Pioneering Work

The tragic life of Navajo artist Quincy Tahoma is recounted in this beautiful volume

By the time Quincy Tahoma graduated from the Santa Fe Indian School in 1940, he was already a well-known artist.

He'd been invited to paint at the national Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco. He'd been praised for his "unerring brush and powerful sense of design" in a published review. And after he left high school, a Santa Fe art dealer gave him studio space and exhibited his work in his gallery.

Tahoma was selling almost everything he painted. But an official at his old school had other ideas for the young Navajo. He offered Tahoma a job back on campus—in the laundry.

This telling incident, recounted in Quincy Tahoma: The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist, helps put Tahoma's tragic arc in perspective. Tahoma didn't take the laundry job, and he went on to considerable artistic success. Arizona Highways once said he was among "the very top rank of Navajo painters," and the Arizona State Museum today owns 90 Tahoma paintings.

By his early 30s, though, he spiraled downward into alcoholism. He'd wander into Santa Fe bars, trying to barter paintings for drinks. He died in 1956 at 38, dead in his own vomit after a night of binge drinking.

Tahoma's tale illustrates the problematic position of Indians in American society—and the problematic position of "Indian art" in the art world. No matter how much his work was praised, or purchased, to some people, his place was in the laundry, not the studio. In many circles, Indian paintings were exotic curios, just a notch above tourist goods.

In the book, readers can see for themselves Tahoma's skillful draftsmanship and color sense. With more than 260 full-color images, this coffee-table volume is beautifully produced. Unfortunately, it's poorly edited, and the many typos and repetitions detract from the interesting story the book tells.

That said, Vera Marie Badertscher, a Tucson writer, and Charnell Havens have done masterful work reconstructing Tahoma's life story. They tracked down dozens of people who knew him, and their archival work yielded many gems.

Born in 1917, Tahoma was given to relatives to be raised after the death of his father. He lived in a series of Indian boarding schools from about the age of 9; once he started school, he never again spent long stretches of time in Navajo country. (A plaintive request for money to go home one summer was denied by government officials.)

The Indian schools were notorious for their assimilation project—young Quincy was punished at the Albuquerque school for speaking Navajo—and as late as 1926, Bureau of Indian Affairs officials banned art students from making pictures of "Indian dances, Indian customs, warriors, etc."

Tahoma was fortunate to be sent to the Santa Fe Indian School in 1930, just two years before Dorothy Dunn started the school's famed art program. An ambitious Art Institute of Chicago grad, Dunn helped jump-start a "golden age" of Indian painting in Santa Fe. Dunn encouraged her students to adapt traditional native motifs and translate them to the "white" materials of paper and paint.

Radical as she was, even Dunn had rigid ideas of what Indians should paint. She favored calm depictions of ceremonies and animals, painted in a "static," flat style inspired by Pueblo designs.

Tahoma preferred movement, and he became known for his paintings of leaping stallions and galloping buffaloes. Without Dunn's help, he taught himself the techniques of perspective and foreshortening, in order to paint the wide-open landscapes he favored in his backgrounds.

Even so, Tahoma and the other Dunn-trained artists never painted their own lives. Tahoma was a city-dweller, and the subjects of his art were half-remembered—or imagined—scenes of daily life on a reservation he barely knew.

The art renaissance Dunn helped spur soon faded, and "'traditional' became a dirty word," the authors note. Up-and-coming young artists like Fritz Scholder derided the older work as Disneyfied compilations of cute animals and stereotypical Indians. Scholder painted contemporary urban Indian life, complete with pickup trucks and beer cans, splattering out his vision in thick expressionistic paint.

Today, the pendulum has swung again. A newer generation of Indian painters draws on the pioneering work of Tahoma and the others. Indian sculptor Upton Ethelbah Jr. says he's reclaimed his roots by looking at Tahoma's nearly forgotten works.

In his art, he creates Apache dancers and uses "images from my Pueblo heritage," he told the authors, "and where did that come from? Mr. Quincy Tahoma."

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