Tonita Pena (Tonita Vigil), San Ildefonso Peublo (1895-1949)

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Quah Ah (White Coral Beads) was the first Pueblo woman artist to throw off the traditional restrictions that were usually imposed upon women tin Pueblo culture, and paint just as freely as her esthetic sensitivity directed. She was born Tonita Vigil, at San Ildefonso Peublo, New Mexico on June 13, 1895, the daughter of Ascension Vigil and Natividad Pena. Following the death of her mother, she was brought up by her aunt, Martina Vigil, of Cochiti, who saw to her education at the San Ildefonso Pueblo and then at St. Catherine’s in Santa Fe. Her early life was much the same as any Pueblo child.

At the age of 14 she married Juan Rosario Chavez of Cochiti. He died two years later in 1911 and she married Felipe Herrera. Of her three children, one, Joe Hilario Herrera (See Ru) became one of the leading figures in Pueblo art; still living, he has become increasingly active in Indian political affairs, and no longer paints actively.

Largely due to the fact that many of her relatives were artists in their own right, Tonita began painting at a very early age, and by 21 was selling and exhibiting her work throughout the Southwest. She had little formal training, but was encouraged and somewhat guided by Dr. Edgar Lee Hewett and Dr. Kenneth M. Chapman, both of who recognized her talent, and were attracted by the fact that she was the only female painter at the time to advance beyond relatively casual experimentation.

Her own determination to succeed, combined with her very remarkable talent, enabled her to make a substantial contribution to the world of Indian art. She taught at the Santa Fe Indian School and at Albuquerque Indian School, where she inspired her students to produce fine works, yet not fall into the practice of copying the teacher. She was so highly regarded that she was chosen among those artists who were commissioned to make precise copies of the newly excavated murals at Pajarito for preservation, prior to their restoration.

At the introductory Exposition of American Indian Tribal Arts in 1931, her painting Spring Dances was labeled “the best in the show.” Her works were reproduced in many publications and are in many museum and private collections throughout the world. She was also active in mural painting, producing many mural which grace buildings in Arizona and New Mexico.

She later married Epitacio Arquero, who was elected Governor of Cochiti Pueblo; by him she had three children. At her death in September 1949, she had probably advanced the cause of Pueblo art more than any other female artist, and was justifiably “the Grand Old Lady of Pueblo Art, as Oscar Jacobson so aptly lauded her.