Draw­ing on the past Artist Dolores Purdy


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Dolores Purdy’s fa­ther was in the Air Force, so her fam­ily moved around a lot when she was grow­ing up. “On my mom’s side I’m Ger­man and Swedish, and on my dad’s side I’m part Caddo and part Win­nebago, so I have quite a mix. My dad’s from Dover, Ok­la­homa, and we would go back fre­quently for dances and to visit rel­a­tives. I was kind of raised in the Caddo cul­ture, but not as much as we wanted to be, be­cause we lived all over the United States,” she told Pasatiempo. Purdy is a well­known ledger artist, an art form she stum­bled across while do­ing ge­nealog­i­cal re­search. She has lived in Santa Fe since 2010.

“I was try­ing to learn about our an­ces­tors, and I dis­cov­ered one fel­low who’d been in Fort Mar­ion prison, in St. Au­gus­tine, Florida,” she said. “I thought that was weird, since he was from Ok­la­homa. I thought I’d dis­cov­ered the fam­ily horse thief, but Florida seemed a long way away to send him for steal­ing horses.” It turns out that her rel­a­tive was one of 72 Cheyenne, Kiowa, Co­manche, Ara­paho, and Caddo men, along with one woman, who were all im­pris­oned at Fort Mar­ion be­tween 1875 and 1878 for their sup­posed par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Red River Wars.

At the urg­ing of their mil­i­tary cap­tor, Richard Henry Pratt, who went on to found the Carlisle In­dian In­dus­trial School in Penn­syl­va­nia, 26 Fort Mar­ion pris­on­ers made hun­dreds of ledger draw­ings, which are draw­ings made on dis­carded ledger or ac­count books, such as those used for birth, mar­riage, and death records at a county clerk’s of­fice. The writ­ing on the pa­per usu­ally shows through the draw­ing made over it, pro­vid­ing tex­ture and, some­times, his­tor­i­cal in­for­ma­tion that be­comes the­mat­i­cally en­twined with the new im­age — hard facts about what was hap­pen­ing in the non-Na­tive world con­trasted with scenes of hunts or dances. Ledger art came into ex­is­tence as white set­tlers be­gan erad­i­cat­ing the buf­falo that Plains In­di­ans hunted. As the hides they had been us­ing as paint­ing sur­faces grew more scarce, Na­tive artists turned to other ma­te­ri­als like pa­per, much of which they ob­tained from Euro­pean set­tlers. The ledger art made at Fort Mar­ion prison is con­sid­ered a ma­jor evo­lu­tion of the form, and a some­what ironic one, since the artists pre­served their sto­ries us­ing ma­te­ri­als pro­vided by a man in­tent on erad­i­cat­ing tra­di­tional Na­tive cul­ture.

Purdy is at the fore­front of a new wave of ledger artists that has emerged in the last 10 to 15 years. She uses ink and col­ored pen­cils — she prefers the Pris­ma­color brand — and spends hours fig­ur­ing out which col­ors go best next to one another for max­i­mum vis­ual power. “I want it to look three-di­men­sional with­out it ac­tu­ally be­ing three­d­i­men­sional, and with­out do­ing too much shad­ing. It thrills me to work my col­ors so that they pop. My goal is to make it as Pop art as pos­si­ble, with lit­tle nu­ances of Art Deco, and still use tra­di­tional scenes with old pa­per,” she said. Her ledger pa­per pre­dates the 20th cen­tury so that it is sure to be made of cot­ton or linen, rather than wood pulp, which dis­in­te­grates. She finds her pa­pers at an­tique malls that she seeks out when­ever she trav­els, rather than buy­ing on­line, be­cause she wants to be able to feel the pa­per for au­then­tic­ity. Her fa­vorite an­tique mall is in In­di­ana, but she doesn’t get out that way very of­ten any­more.

