When she was 23, Eva Mirabal joined the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) to serve her country during World War II. The adventurous young woman from Taos Pueblo was already a represented artist with teaching experience under her belt. As a WAC, she worked full-time as an artist and designer in her own studio. She drew a weekly cartoon called G.I. Gertie.
In addition to her recognized artistic talent, Mirabal was known for being extraordinarily professional and put-together. She wore her black hair in pin curls and struck a trim, becoming figure in her uniform. More than one man wrote her letters during the war, proposing marriage. But Mirabal set her sights on art school in Chicago. Her life was full of promise.
“Even though we can’t be sure, it’s extremely likely she was the first Native American woman to publish a comic. She did this on a regular basis for at least a year, as far as I can tell,” says historian Lois P. Rudnick, co-author of Eva Mirabal: Three Generations of Tradition and Modernity at Taos Pueblo (2021, Museum of New Mexico Press, 160 pages, $34.95), which she wrote with Mirabal’s son, the painter Jonathan Warm Day Coming. Rudnick and Warm Day Coming read from and discuss the book in a livestream event for Collected Works Bookstore on Tuesday, May 11.
Mirabal’s future was not what she anticipated. Her story echoes those of so many women of her time. They went to work for the war effort while their husbands served overseas. Or they enlisted, same as the men, and used their skills as close to the frontlines as they could. They saw the world — or, at least, they went to parts of the United States that were new to them. Then the war ended, and they were sent home to tend to, or start, families.
“They were told, ‘That was your glory time, but don’t expect to live that way ever again.’ It was such a strong message in the culture. And she suffered under that,” says Rudnick, who also co-authored Mabel Dodge Luhan and Company: American Moderns and the West (2016).
Mirabal died in 1968, when she was just 48 years old. She left two teenage sons and a husband, who’d been absent for most of their marriage. A few years later, the boys found a pine box filled with her drawings, family photographs, diaries, newspaper clippings, and hundreds of letters from friends, teachers, curators, and gallery owners. Rudnick says it’s almost as if Mirabal hoped someone might write about her someday. This treasure trove became the basis for Mirabal’s biography, a quintessential story of a mid-20th-century American woman whose creative and professional ambitions were thwarted by old-fashioned societal expectations.
What shaped her
Mirabal was born on June 18, 1920. Her Tiwa name was Eah-Ha-Wa, which means “fast-growing corn.” She began drawing and painting when she was young and elected to leave home as an adolescent to study at Santa Fe Indian School. She entered ninth grade in 1936, during the early years of a new era in Indian education. Prior to that decade, children were brought to Indian boarding schools by force. Their hair was cut, they were forbidden to speak anything but English, and academics often took a backseat to discipline and manual labor. “The [Bureau of Indian Affairs] reform of Indian education took hold … in 1932, the year Dorothy Dunn was hired to become part of a school mission that was much more benign and innovative,” Rudnick writes.
Mirabal became a serious artist under Dunn’s tutelage, as well as that of Geronima Montoya, who took over the program after Dunn resigned in 1937, and ran it for almost 30 years. Mirabal’s canvases often featured pueblo men and women going about their chores — gathering water, for instance, or tending a fire. She favored an illustrative style in a range of muted reds and browns, as well as saturated blues and greens, on empty, off-white backgrounds. Sometimes her figures were engaged in dance, though she had to be careful not to divulge her community’s secret religious practices. The faces of her figures tended to be more expressive than those of some of the other Dunn school artists, and her exquisite facility with musculature and anatomy reveals significant inborn talent.
Since the 1960s, younger generations of Native artists have criticized the Dunn school for being compositionally flat and too prescriptive in content, because Dunn encouraged students to focus on Native life and ceremonies. Although Rudnick says that Dunn’s aesthetic is obvious in Mirabal’s work, Dunn’s controversial legacy seems to outweigh the brief time that she actually spent at Santa Fe Indian School — just five years. Rudnick and Warm Day Coming address the Dunn school and its backlash at length in the book in one of the many sections that momentarily leaves Mirabal’s story to convey some of the events and issues that shaped her. There are also copious evocative descriptions of Mirabal’s paintings.
“In Picking Wild Berries , Mirabal attains a beautiful balance with her placement of finely rendered trees and bushes that overshadow the women who gently gather the berries from them, linking the fantastical colors and shapes of the branches and leaves of the forest with their reflection in the women’s dresses.”
Warm Day Coming says it’s worth remembering that, back then, there was no tradition of Native Americans painting their people. “It had never been done before. There are those brash young artists of today who look back on that style and say that everything that came out of Dorothy Dunn was the same. But how can it be the same when they were individuals? If I were to try to create [the same paintings] now, I couldn’t. They were of a certain era. The challenges were different than they are today.”
