Eva Mirabal: a healthy disregard for the impossible

Eva Mirabal

Originally published in Taos News

Art was present in Taos Pueblo painter Eva Mirabal’s life from her early years. Her father was a model for Nicolai Fechin and Joseph Imhof, and she often accompanied him to the artists’ studios. He was such a popular model that a wooden bust of him was once exhibited outside Mabel Dodge Luhan’s house and today is part of the University of New Mexico collection.

“Eva Mirabal first began attracting attention for her artwork while she was a teenager, in the late 1930s,” said Jina Brenneman, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at the Harwood Museum of Art. “She had been watching, learning and studying with the founders.”

Mirabal, who was born in 1920, went to Taos Day School and later attended the Santa Fe Indian School under the guidance of Dorothy Dunn, who made great efforts to promote painting instruction for Native American students.

“Dorothy was a great influence on my mother,” said Mirabal’s son, Jonathan Warm Day, a painter and a writer himself. “She encouraged her students to reflect their traditions and daily life in their works. My mother learned to paint murals with her and that can be seen in her later work, when she joined the Women’s Army Corps in 1943. She helped paint a mural, A Bridge of Wings, for the Air Service Command at Patterson Field, Ohio.”

While still in the Women’s Army Corps Mirabal became a cartoonist. “Her ‘G.I. Gertie’ series appeared in Corps publications, distinguishing her as the first published Native American female cartoonist and one of the earliest Native American women to have her own cartoon strip,” said writer and artist Liz Cunningham, who has researched and written about Mirabal in her profiles on the Town of Taos’ Remarkable Women of Taos website.

In 1946 Mirabal went to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and spent one year there as a student and artist-in-residence. “My mother had a very versatile style,” said Warm Day. “She was like a sponge. Whenever she went to a place, she took elements of it that later on became part of her paintings, like the cartoons in the military, a more academic style at Illinois and a somewhat abstract touch in her animal figures when she attended the Taos Valley Art School run by Louis Ribak and Beatrice Mandelman, once she returned to Taos. She had her own artistic voice, but she was also eager to learn from others.”

One of Mirabal’s favorite themes was the Taos Pueblo life. “In some paintings, Eva featured women in their historic traditional everyday dress: a manta (brightly colored shawl), turquoise beads, and over-the-knee white deerskin leggings,” said Cunningham. “She paid close attention to details.”

Cunningham also notes that Eva was the only woman who entered a painting in the First National Exhibition of Indian Painting at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma and then won the Margretta S. Dietrich Award for her painting Picking Wild Berries. “Eva occupies a very well deserved space among the remarkable Women of Taos,” she said.

Mirabal’s works are currently exhibited at the Smithsonian Museum, at Yale University and in other major museums as well as in private collections.

Her sons, Jonathan Warm Day and Christopher Gomez, remember her as a very prolific artist who was constantly busy. “She was always painting,” said Warm Day, adding that she was quite unusual for her time. “A lot of Native people of that era were quiet and reclusive, but my mother was neither,” he said. “She had a strong spirit, and it drove and inspired her. And she worked all the time. When I think of her, I can see her painting, painting…  That’s what allowed her to achieve so much in so little time.”

Brenneman agrees with Warm Day. “I don’t think Eva Mirabal thought much of limitations,” she said. “She seems to have had a healthy disregard for the impossible.”

Mirabal died in 1968 after spending her final years at the Pueblo, where she participated actively in the community life and portrayed it in her paintings. She also depicted some ceremonial images in her work, though her son doesn’t favor the inclusion of such details in current Native American art.

“It’s best if people go to visit the Pueblo, ask questions and get a feeling of the dances, or other ceremonies,” he said. “Unfortunately, lots of writers and painters depict our traditions in ways that can be misinterpreted or that are plain wrong. In many cases, if they are not from the Pueblo, their representations of our life are not historically correct. In my mother’s times, some artists did include ceremonial images but that isn’t done now.”

When Warm Day talks about his mother’s time he does it with a tone of longing in his voice. “I think that, for her generation, a lot of the art came from the heart, free of material worries and expectations,” he said.  “See, now I print my own artwork to make a living, but in those days a lot of the work they did was just original. They put more care in their art and they didn’t think about the money as much was we do now.”

An exhibit of paintings by Eva Mirabal and Jonathan Warm Day will be hosted in 2013 by the Harwood Museum of Art. “The upcoming Harwood exhibition, as well as current exhibitions, seeks to incorporate the vital stories of the Taos Pueblo artists along with the exciting contemporary work being done by the Hispanic community as well as the Anglo community,” said Brenneman.

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