Evan X. Merz

musician / technologist / human being

Tagged "quincy tahoma"

The Archer by Quincy Tahoma

The Archer, a painting by Quincy Tahoma.

Quincy Tahoma painted The Archer in 1944. He was 27 years old, but the government thought he was 24, and he was happy to go along with the deception. He liked being the young Navajo artist whose talent couldn't be kept on the reservation. But he was living multiple lives, and that became obvious in 1944.

Tahoma wanted to fight in the war, but a childhood injury that severely limited the use of his left arm prevented him from doing so. As a native speaker of the Navajo language, the government thought he could be useful in intelligence work, and called him up in 1943, but they soon sent him home for reasons that remain unclear. So in 1944 he disseminated several conflicting stories about his war service.

Tahoma was accustomed to leading a double life. As a student at the Santa Fe Indian School he always had one foot in his native Navajo culture, and one foot in white America. After his father died, he was raised partly by an aunt, and partly by several boarding schools that taught Native Americans to integrate into white society. He found art through an incredibly influential teacher named Dorothy Dunn. As an artist, Tahoma relied on white America for his income. Tourists flocked to New Mexico to see and experience Native American culture while they could. Tahoma was happy to paint the pictures that they wanted to see, pictures of a proud native heritage that mixed cultures and drew on all of his life experience.

In 1944 he was the darling of the New Mexico art scene. He was featured in a short film, and he worked for the Museum of New Mexico, painting scenes of early humans.

A page from the biography of Quincy Tahoma that shows some of his illustrations.

The Archer shows off Tahoma's confidence, but it also reveals his immaturity. It shows a confident, clear-eyed hunter who bags his prey, as we can see in the cartouche. But the composition is flat and one dimensional, lacking the drama of his best paintings. Also, Tahoma mistakes the musculature of the archer's right knee.

Still, it reveals some of the techniques that made Tahoma famous. The sequential art in the cartouche is exquisite. The mixture of inking and painting techniques lends the painting an illustrative quality. The bird in the upper left defines the frame as in so many Tahomas. And the characteristic blue-green of the archer's loin cloth is still as brilliant as the day it was painted.

Quincy Tahoma's signature on The Archer

The Archer isn't the best painting by Quincy Tahoma, but it displays a blossoming talent. It reveals a young artist who has yet to face alcoholism, and who hasn't yet reckoned with the consequences of his double lives.

Over the Hollow Log by Quincy Tahoma

Over the Hollow Log, a painting by Quincy Tahoma.

Quincy Tahoma painted Over the Hollow Log in 1947. This painting shows an artist at the peak of his skills. Everything about this image is characteristic of the best Tahoma paintings. But why was he doing his best work in 1947?

In 1947 Tahoma was 30 years old. He was a famous artist in New Mexico, and he had achieved a measure of national success by winning a prize from the Philbrook Museum in 1946. But he was facing the first great challenge of his life as a consequence of his growing dependence on alcohol.

The reason Tahoma painted some of his best pieces in 1947 is because he was sober. The reason he was sober is that he was in prison. The reason he was in prison is because he was accused of rape, and the story reveals something about Tahoma's character, and about how the criminal justice system treated Native Americans in the mid 20th century.

Here's how Charnell Havens and Vera Marie Badertscher summarized the incident that landed Tahoma in prison in 1947 in Quincy Tahoma: The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist.

On New Year's Eve 1946, he had many successes to celebrate. He liked to socialize and his celebrations often involved too much drinking. He would sober up – sometimes in jail – and then get back to life. This time, however, the party got out of control…

On New Year's Day, a Wednesday, Mrs. Hobbs complained to the police that her daughter was missing. When the sheriff, aided by the state patrol, located the girl in Albequerque on that same day, she "told her story" according to the Santa Fe newspaper. She said a Navajo artist named Quincy Tahoma had offered her whiskey and raped her. The police quickly located Tahoma and held him in the Santa Fe jail until court convened on Friday, January 3…

Quincy Tahoma stood alone in the courtroom, probably not feeling well after the New Year's Eve celebration, and someone in the court or the District Attorney's office advised that he could plead guilty to a lesser plea. No defense attorney appears in the court paperwork so it is doubtful that anyone explained his options to him. No one suggested that if he thought the charges were unfair, he could plead not guilty. No transcript of witnesses appears, and the trial did not take long.

Tahoma was accused of raping a 16 year old girl named Vonnie Hobbs who had been out with him on New Year's Eve. He pled guilty and received a sentence of two to five years. His signature appears on none of the documents related to the case.

