Transcending Duality: The Santa Fe Studio Style

This website was created by students in Dr. Jennifer McLerran’s Fall 2018 Northern Arizona University course Museum Studies 460/560: Topics in Museum Studies. The site accompanies the Museum of Northern Arizona exhibition “Transcending Duality: The Santa Fe Studio Style,” curated by MNA Fine Arts Curator Alan Petersen. Click on the menu icon at the top right to access the student-authored pages.


Gerald Nailor, The Yellow Corn Maiden’s Prayer to the Dawn, 1948, watercolor on paper, 12 in. x 14 in. Courtesy of the Museum of Northern Arizona, Flagstaff, Cat. No. C1860.


What is now commonly referred to as the Santa Fe Studio Style had its inception around 1908 among a small group of largely self-taught painters from San Ildefonso Pueblo, near Santa Fe New Mexico. The seminal group included Alfredo Montoya, Crescencio Martinez, and Julian Martinez, who was the husband of renowned potter Maria Martinez. Paintings made by these San Ildefonso artists came to the attention of Edgar Lee Hewett and other archeologists working on Ancestral Puebloan villages in the region. The Studio Style designation comes from almost two decades later, following the success of art teacher Dorothy Dunn and her Native American students at the Bureau of Indian Affairs Santa Fe Indian School (now the Institute of American Indian Arts, IAIA).  

For students attending the school, their paintings were a means to bridge the cultural, emotional, and spiritual distance from their families and villages. Dunn encouraged students to paint “what they know.” The young artists did just that, depicting hunting, riding, and domestic scenes, and following the lead of their predecessors, scenes of ceremonial dances. They knew that patrons sought such ceremonial scenes and they knew to stick with public dances that were open to outsiders. Patronage from non-Natives encouraged the students and provided them with a cash income, something novel for most of them. 

The Studio at the Santa Fe Indian School was a meeting place for Indigenous and Euro-American cultures that often conflicted in their social order and values. For the students, art was a pathway for gaining recognition, making a good income, and for overcoming the longing for home.

Dorothy Dunn        

Dorothy Dunn served as an art teacher at the Santa Fe Indian School (SFIS) from 1932 to 1937. Her tenure came at an opportune time of change as Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) administrators sought to remedy the terrible conditions found in most of their boarding schools. Dunn studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and she discovered Native American art at the Field Museum of  Natural History. There, she absorbed the visual language and rich symbolism of the museum’s excellent collections of Hopi and other Puebloan artifacts. Dunn first traveled to the Southwest in 1928 and that fall she began teaching second grade at Santo Domingo Pueblo.

Later, while finishing her degree in Chicago she wrote a proposal to then SFIS Superintendent Chester Faris to teach art there. Faris accepted her proposal and Dunn began teaching at the school in 1932. She hired Julian Martinez, Awa Tsireh, Velino Herrera, and Abel Sanchez to paint murals in the school cafeteria in order to create a more welcoming environment. 

When Dunn began teaching at the Studio, she encouraged and advocated for what was by then an established style of painting. She, like Edgar Lee Hewett, believed that the graphic stylization practiced by the Puebloan painters was the only authentic style of painting for Native American artists to follow. She encouraged students to paint things they knew from memory and to be true to themselves. Dunn found sources and inspiration in rock art, ceramic decoration, mural and hide paintings. She believed that her role was to help students in depicting their own innate knowledge of their indigenous art and culture. Students were encouraged to depict the complex relationships between the spiritual and human worlds as conveyed in the dance plazas. 

By 1937 Dunn and her fellow teacher and future husband, Max Kramer, had tired of the constant bureaucratic opposition to her methods and resigned. 

Anglo Patronage 

In the early years of the twentieth century, paintings made by Alfredo Montoya, Crescencio Martinez, and Julian Martinez, at San Ildefonso Pueblo came to the attention of Edgar Lee Hewett and other Museum of New Mexico archaeologists working on Ancestral Puebloan villages in the region. By 1912 Hewett had hired Crescencio and Julian as laborers. In 1916 Hewett hired Crescencio Martinez to create a series of paintings depicting the annual cycle of ceremonial dances at San Ildefonso. He later hired Velino Herrera, Awa Tsireh, and Fred Kabotie to work and paint at the Museum of New Mexico where Hewett was the founding director. There the young artists expanded their repertoire by exploring the ancient art and craft objects in the museum’s collection. Hewett saw their paintings as true expressions of traditional activities and deep cultural knowledge. He also believed that he could help save such traditions by encouraging such documentation by Native artists and the distribution of their paintings to a larger non-Native audience.  

