Christmas Card to John and Dolly Sloan

December 9, 2014


Christmas Card to John and Dolly Sloan, 1931. Awa Tsireh (Alfonso Roybal, 1898–1955), Oqwa Pi (Abel Sanchez, 1899–1971) and others. Watercolor, ink, and gouache on paper, 4 1/2 x 7 1/8 inches. John Sloan Manuscript Collection, Helen Farr Sloan Library and Archives.

Happy Holidays from the Helen Farr Sloan Library and Archives at the Delaware Art Museum! The archives house many delightful holiday greetings from artists, including this charming, hand-painted card that commemorates the friendship between John Sloan and several Native American artists from San Ildefonso Pueblo near Santa Fe, New Mexico. Sloan began spending summers in Santa Fe in 1919 and purchased a home there the following year. He was fascinated by the rich cultural heritage of New Mexico, and his encounters with its Native American communities invigorated Sloan’s painting and etching in the 1920s and 1930s.

Like a growing group of artists, curators, and collectors in the early 20th century, Sloan appreciated and collected works of art produced by Native American painters, weavers, and potters. In 1920 he arranged for a group of paintings by Native Americans to be included in the annual exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York, and he was one of the primary organizers of the Exposition of Indian Tribal Arts, a massive exhibition hosted by Grand Central Galleries in New York in 1931. This groundbreaking show included both historical and contemporary examples from Native American communities across the nation and treated the objects as works of art, rather than as ethnographic documents. Sloan helped to produce a scholarly catalogue and other texts to introduce Native American art to new audiences, and the exhibition succeeded in broadening interest in the artists and their work from museums and collectors on the East Coast.

As part of the Exposition, in December 1931, a group of Pueblo artists traveled to New York City to see the show, perform traditional dances, and produce sand paintings. This card was likely made at that time, when Sloan and his wife also would have been in New York for the winter. An Associated Press report described their visit:

“How do you like New York?” a group of Indian artists from old New Mexico and the Navajo country were asked as they stepped from the train which brought them to the exposition of Indian tribal arts where their works are on display.
Awa Tsireh, noted Indian painter, answered for the group by asking “Have you ever seen Santa Fe?” Awa and his friend Juan Jose Montoya who share a sense of humor don’t care a whoop about Broadway. In fact they had never heard of the paleface’s happy hunting ground. Awa and Juan, Oqwa Pi, Adam Martinez, Miguel Martinez, Juan Cruz, Domicio Sanchez and Atalana Montoya, ex-governor of San Ildefonso, N. M., are here to do a little painting in sand which was shipped here from the painted desert. They will also do a lot of native dancing, their specialty being a dance to conjure rain from the arid skies of their part of the country….

Just what the artists thought of New York on their first visit here, they did not say. They indicated they would express their impressions in the dances which they expect to present.” (The Post-Crescent, December 15, 1931.)

The figures on the card relate to traditional dances. The woman at left, drawn by Awa Tsireh, wears a tablita, a traditional Pueblo headpiece worn for the Corn Dance and often associated with rain, and the figure at right, drawn by Oqwa Pi, represents a man dressed for the Buffalo Dance. Both are social dances—performances that are sacred but open to outsiders, just the type of dances that the visiting artists would have performed for audiences in New York.

When I first encountered this card in the archives, I was excited at the tangible and personal connection it presented between Sloan and some of the most famous Native American artists of his day, but the Museum’s Librarian Rachael DiEleuterio and I needed to seek out experts to piece together its story. Three scholars of Native American art assisted in interpreting this singular document: Diana Pardue, Curator of Collections  at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona; Norman Sandfield, a collector and independent scholar; and Sascha Scott, Assistant Professor of Art History at Syracuse University and author of the forthcoming book,  A Strange Mixture: The Art and Politics of Painting Pueblo Indians. The John Sloan Manuscript Collection has extraordinary and sometimes unexpected resources that attract scholars of American art, and exchanges with outside scholars deepen our understanding of the objects in our collection.

Heather Campbell Coyle, Curator of American Art

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