the story told by Chalee herself, as recounted in author Margaret Cesa’s 1997 biography of the artist The World of Flower Blue, published by Red Crane Books (Museum of New Mexico Press). Cesa writes that Disney had been delighted when, in the late 1930s, he encountered Chalee’s work during a visit to Dunn’s Studio School at SFIS, which trained an influential generation of Native artists. “She later recalled that he bought one of her watercolors, a forest scene with running deer,” Cesa writes. “Pop Chalee remembered that Disney had wanted to hire several Indian students because he admired the meticulous detail of their work. All the students at that time had said no to the offer. As one of them put it, they had not wanted to paint Mickey Mouse’s hands for the rest of their lives.”
Nevertheless, a friendship developed between Disney and Chalee. “When Disneyland first opened, my parents went to the opening because my grandmother was a special guest of Walt Disney,” Cruz Hopkins recalled with a faint trace of bitterness. “I was about five or six, and probably old enough to enjoy it, but my parents decided to keep me back in Santa Fe.”
Chalee’s archives were donated by Cruz Hopkins to the Institute of American Indian Arts, which received a grant from the New Mexico Historical Records Advisory Board in 2017 for the preservation of the materials. The artist was born Merina Lujan in Castle Gate, Utah. She was the daughter of a domineering, mostly Swiss mother and a father from Taos Pueblo, as well as the niece of Tony Lujan, the husband of Taos arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan. A relative from Taos, where Chalee would live off and on throughout her life, gave her the Tiwa name Pop Chalee, which translates as “Blue Flower.” According to Cesa, Chalee was intrigued by her Pueblo heritage. Her father, Joseph Cruz Lujan, was among the first nine Pueblo students to attend the Santa Fe Indian School in 1890. Chalee would eventually follow suit. After the death of her brother Lawrence from scarlet fever in 1910, her father, who had contracted tuberculosis, returned to Taos. One summer, he sent for Chalee and her sisters to join him. The children became steeped in the traditions of the pueblo before starting school in Santa Fe at summer’s end.
Between two wood panel covers that were hand-painted by Pop Chalee (1906-1993) lies the artist’s life story, told through newspaper and magazine clippings, family snapshots, exhibit announcements, and other printed memorabilia.
Chalee would return to Taos when school was not in session, learning religious observances that, as Cesa writes, “blended Catholicism with Native American practices.” She learned to ride a horse, an animal for which she developed a deep and abiding respect. Later in life, when she began painting horses, she imbued her depictions of them with a sense of mystical power and ravishing beauty. “If you’ve seen the mythical horse with this huge mane and tail, each one of those hairs was painted using one hair of a brush,” Cruz Hopkins said. “When you see the silkiness of the mane and tail, it just sort of flies. That mythical horse comes from her grandfather, who used to tell the story about how, at night, a horse would fly over the pueblo to make sure all the young kids were being taken care of and kept safe. When she started painting, she decided she would try to capture that image. When you look at the horse, it’s very stylized: the hooves are pointed, almost aerodynamic, and the mane and tail are just flowing.”
At around fourteen years of age, Chalee and her sisters, Mattie and Jackie, returned to Utah, arriving by train in Salt Lake City, but were dismayed to discover that their mother wasn’t there to greet them. After locating her address, they were met with a cold reception at the door. As recounted in Cesa’s biography, Chalee stated that when they knocked on the door, her mother opened it, exclaiming, “Oh, you little black devils.” She said the experience cooled her to her mother. “It took something out of me. And I never could get the feeling I should have had towards her.” Merea Margherete Luenberger, or Myrtle, as her mother was known, expected her daughters to work and contribute to the family’s income. Chalee worked in an ice cream parlor. The girls admired their mother’s strong will, independence, and love for animals, but she could be strict, striking Chalee in the face with a dog leash, for instance, for coming home late one evening. Chalee referred to her in private as the “Colonel.”
Goshorn (Eastern Band Cherokee) completed This River Runs Red earlier this year. It is one of the latest works in an artistic career of creating multimedia art that merges traditional forms and activist themes in a manner that, though forthright, is not limited by one-way didacticism.
At the age of sixteen, Chalee ran away from home and married her first husband, a Mormon craftsman named Otis Fred Hopkins, and within a few years she had children of her own. (She married her second husband, a Navajo artist and Hatałii, or medicine man, named Edward Lee Natay, in 1947.) “She had married my father when she was very young,” said Cruz Hopkins, who as a boy admired his grandmother’s youthful spirit. “She would go out and play football with us,” he said. “We’d play Kick the Can. As a matter of fact, I seriously injured her. She was teaching me and a neighbor kid how to wrestle because she said she was a fine Indian wrestler, and boy, she was beating the hell out of us. We got a little indignant, and the two of us ganged up on her and we flipped her and caused the cartilage in her leg to be ripped. She had to go on crutches for some time. So I actually beat up my grandmother.”
