Pop Chalee


Zuni Mask Dancer, watercolor, 35 x 26, courtesy Albuquerque International Sunport Art Collection. painting, southwest art.
Zuni Mask Dancer, watercolor, 35 x 26, courtesy Albuquerque International Sunport Art Collection.

By Sally Eauclaire

When I met painter Pop Chalee in 1991, I thought she was 85 going on 15. Standing tall at well under 5 feet, she sported full bangs and a waist-length braid, body-hugging Capri pants, high-tech sneakers, and New Age crystal jewelry. She was clearly a woman with an image.

If she had ever prepared a r´esum´e, it would have run on for several pages, including everything from promoting Indian education to hobnobbing with celebrities to singing on the radio program Voice of America. But first and foremost she was an artist whose flat, decorative paintings of en-chanted forests, racing horses, and sprightly dancers are now in major museum collections all over the world.

Pop Chalee was born Merina Lujan in Castle Gate, UT, in 1906 to a Swiss mother and a Native American father. Despite frequent mispronunciations, she preferred the Taos Pueblo name. “It means Blue Flower,” she explained to biographer Margaret Cesa. “My grandmother gave it to me.”

Although Pop Chalee hung out in Taos, NM, with Oscar Blumenschein, Victor Higgins, Emil Bisttram, and other well-known artists of the Taos art colony, she was a late bloomer as an artist. “I was just a little kid who loved art,” she said. “I never dreamed I’d be an artist myself. I didn’t dream it until I had two children and Mabel [Dodge Luhan] suggested I go to school, and then I got into painting.”

In 1935 Pop Chalee entered the Santa Fe Indian School (forerunner of the Institute of American Indian Art). For two years she studied with Dorothy Dunn, although she always said study was the wrong word. “We didn’t study art,” Pop Chalee remembered. “I can’t say she taught. She just got it out of you. All the artists who graduated with me became very famous Allan Houser, Harrison Begay, Gerald Nailor, Quincy Tahoma. No two painted alike. She was clever enough to let our individual-ity come out.” Though the flat, decorative style Dunn promoted felt restrictive to Houser and some of the other students, it offered Pop Chalee the freedom she needed to paint the flying horses and other whimsies of which she dreamed.

Mystical Forest, watercolor, 7 x 11, courtesy School of American Research, Santa Fe, NM. All photographs of artwork c Michael O Shaughnessy.
Mystical Forest, watercolor, 7 x 11, courtesy School of American Research, Santa Fe, NM. All photographs of artwork © Michael O’Shaughnessy.

The dreams dated back to childhood, according to Cesa. Pop Chalee had often “lazed on the ground just outside Pueblo walls, staring at birds as they flitted from branch to branch in red willows and cottonwoods that grew along the stream. She withdrew into fantasies.” The visions of girlhood later became the imaginative visions of the mature artist.

Indian dancing was an equally powerful influence. “The rhythm the Indian has I just go out of this world with it,” said Pop Chalee to Cesa, who has hours of the artist’s repetitive, free-form comments on tape. “Your heart is beating with them, with the rhythm of their bodies, and they’re dancing with the rhythm of their bodies—oh, and the song. The Indian song has to be there too. Brings out that beautiful rhythm in the body. To me there’s nothing prettier than an Indian dancer.”

Nothing, perhaps, except color. The painter whose horses are often turquoise, red, and lavender said she learned to see colors intensely during an experience with peyote, a drug used in Native American religious ceremonies. “You know, eating peyote made you see colors in their pure, pure form,” said Pop Chalee. “Beautiful clean colors. That’s where I get a lot of my colors…. You really saw beauty with peyote.”


Leaping Blue Deer, watercolor, 7 x 11, courtesy Mrs. Buck Saunders. painting, southwest art.
Leaping Blue Deer, watercolor, 7 x 11, courtesy Mrs. Buck Saunders.

After graduating from the Santa Fe Indian School, Pop Chalee joined Houser and Nailor in setting up studios in Santa Fe. Though all three artists saw their work reviewed, critics tended to spend more words on Pop Chalee’s striking appearance and personality than on her work. She capitalized on both, and by the late 1930s her paintings had been exhibited nationwide in galleries and museums.

In 1939 Pop Chalee joined 11 other artists (she and Pablita Velarde were the only women) in Albuquerque, NM, to paint a large mural of grazing deer and stylized trees for a trading post. The project netted her $150 plus praise and publicity. Even so, the artists chosen shortly after that to paint murals in the Department of the Interior Building in Washington, DC, were all Indian men.