A true American artist
Mirabal graduated from SFIS in 1940 and then spent two post-graduate years there, painting and working as a teaching assistant. In 1941, she took a train, by herself, to work at a summer camp in Kentucky. In 1942, Mirabal’s paintings were exhibited in galleries and museums in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Critics found her work compelling and elegant. The next year, she joined the WACs with a couple of girlfriends from Taos Pueblo and was swept up in the same patriotic fervor that inspired more than 30,000 Native Americans to enlist in the armed services during WWII.
Though many in American society found the mere concept of female soldiers emasculating, Mirabal seemed to thrive in the wartime environment. Rudnick writes that she painted murals on camp buildings during her three-year tour of duty, most of which she spent at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, in Ohio. Her comic strip, G.I. Gertie, appeared in AIR WAC, a nationally distributed newspaper published at the base. Unlike other comic strips about female soldiers at the time, which were written by men, G.I. Gertie didn’t paint women as unintelligent or mannish. Unfortunately, despite two years of searching military museums and archives, Rudnick was able to find just two examples of the strip — both of which were saved by Mirabal.
“Among the many U.S. Army and Air Force archivists and historians I spoke with, one told me that it was unlikely that the AIR WAC newspaper would have been saved because it was by and for women and, thus, not seen as significant,” she writes.
Mirabal was often interviewed for base publications and radio shows, as well as a 1944 spread in Mademoiselle magazine. She used the opportunities to talk about her plan to study art in Chicago and her goal of painting the history and culture of her people. Mirabal seemed confident. Despite outward appearances, she started drinking, when she was a WAC, as a coping mechanism. Later, when addiction threatened her life, she would tell doctors that she’d felt inadequate “about her language and racial difficulty” and began having two or three beers at night to calm her nerves.
Mirabal was mustered out of the Army in 1946, with the rank of staff sergeant. She spent the following year as a visiting art instructor at Southern Illinois Normal University. On a campus radio show, she talked again about the importance of making art about her people and bringing knowledge of Native American art to White America. “They have rarely had the privilege of studying it and rarely know what to expect of this type of art,” she said. “Although most people overlook the fact, American Indian art is the only true American art because it originated here. The type that most people recognize as ‘American’ true art is really borrowing from some foreign land.”
No one knows why Mirabal didn’t go to art school in Chicago. Her mother got cancer in 1947, and she returned to Taos Pueblo to help her younger sister, Tonita, care for her. Their mother died in February, 1950. That December, Mirabal married Manuel Gomez, whom she’d known since childhood and who had written to her during the war. Gomez was in the Navy, and he left for Japan soon after the wedding. He came home only intermittently for the next several years, giving Mirabal two sons: Jonathan (born in 1952) and Christopher (born in 1956). The art scene in Taos was thriving at that time, and Mirabal took classes at the short-lived Taos Valley Art School (1947-1953) with Louis Ribak and Bea Mandelman. Mirabal’s career was blossoming, but she was, essentially, a single mother living in rural America.
“Eva struggled … to care for her boys, to work to pay for her art materials, and to take responsibility for the Mirabal and Gomez family properties, with increasing bitterness toward her husband over the course of their marriage,” Rudnick writes.
Rudnick and Warm Day Coming don’t write about what life was like for Jonathan and Christopher. We know only that Mirabal drank at night and that she was hospitalized several times for her drinking. Warm Day Coming doesn’t remember witnessing her misery. When he was little, collectors and curators frequently came to the house. Supposedly, her artistic productivity fell off during her marriage, but it seems she was still painting regularly, and she continued to show her work until just a few years before her death.
The house was often messy because she painted instead of cleaned. Warm Day Coming interpreted her daily creative time as a household chore and never thought much of it. She provided her sons with coloring books and other art materials, so they drew and painted alongside her. “I don’t remember the negative stuff — or, maybe, I want to erase that. She probably struggled by herself. A lot of people don’t seek help. As with me, too,” he says, referring to his own battles with substance misuse. “I found refuge in my artwork. I’m sure it was the same for her.”
Mirabal painted even when she was in the hospital; she once told an occupational therapist that she’d felt dead as an artist but had come back to life. Among Mirabal’s last-known works is Prairie Fire (1965), which was exhibited in the National Indian Arts Exhibition.
“Prairie Fire, the largest painting Eva ever made, portrays traditionally clothed Indians on horseback, riding in and out of abstract writhing flames that fill the sky,” Rudnick writes. “The most dramatic of her works, it is a testimony to what she might have continued to do as an artist had she been able.” ◀