Fine art

Pop Chalee Collection preserved by IAIA

Taos Pueblo artist's work preserved, digitally documented for online archive

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The Institute of American Indian Arts Archives has completed the arrangement, description, preservation and digital imaging of the Taos Pueblo artist Merina Lujan Hopkins (Pop Chalee) Papers, funded by a grant from the New Mexico Historical Records Advisory Board, an IAIA press release states.

The Merina Lujan Hopkins (Pop Chalee) Papers contain mostly photographs and news clippings documenting her career as an artist. Correspondence, ephemera and a comprehensive scrapbook paint a fairly complete picture of Chalee's life and career for future researchers. To view the collection, visit the Rocky Mountain Online Archive at rmoa.unm.edu/docviewer.php?docId=IAIA.MS.26.xml.

The archive was a primary resource to "The World of Flower Blue: Pop Chalee: An Artistic Biography," by Margaret Cesa (Red Crane Books, 1997). Merina Lujan Hopkins, otherwise known as Pop Chalee of Taos Pueblo was a celebrated student of Dorothy Dunn at the Santa Fe Indian School during the 1930s and "transformed a traditional style of painting to create magical, idyllic images of wide-eyed animals, ceremonial figures and woodland settings," writes art historian John Villani.

"The generous grant from the NMHRAB allowed us to properly preserve and make available this important collection," states IAIA Archivist Ryan Flahive in the release. "The archive tells the story of an important figure in New Mexican, Native American and women's art history and we're pleased to complete the project."

The mission of the advisory board is to advocate the preservation of the historical records of the state and to stimulate public access to the state's historical records.

According to biographical material from the Rocky Mountain Online Archive, Pop Chalee was "an American artist who was famous for her paintings of enchanted forest scenes and her detailed renditions of mythical horses, woodland creatures such as deer, and ceremonial dancers. Arguably her most widely known work is the series of murals she painted for the airport in Albuquerque and which remain there today. While she is primarily known for her paintings, during her career she was also a singer, performer and advocate of Native American rights and frequently gave public lectures and presentations on Native American culture.

"Pop Chalee was born in Castle Gate, Utah on March 20, 1906, the third child of Joseph Cruz Lujan of Taos Pueblo and Merea Margherete Luenberger (Myrtle Lujan), who was predominantly of Swiss heritage. Not long after her older brother Lawrence died of scarlet fever in 1910, her father, Joe, became ill with consumption and moved back to Taos Pueblo. Pop Chalee and two of her sisters, Eva and Mattie, joined him in New Mexico and began attending the Santa Fe Indian School while her mother and youngest sister, Wilma, remained in Utah. During her youth at the pueblo, she was given the name 'Pop Chalee,' meaning 'blue flower' in the Tiwa language, by her Taos kin and she was known by this moniker throughout her career."

She was the niece of the influential Tony Lujan of Taos Pueblo, who in 1917 met and eventually married Mabel Dodge Sterne, a driving force of the art scene in Taos. By 1918, Pop Chalee's father, Joe, had taken a second wife at the pueblo, Tomacita, whom Pop Chalee reportedly loved as though she were her own mother.

"Around 1920, Pop Chalee and her sisters returned to Utah to live with their mother while their father remained in Taos," the biography continues. "The living situation was tense between the mother and children and by 1922, at the age of 16, Pop Chalee had married Otis Hopkins, a Mormon craftsman. In 1924, their first child, Jack Cruz Hopkins, Sr. was born and within the next two years their daughter, Betty, followed. The family frequently moved between Taos and Salt Lake City during the following years, and Pop Chalee began lecturing and performing in Utah in the hopes to raise awareness and change perceptions of Native Americans. By the mid-1930s she returned to New Mexico and began once again attending the Santa Fe Indian School, this time to study painting with Dorothy Dunn. From there, Pop Chalee's painting career took off and she rapidly gained popularity as her works were frequently exhibited at galleries. She became a well-known figure in art circles not only for her paintings, but also for her iconic look with her long braids that reached well past her waist.

"In the mid 1940s Pop Chalee began working on the murals she painted for the Albuquerque airport, and at the same time she and Otis took in an orphaned girl from Santo Domingo pueblo named Rachel for whom they cared for several years until the girl's grandparents decided that she should be raised with them at Santo Domingo. Not long after, Pop Chalee and Otis divorced, and in 1947 she married her second husband, Ed 'Natay' Lee, a Navajo artist and performer, in Arizona. The two would spend the next several years working and performing together both in their home in Scottsdale, Arizona as well as throughout the country as they participated in publicity events for the Santa Fe Railway as well as the 'Annie Get Your Gun' tour. By the mid-1950s, though, her marriage to Ed had ended, and the two went their separate ways.

"She moved frequently throughout the following decades, living with various family members and eventually settling down in Santa Fe in the 1980s. In 1990, her murals were restored and installed in the newly remodeled Albuquerque airport, and later that year she received the New Mexico Governor's Award for Excellence and Achievement in the Arts in Painting. In 1992, despite struggling with poor eyesight, she completed her last mural, a turquoise stallion leading a herd of horses, for the New Mexico State Capitol Building."

Pop Chalee died of a stroke on Dec. 11, 1993 at the age of 87. Interest in her work experienced a resurgence in recent years as she has become recognized as a noted influence and iconic figure of the 20th-century Native American artists movement. To view the collection, visit the Rocky Mountain Online Archive at rmoa.unm.edu/docviewer.php?docId=IAIA.MS.26.xml.

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