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A tribute to Tsa-sah-wee-eh, "Little Standing Spruce"
Beautiful, gifted Helen Hardin died much too young, leaving a world that would long to see what age might have brought to the powerful, intellectual paintings of her youth and young adulthood.
Helen was born in Albuquerque, the daughter of Pablita Velarde, an internationally recognized artist from Santa Clara Pueblo, and Herbert O. Hardin, an Anglo government employee. (Helen's daughter Margarete Bagshaw currently lives in the Caribbean.)
Her early childhood was spent in the shadow of Black Mesa, at Santa Clara Pueblo, where her first language was Tewa and her first perspectives on the world were formed. Thus began what was to be a complex, brilliant, brief life. Hardin left Santa Clara Pueblo with her family at age 6. She was never initiated into a clan, and her paintings reflect less authentic detail than was employed in her mother's more traditional work. In fact, strong-minded, individualistic Helen found the traditional style to be less of a challenge, less demanding than the complex styles she would develop in her own sophisticated, dynamic designs. Add to that, Helen's response to her heritage: According to Helen Hardin's friend, artist John Nieto (as told to Hardin biographer, Jay Scott) Helen dealt head-on with the pain of what it actually means to be an Indian in America. While most Indian artists deal with a tourist's idea of Indian imagery, Helen Hardin "dealt with the real thing. Even when it meant remembering the heritage they tried to take away from her. Even when it caused her hurt."
One of the milestones in Helen's artistic life came in 1968 in Bogota, Colombia. Until then, she had assumed that people purchased her paintings because she was the daughter of Pablita Velarde. But in Bogota, no one knew of her mother and, on the strength of the work alone, Hardin sold 27 of her paintings. From that point, she knew she could be an artist and would not have to paint in the shadow of her famous mother.
In the early days of her artistic life, Helen painted, in her own words, "cute little Indian paintings" and traditional realism while simultaneously she struggled with a personal and artistic revolution. Finally breaking free of the traditional mold, Helen's work became strongly geometric and increasingly abstract. Her work frequently incorporated Mimbres and Anasazi figures and kachina forms and masks; the rich inspiration of the Anasazi found unique—if not traditional—expression in Helen's paintings. Her intellectual women series of paintings—"Changing Woman," "Listening Woman," "Creative Woman," and "Medicine Woman"—expanded an artistic exploration that would continue until her death.
In 1982 it was discovered that Helen Hardin had terminal cancer. Not only did she continue to paint with a healing determination, but her work following the diagnosis became increasing spiritual and compassionate. Shortly before her death at age 41, Hardin said, "Listening Woman is the woman I am only becoming now. She's the speaker, she's the person who's more objective, the listener and the compassionate person." Helen Hardin was a consummate and complete artist at the time of her death, and one can only wonder where her art would have led her if she had been allowed more time to confront life.
Helen Hardin's daughter, Margarete Bagshaw is an artist who lives in St Thomas. While the grand-daughter and daughter of two women whose influence and stature could be daunting, Margarete is creating her own original path through her love of abstract form and design.
Helen Hardin's life and work is eloquently documented in a critical study written by Jay Scott and richly illustrated with photographs by Cradoc Bagshaw. The book is Changing Woman, The Life and Art of Helen Hardin, Jay Scott, Northland Publishing Company, Flagstaff, AZ.