The setback didn’t seem to faze Pop Chalee, however. Busy producing paintings, book illustrations, and note cards, she also found time to hobnob with cele-brities at La Fonda hotel in Santa Fe and even introduced Errol Flynn on the opening night of the Warner Bros. film Santa Fe Trail in January 1941. How had she met the actor? “He came down the Santa Fe Trail and crashed our party. I knew he was here but never guessed he’d get ahold of me!”

At the age of 37, Pop Chalee headed up the hill to Los Alamos, NM, and put her career on hold. Her first husband, Otis Hopkins, was a machinist working on the Manhat-tan Project, and Pop Chalee be-came the dorm matron for a group of young scientists. Asked if she had known any secrets about the project, Pop Chalee laughed and said, “No way, honey. I didn’t even know what they were doing, just that it was something important. Oppenheimer used to go horseback riding and I’d meet him. He was a very nice person. I met Einstein, too. I think he was too old to get on a horse, but he was cute and alert and, as we all know, brilliant.”

Peyote Priests, watercolor, 13 x 15, Dunn Collection, courtesy Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe, NM. painting, southwest art.
Peyote Priests, watercolor, 13 x 15, Dunn Collection, courtesy Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe, NM.

Pop Chalee left Los Alamos, however, when she was summoned by Howard Hughes, who had decided she should paint three murals at the Albuquerque airport. “One day two MPs drove up to escort me to meet him,” she remembered. “Howard had seen my watercolors of Indian dancers. I was supposed to do three murals, and I talked them into doing the whole airport. It was 12 or 13 paintings. A few are missing today.” When the airport was expanded and renovated in the late 1980s, Pop Chalee was hired to restore the surviving murals. “It was one of the big days of my life when I heard that they would get them out of storage and restore them all. It made me cry.”

World War II over, Pop Chalee and her family returned to Santa Fe, where she went back to painting, partying, and promo-tion. By 1948 she had divorced Hopkins and married Ed Lee, a Navajo. Together, the two worked the Chicago Railroad Fair, singing, dancing, and serving as master and mistress of ceremonies. Soon after, in 1950, they were hired to publicize the MGM film Annie Get Your Gun in cities from New Orleans to Toronto. For the most part, they inducted celebrities, politicians, and other VIPs into Indian tribes, a publicity stunt apparently inspired by stories of Annie Oakley’s induction into the Sioux tribe by Sitting Bull.

On and off duty, Pop Chalee made her mark. While staying at the Astor Hotel in New York City, for instance, she met band leader Guy Lombardo. “He played there in the dance hall. We got acquainted and big-mouth me said, ‘You and your brother should come out and visit me in Santa Fe.’ One day I got a call from La Fonda and he said, ‘Guess who this is?’ I thought, ‘Oh my God, what will I do with them?’ But they had the time of their lives! I never dreamed that Guy Lom-bardo would call me up.”

What she truly didn’t dream of was winding down her career. Yet the mid-1950s celebrity eventually came to an end. The type of Native American art she had popularized went out of fashion, and Pop Chalee stopped working steadily. Her second marriage failed, and she began a nomadic existence, living with one relative after another. But when Pop Chalee did paint, she did so in her idiosyncratic old-fashioned style, making no concessions to art-world fashion. She believed rightly, as it turned out—that she’d be around long enough to see both her style and herself make a comeback.

“I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t paint,” she said in 1990. “I wouldn’t have lived as long, that’s for sure! I swear each time [I start] that I won’t get into this tiny detail [work] anymore. Then I’m back in it again. Three hairs on a brush!”

In 1990 Pop Chalee received the New Mexico Governor’s Award and boasted that she and Governor Garrey Carruthers “fell in love with each other” at the awards ceremony. Though she had received hundreds of significant honors during her heyday, this award meant much; it was proof that Pop Chalee was flying high again.

Ever the sharp dresser, Pop Chalee continued to attract attention and rumors right up to her death in December 1993. Perhaps the most persistent tale was that she liked to speed around Santa Fe in a flaming red 1969 Corvette Stingray. In fact, the car belonged to her daughter, Betty “Hoppie” Hopkins. It suited Pop Chalee well, however. Asked about it, she said, “It’s a hot car. You climb in and go like hell.”

Photos courtesy Red Crane Books

Sally Eauclaire is a frequent contributor to Southwest Art from her home in Santa Fe, NM.

Featured in November 1997