Drawing on the past Artist Dolores Purdy
ARTIST DOLORES PURDY
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