Bridging the distance through art at the Museum of Northern Arizona

Andrew Tsihnahjinnie (Yazzie Bahe, 1916-2000, Navajo) Horse Stampede Tempera on paper, 1956 Gift of Clay Lockett Museum of Northern Arizona, C1160

Andrew Tsihnahjinnie (Yazzie Bahe, 1916-2000, Navajo) Horse Stampede Tempera on paper, 1956 Gift of Clay Lockett Museum of Northern Arizona, C1160

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Transcending Duality: The Sante Fe Studio Style exhibition is on display at the Museum of Northern Arizona until Feb. 18.

Rich in color and symbolic meaning the exhibition presents work by some of the Southwest’s greatest Native American painters. Many of these painters walked a fine line between self-expression, vocation and deeply held traditional social values.

During the first decades of the twentieth century, Native American artists were encouraged by Anglo-American patrons to depict scenes of their cultures. Concurrent with this new interest in Native American painting, the Santa Fe Indian School was providing students with a solid foundation in the visual arts.

Working with the gifted students, and building on their traditional symbolism and visual language, art instructor Dorothy Dunn encouraged her students to adopt the distinctive style that had been developed by Puebloan painters and met with enthusiasm by Anglo patrons. What came to be known as the Santa Fe Studio Style emerged as a popular and definitive style of Native American art, as well as providing a source of income and national recognition for the artists.

What is Santa Fe Studio Style?

Alan Petersen, curator for the exhibition at MNA, said what is now commonly referred to as the Sante Fe Studio Style had its inception around 1908 among a small group of largely self-taught painters from San Ildefonso Pueblo, near Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The seminal group included Alfredo Montoya, Cresencio Martinez and Julian Martinez, the husband of renowned potter Maria Martinez. Paintings made by these San Ildefonso artists came to the attention of Edgar J. Hewett and other archeologists working on Ancestral Puebloan villages in the region.

The Studio Style designation comes almost two decades later, following the success of art teacher Dorothy Dunn and her Native American students at the Bureau of Indian Affairs Santa Fe Indian School (now the Institute of American Indian Arts, IAIA).


Awa Tsireh (Alfonso Roybal, 1898 – 1955, San Ildefonso Pueblo) Koshare Sun Design, Colored ink on paper, ca. 1916-1930, Bequest of Katherine Harvey, Museum of Northern Arizona, C642

Petersen said for students attending school, their paintings were a means to bridge the cultural, emotional and spiritual distance from their families and villages.

Dorothy Dunn served as an art teacher at the Santa Fe Indian School (SFIS) from 1932 to 1937. Her tenure came at an opportune time of change as Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) administrators sought to remedy the terrible conditions found in most of their boarding schools. Dunn studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and she discovered Native American art at the Field Museum of Natural History.

Dunn encouraged students to paint what they know. The young artists did just that; painting hunting, riding, domestic scenes, and following the lead of their predecessors, scenes of ceremonial dances. Petersen said the artists knew patrons sought such ceremonial scenes and they knew to stick with depicting public dances that were open to outsiders. Patronage from non-Natives encouraged the students and provided them with a cash income, something novel for most of them.

The Studio at the Santa Fe Indian School was a meeting place for Indigenous and Euro-American cultures who were often conflicted in their social order and values. For the students, art was a pathway for gaining recognition, making a good income and for overcoming the longing for home.

The young artists who studied at the Santa Fe Indian School ranged in age from 16 to 25. Like Native American students all over the country, they reluctantly left their homes, families, and traditional culture to study in the boarding school operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. For many, art became their way to maintain relationships with those now-distant sources of identity. The students painted what they knew, including traditional activities such as hunting, tending sheep and scenes of ceremonial activity. Such scenes were met with approval and financial reward from Anglo culture, but some subjects, including private ceremonial scenes, were met with disapproval by the artists’ village elders.

Artists represented in the exhibition include: Awa Tsireh, Ma Pe Wi, Fred Kabotie, Otis Polelonema, Tonita Pena, Gerald Nailor, Abel Sanchez, Harrison Begay, Quincy Tahoma, Andy Tsinajinnie, Allan Houser, Robert Chee, Ha So Deh, and Pablita Velarde.

Along with the exhibition, the museum is producing a 2019 calendar featuring 12 images from the exhibition.

Information provided by Alan Petersen, curator of the exhibit, and the Museum of Northern Arizona


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