But prison was not so bad for Tahoma. In fact, if we judge that period of his life based on his artwork, it was the best period of his life. Tahoma was a famous prisoner, and he was well known to the warden and the guards. The guards purchased supplies for him, and he was able to paint every day. Since painting was all he cared about, he was not much bothered by being in prison.

He gave some paintings to the warden and the guards for additional privileges. Other paintings were taken out of prison and sold by various friends. Over the Hollow Log is almost certainly a painting that Tahoma produced while in prison.

Tahoma's work outside prison was becoming quite inconsistent. His drinking was lending some paintings an unfinished or sketchy quality. None of his prison work reflects this drop in quality.

The painting is one of Tahoma's best because it reflects his mastery of single page storytelling. It depicts a Native American man wearing a concho belt shooting a second arrow into a buck, while his horse and the buck leap a rotting log. The deer breathes its last breath while a scared rabbit runs out of the log. In the cartouche we can see that the hunter has managed to bring down the deer, as he has tied his kill to the back of his mount.

The signature on Over the Hollow Log

So much of this image is Quincy Tahoma flexing the techniques he had mastered by 1947. The background is plain, unpainted paper, but the scene is framed by three birds in the sky. The composition and drama of the scene reflects elements that were palatable to him, and were easy to sell to tourists. The horse and deer are painted using a mixture of painting and inking techniques that are still so evocative today. The image almost looks like an illustration from a comic book or pulp novel. The small animal running away appears in so many Tahoma paintings. One of his most oft repeated subjects was a horse being scared by a skunk or other small animal. The dress of the hunter is also typical of Tahoma, with the characteristic flourescent blue-green loin cloth that appears in almost every Tahoma depiction of Native Americans in traditional dress.

The depiction of the tree in this painting is remarkably life-like. Tahoma preferred to paint stylized plants and trees. His depiction of a realistic tree in this painting is one thing that makes it stand out among his other works.

Tahoma lived many lives. After the war he had an increasingly difficult time keeping his lives separate. In 1947 his double lives continued. He was simultaneously a prisoner whose basic freedoms had been taken away, and a successful artist creating the best work of his life.

Painted during his time in prison, Over the Hollow Log is one of the best pieces created by Quincy Tahoma.

The Last Jump by Quincy Tahoma

The Last Jump, a painting by Quincy Tahoma.

Quincy Tahoma painted The Last Jump in 1954. The subject matter and execution issues reflect the problems in Tahoma's life.

The scene should be familiar to any Tahoma fan. The painting shares a title with a famous Tahoma print. In fact this scene is one he painted frequently because it was easy to sell. A man is trying to break a horse, but the horse is startled by a small animal, a bunny in this case, and the man is thrown by the horse. We can see that he is thrown in the cartouche.

The signature on The Last Jump

The painting has some of the hallmarks of Tahoma's best works. It depicts the most dramatic moment of the effort, where the story could end in success or failure. The horse is nearly flawlessly executed. The poses of the horse and the man are extremely three dimensional, with limbs jutting out at the viewer, and flailing in dramatic ways. The drama is what separates Tahoma's work from his Navajo contemporaries, who often favored flat or static scenes.

Yet when you spend a little more time looking at this painting, you can see that something isn't quite right. It looks like the paintbrush slipped when painting the horse's left nostril and there's a black splotch right next to it. The torso of the man is unfinished, with the outline missing from his right side, and his abs hastily outlined with a liner brush. The green of the man's loin cloth is flat green, as opposed to the bright, multifaceted green that he almost always used for the same piece of clothing in his other paintings.

What happened?

Quincy Tahoma died in 1956 due to complications of alcoholism. In 1954 he drank and painted every day. His work from this time is quite inconsistent. These inconsistencies mar this image. When I look at this image I see a painting that was started in the morning, when he was sober, then hastily finished in the evening when he was drunk. The pose, the horse and the headdress are almost flawlessly planned and executed. This headdress is one of the most spectacular I've ever seen in a Tahoma painting, and the horse reveals Tahoma's skill at capturing the animals.

I imagine Tahoma taking a break after painting most of the picture, continuing to drink, then returning to finish it. He hastily filled in the loin cloth with a basic green straight from the bottle. Then he dabbed some black into the horse's nostrils, but his arm slipped and he splotched it. Then he got angry and decided to do the signature. His arm slipped when making the top of the 5 and he dragged it across where the 4 would go. He took his time and finished the cartouche strong, but then he noticed that he forgot to finish the man's torso. Using the same narrow brush he used for the cartouche, he quickly outlined the man's muscles. Even then, he still forgot one small inner line.

Of course this narrative is pure fancy, but the story told by this painting is plain: the man failed to tame the horse just as Tahoma failed to tame his alcoholism.