Chalee had not considered pursuing a career in art until 1935, when she was twenty-nine. What prompted her decision was a visit to a fortune teller, who told Chalee that she was destined to become somebody and that she would return to the place she always loved, which Chalee interpreted as Taos. Her husband, who owned a gunsmith business in Salt Lake City, sold it along with their home and they returned once more to New Mexico. Mabel Dodge Luhan encouraged her to enroll in Dorothy Dunn’s classes at the Indian School in Santa Fe, though Chalee was considerably older than the other students. Dunn taught her students to take pride in their Native heritage, which became a focal point of the work for many of them. Chalee’s colleagues, like herself, would also go on to prominence in the annals of Native modernism — Gerald Nailor, Quincy Tahoma, Pablita Velarde, and Allan Houser among them.
At Santa Fe Indian Market last year, she won a best-of-class award, two best-of-division awards, and two first-place awards. She has taken home six awards from the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair during the last decade.
Among the most fascinating objects in Chalee’s archive is a scrapbook with a hand-painted wooden cover that bears the image of one of her distinctive blue deer. Inside the scrapbook are hundreds of pages of newspaper clippings, exhibit notices, and photographs. Chalee seemed intent on keeping a record of anything printed about her by the press, regardless of whether it was positive or negative. The articles detail her early activism in the 1930s on the part of the Taos Indians, to help them attain them full legal and educational rights. There are notices for successful exhibitions in Chicago as early as 1940; in an article about the generally poor quality of artwork on view during National Art Week, one critic states, “If you want real American art, go to see the gay and colorful Indian pictures of Pop Chalee ... You will fall in love at once with the horses, colts, deer, and little beasts Pop Chalee paints in delicious fashion.”
By the mid-1940s, her work had received enough national attention to attract the interest of eccentric entrepreneur and business magnate Howard Hughes, who was taken with her watercolor paintings of Pueblo dancers, and Jack Frye, the president of Trans World Airlines. They commissioned Chalee to paint three murals for the Albuquerque Municipal Airport. She reportedly charmed them into allowing her to paint 12 murals instead. The airport was renamed the Albuquerque International Sunport in 1994; renovations made over the decades have resulted in some of her frescoes being painted over.
During the war, Otis Hopkins found employment as a machinist on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, while Chalee worked as a matron for Dormitory Number 32, which housed many of the young scientists who had been tapped for the secret project. Chalee watched over their children while the men were at work. Pueblo and Hispanic women from nearby communities were bused to Los Alamos daily, primarily for similar domestic work details. According to Cesa, Chalee advocated for their excusal on Pueblo feast days so they could continue to participate in their cyclical ceremonies, adjusting timetables so that their schedules, which she was responsible for maintaining, didn’t conflict. She befriended J. Robert Oppenheimer and became one of his regular riding companions. “She took care of Oppenheimer’s kids and taught them art,” Cruz Hopkins said. For her service, she was awarded a War Department citation. “It says they thanked her very much for her job in helping to end World War II.” In 1990, Chalee was given the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts and was recognized as a living treasure by the Democratic Party in 1992 for her work in arts education. She died on Dec. 11, 1993.
With the donation of the archives to IAIA, there is renewed interest in the work of Chalee. The Harwood Museum of Art in Taos is planning a retrospective, Pop Chalee: Blue Flower Rooted, that opens to the public on Nov. 3. “We’re going all the way back to the Indian School, all the way through her timeline to her death,” said Cruz Hopkins, who is loaning artwork and historical materials to the museum for the show. “At first, we were just going to have a few paintings and be part of another show of women artists of Taos. When they saw what I had and what I’d given to the institute, they said, ‘We’ve got to do a full-blown show.’ It’s actually going up a couple of weeks earlier, so they can show it off to the New Mexico Association of Museums, who are having their annual confab here in Taos.”
The donation of the archives to IAIA comes at a time when the institute is actively building its archival collection as well as its collection of 20th-century Native art. Dunn’s Studio School was established in 1932; IAIA was founded 30 years later with a faculty that taught a different aesthetic, one that was more connected to European art techniques than the Studio School. Dunn had refrained from teaching color theory, perspective, and other established formalities, instead promoting a style that harked back to Pueblo painting from earlier in the century, which she regarded as a more authentic style of Indian art. Many of her students, including Chalee, focused on aspects of Native lore and tradition, painting narrative scenes in a flat style, often free from background detail, depicting Native ceremonies and religion.
The history of the Studio School and its artists is part of a larger story, in which New Mexico plays a key role in the overall development of 20th-century Native aesthetics. “Rather than us replacing what was done in the Studio, this gives us a sense of continuity,” said IAIA archivist Ryan Flahive, who has been working to preserve the Chalee archival materials. “This movement started in Santa Fe and kept rolling. It adds a layer of connection between the two schools,” Flahive said.
“Ryan came up and spent several days here in Taos,” Cruz Hopkins said. “We both agreed that, maybe in the future, we can do an exhibit in which we could show the importance of the Santa Fe Indian School and Dorothy Dunn in creating what we now know as modern Indian art. A lot of the modern artists — Fritz Scholder, T.C. Cannon, Sam English, R.C. Gorman — really owe a lot to the pioneers in the 1930s.” ◀