Purdy draws eth­i­cal lines around which ledger pa­per she will use. Though all of it tech­ni­cally con­tains his­tor­i­cal records, she be­lieves some records should not be sold to pri­vate buy­ers, lest im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion get lost to time. “Some of th­ese things that are sold at an­tique malls should re­ally be in mu­se­ums,” she said. She re­called find­ing prop­erty

Like many con­tem­po­rary ledger artists, Dolores Purdy in­cludes mod­ern, per­sonal el­e­ments in tra­di­tional scenes. Her hall­marks are bright, highly con­trast­ing col­ors rem­i­nis­cent of 1960s paint­ings by Pe­ter Max; blank hu­man faces; and horses that stare out with big, bale­ful eyes.

records in Scran­ton, Kansas, that noted the orig­i­nal own­ers of land parcels that were sold off af­ter a rail­road went un­der. “I think ledger artists need to be guardians and not draw on that. There’s noth­ing wrong with mak­ing a print of it and draw­ing on that, though.”

Like many con­tem­po­rary ledger artists, Purdy in­cludes mod­ern, per­sonal el­e­ments in tra­di­tional scenes. Her hall­marks are bright, highly con­trast­ing col­ors rem­i­nis­cent of 1960s paint­ings by Pe­ter Max; blank hu­man faces, so view­ers can read into their ex­pres­sions any­thing they want; and horses that stare out with big, bale­ful eyes. Though she loves to draw them and con­tem­plate their in­ner lives, Purdy doesn’t ride horses or con­sider her­self a horse per­son. “My daugh­ter rode horses, we owned horses, but they are re­ally a lot of trou­ble. We were al­ways hav­ing to go out to the sta­ble again. It’s not for me.”

Purdy’s work was in­cluded in the 2013 book Women and Ledger Art: Four Con­tem­po­rary Na­tive Amer­i­can Artists by Richard Pearce, pub­lished by Univer­sity of Ari­zona Press. She is par­tic­i­pat­ing in the 2016 Santa Fe In­dian Mar­ket — her booth is at 720 Lin­coln Ave. — and from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Fri­day, Aug. 19, Morn­ing Star Gallery, where she works part-time, hosts a re­cep­tion in honor of her new pieces. In one of the new works, 4 Di­rec­tions, Purdy wanted to try a land­scape, so in the cen­ter is a turquoise teepee and in each cor­ner is a red cross. The hori­zon line is rep­re­sented by a row of psy­che­delic green trees and laven­der flow­ers. The pa­per is from the Penn­syl­va­nia Dutch area, and Purdy de­scribed the names listed as “very Ger­manic.” In Buf­falo Hunt, the fig­ures are hunt­ing “off the reser­va­tion,” Purdy said. “They’re do­ing some­thing they’re not sup­posed to do. The pa­per is from the district court of Osage, Kansas, which I thought was fit­ting.” Cad­dolac Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight is one of many of Purdy’s draw­ings that fea­ture classic cars and trucks. Two women sit in the front seat of a turquoise con­vert­ible, their hair and col­or­ful cloth­ing stream­ing be­hind them in the wind. “They are go­ing down the high­way, dressed in full re­galia, ready to dance by the light of the moon,” she said.

Prior to be­com­ing a professional artist, Purdy owned a restau­rant in a shopping mall in Topeka, Kansas, and then co-owned a chem­i­cal com­pany, though her pref­er­ence would have been to be a graphic de­signer. She painted and drew as a hobby for 40 years, and then, af­ter her mar­riage broke up and she left the cor­po­rate world, she took the op­por­tu­nity to fo­cus her en­ergy on what she loves. She wants her work to be seen as hu­mor­ous and joy­ful, with the horses bear­ing wit­ness to the end­lessly cycli­cal na­ture of ex­is­tence.

“I want to make it funny,” she said. “Art should make us happy. It doesn’t have to match my sofa, but I want it to make me happy.”

Dolores Purdy: Buff Hunt, 2016; top right, Ready for the Dance, 2016; both color pen­cils


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