Born Tse Tsan in 1918 in New Mexico on the Santa Clara Pueblo, Pablita Velarde was not only the first female student to be admitted to the Santa Fe Indian School and the first Pueblo woman to be published (The award-winning Old Father Story Teller, in 1959), she won awards and accolades (both national and international) over her long career as one of America’s most culturally significant artists of the past century.
Created in watercolors at first and then in casein paints and natural pigments that she mixed herself, Velarde’s flat or Dunn-style paintings (named for Dorothy Dunn of the Santa Fe Indian School) frequently depicted detailed scenes from Pueblo life.
From very early in her career, Velarde’s distinctive paintings caught the attention of the nation, and, at the age of 16 in 1934, she was commissioned to paint a mural for the Chicago World’s fair. In 1939, she was installed as the artist-in-residence, thanks to the Works Progress Administration (WPA), at New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument.
In 1953, Velarde was the first woman to be awarded the Grand Purchase Award at the Philbrook Museum of Art’s Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Indian Painting, and France awarded their highest cultural honor, the Palmes Academiques, to Velarde in 1954. Additionally, Velarde passed her love of art onto her daughter, Helen Hardin (1943-1984), who became an award-winning artist in the contemporary Native American art scene.
Velarde was an active artist until her death in 2006, having accomplished more than a lifetime’s worth in her 88 years on the Earth.