Gisella Loeffler | A Taos Legend

Nativity [c1955], gouache, 81⁄2 x 81⁄2., Southwest Art
Nativity [c1955], gouache, 81⁄2 x 81⁄2.

By Michael R. Grauer

In a village filled with colorful characters, few Taos artists were as colorful as Gisella Loeffler [1900-1977]. From her handmade Austrian clothing and handpainted furniture to whimsical paintings and letters written in multicolored crayon, joyful color defined the artist, who early on chose to use simply Gisella as her professional name and was known as such to everyone in Taos.

In spite of her fame there—the Taos News once labeled her a Taos legend—Gisella is rarely included in scholarly discussions of the Taos Art Colony. This oversight is likely due to the naive quality of her work, in which children or childlike adults inhabit a simple, brightly colored world filled with happiness. The macabre, the sad, the tortured, the offensive—all have no place in Gisella’s paintings. Her naive style of work looks very different from that of the better-known early Taos artists. Yet both Gisella’s artwork and her interesting life command attention.

Baking Bread [n.d.], casein on masonite, 193⁄8 x 481⁄8, Southwest Art
Baking Bread [n.d.], casein on masonite, 193⁄8 x 481⁄8

Born in Austria, Gisella came to the United States with her family in 1908, settling in St. Louis, MO. After studying art at Washington University in St. Louis, she became a prominent member of the local art community, joining the St. Louis Art Guild as well as the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts. In addition to creating posters for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Gisella won prizes from the Artists Guild of the Author’s League of America in 1919 and 1920 and from the Kansas City Art Institute in 1923. She also began working in textiles, including batik, to which she would return later in her career.

In the early 1920s Gisella married writer and music critic Edgar Lacher. A difficult character, Lacher may have chafed under Gisella’s success, for the couple divorced in the 1930s.

Taos Indian Deer Dance [n.d.], casein on paper, 85⁄8 x 10., Southwest Art
Taos Indian Deer Dance [n.d.], casein on paper, 85⁄8 x 10.

Having seen a local exhibition of paintings by Taos artists Oscar Berninghaus (who was from St. Louis) and Ernest Blumenschein, Gisella felt drawn to Taos, which reminded her of the villages of her native Austria. In 1933 the single mother with two daughters, Undine and Aithra, moved to Taos, where she lived off and on for the rest of her life. She traveled frequently, spending extended periods in Mexico, South America, and California, but always returned to New Mexico.

Gisella initially applied an Austro-Hungarian folk-art style to the Indian and Hispanic subjects that she found in New Mexico. In her early work she covered her surfaces with decorative floral and faunal motifs, and her images were flat with no attempt at rendering traditional one-point perspective. Eventually, though, Gisella developed her own style, often using children or childlike figures as subjects. Still, the influence of her native country’s folk art remained evident in her New Mexican, Mexican, and South Am-erican images.

Painted plastic egg [c1955], h 71⁄2., Southwest Art
Painted plastic egg [c1955], h 71⁄2.

In 1938 Gisella moved briefly to Los Griegos, north of Albuquerque, to be closer to medical facilities for her eldest daughter, who was suffering from rheumatic fever. Two years later, she moved to California to participate in the war effort, painting camouflage and decals on airplanes for Lockheed.

In California, Gisella broadened her range of artistic pursuits. She taught art privately, created illustrations for Scripts Magazine, and did interior design for private homes. She also designed greeting cards, a practice she continued after her return to New Mexico, where she created a series of Christmas cards.

Gisella began illustrating children’s books in 1941 when she collaborated on Franzi and Gizi with author Margery Bianco. Eventually she wrote and illustrated her own book, El Ekeko, in 1964. She also designed ceramics—her Happy Time Dinnerware, marketed by Poppy Trail and manufactured by Metlox of Manhattan Beach, CA, is highly collectible today.

In 1948 Taos art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan persuaded Gisella and her new husband Frank Chase to return to Taos. The couple lived in the former adobe home of writer D.H. Lawrence and were frequent visitors to the Luhan compound, where Mabel took Gisella into her circle of artist friends. In this environment, the color and joy that were integral to Gisella’s life permeated everything she did, from painting virtually all the surfaces—including the windows—in the Luhan home with bright colors and natural motifs to performing impromptu dances or singing Austrian folk songs with Taos artist Joseph Fleck, a fellow Austrian, at the Luhans’ frequent parties.

Gisella was enchanted by colorful scenes outside of New Mexico as well. In the early 1950s she began visiting South America, where her daughter Undine lived with her husband Ernesto Gutierrez, a U.S. State Department official. First in Bolivia, then in Peru, Gisella was taken with the bright costumes and traditions of the people she encountered. She later patterned much of her handmade clothing after South American costumes seen on these trips. Also intrigued by Mexico, Gisella traveled there as frequently as possible.

Throughout her life, Gisella corresponded regularly with her many friends. Typically her letters were illustrated in crayon or colored pencil with some object or scene from a recent experience. The text of her letters was also written with multiple colors of crayon or colored pencil. A letter from Gisella was always a visual feast.

As a painter, she worked on canvas or paper in oil, casein, and watercolor. She also painted furniture. Besides making her own clothing, Gisella worked in other fabric arts such as batik and embroidery. In fact, she received the top award in fabric arts in 1959 and again in 1967 from the Mus-eum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. But perhaps Gisella’s greatest legacy is the murals she painted for children’s areas in hospitals across the United States.

Mabel Dodge Luhan may have summed up Gisella’s contributions best when she wrote in her 1947 book Taos and Its Artists: “Gisella Loeffler! How people are attracted to your unny little painted children and the reassuring life you surround them with! This is a real folklore you give us. Everyone is allured and amused by the life of these robust infants with roses and birds and hearts all about them. It makes people forget that sometimes their life is not so gay. These children you paint are very simple and have the sweet peasant charm. Where do you find it? In a faraway Hungarian gypsy grandmother? Or is it really right here beside us all the time, and we too dull and preoccupied with the inconvenience of a mechanical world to be aware of it?”

Gisella’s death in 1977 left a large hole in the fabric of the Taos Art Colony and the entire Taos community. Yet her work, so colorful and full of joy, remains an uplifting presence in Taos.

Michael R. Grauer is curator of art at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Mus-eum in Canyon, TX, which held solo exhibitions for Gisella in the 1950s and ’60s and was the recipient of Gisella’s estate. The museum owns some 30 pieces of her paintings, prints, decorative artworks, and furniture as well as more than 260 illustrated letters.

Featured in November 1998