The Millicent Rogers Museum is quietly opening a modest exhibition of works by arguably the most famous artist from Taos Pueblo, in conjunction with a major acknowledgement soon to be bestowed upon her.
The show, titled "Pop Chalee: Yippee Ki Yay," opened to the public Sunday (Sept. 12) and will continue through March 2022. The show especially makes note of Pop Chalee's induction into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, Oct. 26, in Fort Worth, Texas, along with country music star Miranda Lambert of Texas, and Western wear hat designer and former rodeo performer Lavonna "Shorty" Koger of Oklahoma.
Works by Pop Chalee, also known as Merina Lujan (1906-1993), are on view along with a few artists of her time and selected memorabilia provided by her grandson, Jack Hopkins Jr.
Known for her glimmering paintings of forest scenes that influenced Walt Disney's animation, Pop Chalee traveled from New Mexico to more than 20 American states while promoting the motion picture, "Annie Get Your Gun" (1950). "On horseback, Grandmother was the best rider. She could outride most men," Hopkins says in a press release.
The show is curated by Taos Pueblo tribal member Kathleen Michaels, who is MRM business manager/webmaster and relative of the artist's family; along with the new MRM curator of collections Michelle Lanteri.
The show is designed to focus "on the artist's leadership as a pioneering woman of the Southwest," a statement reads. "The exhibition tells the story of her career through a selection of paintings from both the museum and personal collections, archival photographs and news articles, and even some of her finest clothing on loan from Hopkins."
Although, not as well-known today, Pop Chalee (whose Tiwa name means Blue Flower) made a significant contribution to fine arts, popular culture and community exchange at local, regional, national and international levels. Her work has been seen in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Gallery of Living Artists in New York City and in the permanent collections of the Gilcrease Museum, Heard Museum and Millicent Rogers Museum.
She is also celebrated as one of the few Native American women artists to achieve such status.
Interestingly, the show in Taos came about as a bit of coincidence, when Michaels said she just happened to run into Hopkins at a local post office. "He was all excited to tell me that his grandma was being inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame," she said. Immediately, Michaels thought about finding a way to bring this to the attention of Taos art patrons through the Millicent Rogers Museum. Both MRM Executive Director Greta Brunschwyler and Lanteri supported the idea.
One of Pop Chalee's more prominent connections to the museum, Michaels said, is a large mural painted on canvas depicting Zuni Pueblo Shalako dancers, along with some Mudhead figures, which was originally commissioned by the Santa Fe Railroad and now resides in the its permanent collection. This will be included in the exhibition, along with a pair of the artist's moccasins and a painting titled "Moonlight" by Albert Looking Elk, a well-known Taos Pueblo painter and model for members of the Taos Society of Artists.
A photograph by Edward Curtis will also be shown depicting her uncle Tony Luhan, who was married to Mabel Dodge Luhan, the famous patron of the arts in Taos. There is also a painting depicting peyote symbols on loan from local collector Ray Trotter, which is being used to reflect Pop Chalee's connection to the Native American Church. And, there will be a dress on display that she wore while promoting the film, "Annie Get Your Gun."
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 of Swiss heritage. It was the same year Taos Pueblo's sacred Blue Lake was, in effect, stolen by the federal government when then-President Theodore Roosevelt created the Carson National Forest, thus sparking a decades-long legal battle, which was finally resolved in 1970 when President Richard Nixon signed into law a bill returning Blue Lake back to the tribe.
According to biographical material from the Rocky Mountain Online Archive -- which was a primary source for Margaret Cesa's definitive biography of Pop Chalee titled "The World of Flower Blue" (1997) -- she 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" -- which was arranged by billionaire Howard Hughes.
"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."
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 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, the bio continues. "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."
Pop Chalee and Otis Hopkins eventually 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," the biography continues.
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 Dec. 11, 1993, at the age of 87.
In addition to Pop Chalee, this year's National Cowgirl Hall of Fame nominees include country music superstar Miranda Lambert, who, along with winning numerous Grammy and CMA awards, is a founder with her mother, Bev Lambert, of the MuttNation Foundation, which spotlights shelters and rescue animals, according to an online bio.
Also to be honored is Lavonna "Shorty" Koger, an Oklahoma native with more than 40 years experience in restoration, fitting, sewing, and design of cowboy hats. She also helped found Rein in Cancer, a nonprofit that raises money to fund cancer treatments and care for patients, and contributes to the Shirley Bowman wing at the OU Cancer Institute in Oklahoma City.
Michaels said after the Oct. 26 induction, the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame will provide a video of the ceremonies which the museum plans to have available for the public to view.
The Millicent Rogers Museum is located at 1504 Millicent Rogers Road, north of El Prado, off U.S. 64 west. For more information on tickets, COVID-19 protocols and other exhibits, call (575) 758-2462 or visit milicentrogers.org.