Eva Mirabal: Three Generations of Tradition and Modernity at Taos Pueblo
By Lois P. Rudnick with Jonathan Warm Day Coming
Museum of New Mexico Press (2021, 160 pp.)
Why is the work of Taos Pueblo artist Eva Mirabal (Eah-Ha-Wa, Fast Growing Corn, 1920-1968) not well known?
Her paintings, many of serene, naturalistic domestic scenes drawn from her Native heritage, as well as ceremonials and dances, were shown in national galleries, museums and stores from the time she was 20 -- she was often the only Native American woman artist represented.
Her talent and ambition were enormous, her training at the Santa Fe Indian School under Dorothy Dunn was rigorous. She garnered artist commissions during World War II as a member of the Women Army Corps, studies at the postwar modernist Taos Valley Art School, run by Louis Ribak and Bea Mandelman, and many shows at the burgeoning galleries around town in the '50s and early '60s. Yet Mirabal did not flourish in her last years, conquered by formidable obstacles such as a failed marriage, scant child care and low income.
Her story seems a sadly common saga of women of her generation (and others, of course) who lacked what Virginia Woolf described as essential to the making of an artist: money, a room of one's own and confidence in oneself.
Bringing Mirabal's work to light has been a lifelong dream of her sons, Jonathan Warm Day Coming, also an artist, and Christopher Gomez. They were conflicted about what to do with their mother's personal materials, letters and photographs after she died in 1968, including a "black book" containing diaries and artwork. Yet ultimately they shared the wealth of material with accomplished biographer Lois P. Rudnick ("Mabel Dodge Luhan and Company: American Moderns and the West," among other works) -- bringing about this inspired, long overdue collaboration.
Rudnick, an art history scholar and writer based in Santa Fe who has deeply researched Southwestern modern artists, most notably for a May 2016 show at the Harwood Museum, weaves together three generations of artists in Mirabal's family in this work, starting with her father, Pedro Mirabal (Beaded Shirt, 1893-1958). Both he and Eva's father-in-law, Geronimo Gomez (Star Road, 1885-1965) -- Warm Day Coming's grandparents -- were leaders in the Taos Pueblo government and models for the Taos Society of Artists. Paintings of the men by Nicolai Fechin, E. Irving Couse, Ernest L. Blumenschein, Oscar Berninghaus and others are world renowned, and put Taos on the artistic radar for many Anglo artists seeking a kind of American "authenticity." Rudnick includes several of these remarkable early paintings.
But the relationship between the Taos Pueblo community and the Anglo artists was uneasy, and unequal. As Rudnick notes, "The dissonance between the aesthetic dreams of 20th-century white artists who were looking for new peoples and places, aboriginally and authentically 'American,' to paint and the needs of the Taos Pueblo people to survive and protect their lands, lives, identities, sacred teachings and ceremonies inevitably created tensions between the traditional Pueblo culture and the continual infringements and interventions of the modern world."
In her brief life, Eva Mirabal managed to combine, and preserve, her tribal traditions and embrace the modern life of an independent, working artist, "even feminist," Rudnick adds. Mirabal spent six formative years at the Santa Fe Indian School, first as a favorite mentee of the influential studio arts program director Dorothy Dunn, inculcated in the two-dimensional, minimalistic style favored by Dunn; then under director Geronima Montoya, who helped Mirabal show her work at galleries and museums nationally. For example, she was the only woman artist to be included in the Philbrook Museum's (Tulsa) first annual Native American Arts exhibition in 1946.
First Native American cartoonist
"Adventurous and head-strong," Mirabal enlisted as a WAC in June 1943, and started basic training at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. She was the only full-time designated artist, commissioned to draw a comic strip for the nationally distributed newspaper AIR WAC. "G.I. Gertie" was "both revolutionary and subversive for its time," writes Rudnick, because of the plucky nature of her character Gertie in a period of "national panic" over women enlisting in the armed forces.
Mirabal's first cartoon was published in February 1944; incredibly, while there is plenty of historical evidence of other woman war cartoon characters during this time, the most famous being "Winnie the WAC" by Vic Herman, there are only two strips extant of Gertie.
At the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio, until the end of the war, Mirabal worked on murals such as Stuyvesant Van Veen's "Bridge of Wings" (she was featured in articles in Mademoiselle and Taos Woman magazines). After the war, discharged with a rank of staff sergeant, Mirabal was determined to continue as an artist, though after a rewarding stint as a visiting artist at Southern Illinois Normal University, she gave up her dream of going to Chicago, and returned to Taos in 1947, to care for her dying mother, Adelita.
Marriage to Manuel Gomez followed, and children. Her husband was constantly away in the Navy, and rarely present to help raise their sons. While enrolled in the Taos Valley Art School, among other Taos moderns, she took new risks in her work. But she did not receive a much-coveted Whitney Foundation fellowship, and was denied disability compensation by the Veterans Administration for a "nervous condition."
In these final years, local galleries such as La Galeria Escondida proved her "lifeline," and a commission in 1959 by the Association on American Indian Affairs to create an original pictorial map of U.S. Indian tribes, along with artist Althea Karr.
Native American paintings did not sell at the prices of Anglo paintings, and Rudnick asserts that racism plainly was at work. Moreover, Mirabal's work never fetched the prices of her peers at mid-century, e.g., Tonita Peña, Pablita Velarde, Geronima Montoya and Pop Chalee. Rudnick looks at the lives and work of each of these women artists in comparison and finds they all had a stronger support system than Mirabal, "who was in conflict in many facets of her life," writes Rudnick.
Depression and alcoholism had taken their hold, and Mirabal is recorded as saying to her occupational therapist at the Albuquerque VA Hospital in 1964 that she had long considered herself "a dead artist."
Rudnick and Warm Day Coming divide the work into chronological sections, giving Mirabal's life and work center stage. Her son includes his own biography and work in the epilogue, picking up where his mother left off, as it were. He gradually builds his confidence and connections in the wider world outside of Taos Pueblo, chasing down his own demons, while also cherishing the traditional stories and landscape of his childhood in his work, such as in "Taos Pueblo Painted Stories" (2004).
Here is a moving story of mother-son recognition and reckoning.