The following is an interview with Jack Hopkins, son of the late Taos Pueblo artist Merina Lujan Hopkins, whose Indian name was Pop Chalee and the name with which she signed her …
The following is an interview with Jack Hopkins, son of the late Taos Pueblo artist Merina Lujan Hopkins, whose Indian name was Pop Chalee and the name with which she signed her artwork.
Jack Hopkins: This exhibition at the Harwood Museum is the beginning of the seed of inspiring young Native artists. My grandmother Pop Chalee/Blue Flower (1906-1993) aka Merina Lujan Hopkins began her artistic career at the Santa Fe Indian School. Dorothy Dunn was the first to recognize that the young students at the school had a great deal of artistic talent. Thus, she began the program of teaching and encouraging these young people to create art.
Tempo: Is the Harwood reaching out to the Native community to attend this exhibit?
Hopkins: My family's from the pueblo. I'm from the Lujans. This is Tony Lujan, who was married to Mabel Dodge Luhan (pointing to a photograph on the wall). That's my great uncle. We're trying to make sure that we get the young Indian artists in the Taos area to come and see this. I'm trying to work with the pueblo to see if we can use this as a seed to help young Taos Indian artists.
(Pointing out a photograph in the exhibit.) This is her diploma from the Santa Fe Indian School back in 1937. She almost didn't get into the school because she was a matron then, but my grandfather was the shop teacher and maintenance man at the Santa Fe Indian School. She was artistically involved with Walter Ufer and some of the Taos artists here. So, she wanted to get into that school. Most of those students, like Alan Houser and Harrison Begay, they were only 17, 18, 19 years old as students there. My grandmother was 25 or 26 and married with children. So she was an older lady.
(Pointing to another photograph in the exhibit) This is Tony Lujan's brother, Joe Cruz Lujan who I'm named after. Joe Cruz went to Carlisle (Industrial Indian School, Pennsylvania), back east. His roommate was Jim Thorpe. He came back to Taos, helped to start the all Indian Pueblo Council, the "Pueblo Council" as we know it today, which included all the Pueblo peoples. Later in the 1970s and 80s I became commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the State of New Mexico. There's been this family thing.
Tempo: Have you known about this amazing family history all along?
Hopkins: My grandmother raised me. On my mother's side -- this will blow your mind, my mother's aunt is Lady Bird Johnson. Lyndon Johnson is my great uncle. So, on one side of my family is the President of the United States, on the other side of my family are Taos Indians of renown.
Tempo: One of the things that I think of Pop Chalee being known for, or her iconic imagery, are her colored animals, in particular the blue she uses. Why would she paint animals that color?
Hopkins: As a young woman she got very involved with a ceremonial group in Taos Pueblo. She told me later on when I was older that going through the rituals of the ceremonies she saw colors that made her excited about what she was seeing, so when she started painting the mythical horse, many of them were turquoise and other shades of blue. The story behind the horse is that as a young girl living in Taos Pueblo, her grandfather would tell her stories at night before she went to bed, that at night this mythical horse would fly over the pueblo. The horse checked to make sure all the children of the pueblo were taken care of.
Tempo: What about the feathers in the case here by the dress? (In a case on the wall)
Hopkins: Later on in life in the very late 40s, she divorced my grandfather and married a full-blood Navajo man named Edward Lee Natay. Ed was a very famous Navajo singer and head of one of the Navajo radio stations that still exists. Later, as a thank you to my grandmother, she was given a headdress (from the MGM studio purported to once have belonged to Chief Sitting Bull). Ed Lee got half of it, my grandmother got the other half. Before she passed, she gave family members each two eagle feathers from that headdress. They worked for the motion picture "Annie Get Your Gun" (released My 17, 1950). They were hired to go out and promote the film. She wore this (the dress on exhibit) to all the publicity stops. She was barely five feet tall.
Tempo: I've heard from time to time her name is mentioned as influencing the design of the Disney film "Bambi" (1942).
Hopkins: Walt Disney heard about the Dorothy Dunn "school" and the artwork the students were doing. It was very one dimensional art, very similar to the hand-drawn animated films. He came and saw what they were doing, and he wanted to encourage these young students and have them come to Hollywood, California to work in the studio. The students basically were all excited about it, but they said you'd have to bring the studio to Santa Fe, New Mexico because they weren't going to California. From then on my grandmother had a very close relationship with Walt Disney.
Tempo: Did she make a living from painting?
Hopkins: She did make a living from painting in her late 20s through early 30s. She would go to the La Fonda Hotel (in Santa Fe) and sit in the lobby. Tourists would come in and my grandmother would be the Indian sitting there, and they would buy paintings from her. At around 3 p.m. each day, she'd have to haul ass back to the Indian School so she could feed her husband and children. She would spend a lot of her time promoting herself. Artists of the Santa Fe Art Colony (Los Cinco Pintores) would also do a lot of promoting of her.
Later it took Margaret Cesa to write the book "The World of Flower Blue, Pop Chalee, an Artistic Biography" in 1997. I did the dedication in the book and donated most of all the images in the book, they're from the archives.
Tempo: It's a real tribute that there's a book about her, how'd that come about?
Hopkins: This lady (the late) Margaret Cesa was a professor of English at a college in the San Francisco area. Her mother traveled to the Southwest and bought one of my grandmother's paintings and brought it back to the (Bay Area.) She came here on a quest to find this artist. When she found our family and found out grandmother was alive … Out of that came this wonderful book. In the book Margaret tells her interactions with grandmother as well as telling my grandmother's history.
During World War II, my grandfather Otis Hopkins was a well-known metallurgist and gunsmith. He was brought into Los Alamos to work on the Manhattan Project.
My grandfather Hopkins was helping to develop a trigger for the atomic bomb. The war was ending, Howard Hughes and Jack Fry were partners in building (Trans World Airlines). My grandmother by then had a reputation as a local artist, but she was sequestered in Los Alamos.
But Howard Hughes had some clout. He found out that my grandmother was living up there. Howard Hughes convinced the general to let her out of Los Alamos to go to Albuquerque and create paintings at the airport. She did a lot of the paintings as frescoes right onto the walls.
When they closed that (original) airport, some of them were saved. Two of them are the ones now at the airport by the escalators. Sometime in the 1980s I got a telephone call asking for permission to allow the paintings to be restored. They were to be signature pieces at the airport.
I said, "You don't need my permission, why don't you call my grandmother?" They had no idea she was still alive. They got a hold of her and she spent two years along with students from (the Institute of Indian Arts, which developed out of the old Santa Fe Indian School) working to bring the paintings back to life.
Recently, during San Geronimo Day at Taos Pueblo, I was heading over to our ancestral home when I heard someone calling my name. I turned around to see Albino (Martinez) who said, "I'll play the flute. I have to play the flute at auntie's opening." He will be here playing the flute.
Tempo: As far as how your grandmother should be remembered, what do you think?
Hopkins: As a great representative of modern Indian art and artistic value in bringing her art and Indian art into the open.
"Pop Chalee: Blue Flower Rooted" is exhibited in the Caroline Lee and Bob Ellis Gallery.
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