One way that Hewett was able to accomplish this was by inviting prominent Euro-American artists to Santa Fe. By 1920, at the same time that Santa Fe was emerging as a center for emerging Puebloan artists, it was also developing as an art colony of international stature. As a result of efforts by Hewett and other local art patrons, along with such notable artists as Robert Henri, John Sloan, Marsden Hartley, and authors Mary Austin and Oliver La Farge the Native painters began to sell their works to an ever-expanding audience. 

SFIS superintendent John DeHuff and his wife Elizabeth Willis DeHuff, invited Fred Kabotie, Otis Polelonema, and Velino Herrera to come to their home to paint and provided them with materials. Elizabeth DeHuff asked the boys to “paint a dance picture.” The DeHuffs, and other patrons were attracted to the emerging style for its ethnographic content, strong visual qualities, and what they interpreted as authentic and timeless depictions of Native American traditions. 


The sources of imagery for the early Puebloan painters such as Julian Martinez, Velino Herrera, and Awa Tsireh included mural paintings found in kivas and homes, ancient rock art, and pottery and textile patterns. Featureless backgrounds, indeterminate light sources, two-dimensional space, and flat, often intense, color are the general characteristics of the style that emerged in the first two decades of the twentieth century in the Rio Grande Pueblos. Painting with watercolors on paper was a relatively new medium for Indigenous artists. Despite this, patrons and supporters saw the art form as an “authentic” expression of the Puebloan artists’ deep cultural history, and as having great ethnographic value.  

Based on its abstract qualities, many Euro-American patrons and in particular other artists sought to align the emerging style as comparable to Post-Impressionism and as Modernist in nature. However, Modernism as expressed in European and American art differs from the art of the Puebloan painters in that Euro-American modernist art is about art, and the role and ego of the artist is inseparable from the art-making process. The process and intentions of the Puebloan painters could not have been more different. Despite this, modern artists applauded the modernist nature of the paintings. 

     “These paintings are astonishingly modern in spirit, yet they represent the    evolution of the Indian’s own traditions and are not borrowed from the white artist. In these pictures we see the object combined with the artist’s subjective response to it – a union of material and technique in a pattern both symbolic and intelligible …   Simplicity, balance, rhythm, abstraction, and virility, resulting from discipline, characterize the work of the Indian today … 

The Indian artist deserves to be classed as a modernist; his art is old, yet alive and dynamic … His work has a primitive directness and virility, yet at the same time it possesses sophistication and subtlety. Indian art is at once classic and modern.”

                                                                                                           –John Sloan, artist

Expanding Patronage and Wider Recognition

With increasing exhibition of their work during the 1920s and 1930s, the Puebloan painters attracted a steadily growing audience. The first significant exhibition of paintings by students in Elizabeth DeHuff’s informal art classes at the Santa Fe Indian School was presented at the New Mexico Museum of Art in 1919. It included works by Fred Kabotie, Velino Herrera, and Otis Polelonema, and others.  Mabel Dodge Sterne (Luhan) purchased all of the paintings in the exhibition.

Mary Jane Colter, architect for the Fred Harvey Company, helped promote the growing popularity of Pueblo painting when she redesigned the interior of the La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe in 1925.  Enhancing the ambience of her Pueblo Revival Style interior were paintings she selected by Tonita Peña, and Julian Martinez.

The most extensive and widely viewed early exhibition of works by the Puebloan painters was the 1931 Exposition of Indian Tribal Arts. John Sloan, a social realist who worked in New York and New Mexico, was one of the modernists who was a vocal, and financial, supporter of the Native painters. In 1931, Sloan along with Amelia Elizabeth White organized the Exposition, which featured works by Awa Tsireh, Otis Polelonema, Fred Kabotie, and other Native American artists from around the United States. The Exposition opened in New York City and traveled to fifteen other venues on a two-year tour. Though highly paternalistic, reviewers were generous in their praise of the Native painters.

Aided by such exhibitions, Dorothy Dunn’s program attracted extensive attention and enrollment grew. In 1933 she expanded the program by adding courses for high school graduates and gave students professional experience by organizing sales exhibitions. Requests came from numerous museums, including the Denver Art museum, San Francisco Museum of Art, and the Musee d’Ethnographie in Paris for student work for exhibitions.

— Alan Petersen, Fine Arts Curator, Museum of Northern Arizona