The It Girl

When Pablita Velarde’s daughter Helen Hardin claimed her birthright as a next-generation artistic powerhouse, she gained a kind of model/rock-star status that she wore lightly— while painting ever so fiercely.

Excerpted from New Mexico Magazine, March/April 1970. View a PDF of the original article here.

Perched on a rock ledge at Puyé Cliffs in the Jémez Mountains, the cover girl for the March/April 1970 edition of New Mexico Magazine set an Instamatic standard for a new type of Pueblo woman—chic and hippie-cool, talented and in control.

Helen Hardin, grounded in the Santa Clara Pueblo of her early childhood, looked beyond its cliffs and canyons with a luminous eye that likely saw a limitless future. Her long hair was pulled back, her face framed by the step-down cuts of her bangs and Pueblo-style sideburn fringe. Her black clothing showed off stunning silver bracelets, squash-blossom earrings, a concha belt, and a torso-long swoop of necklace.

“Helen Hardin: Tsa-sah-wee-eh does her thing,” the cover proclaimed, using her Tewa name, which means “Little Standing Spruce.” Inside, a four-page story gushed about Hardin’s work, her life, her voice (“that echoes the sound of running water from deep inside a cave”), and even her hands, which drew a tortured comparison to “a Balinese dancer’s.”

She earned the cover as an up-and-coming painter whose style was veering away from the traditional imagery captured by her mother, one of the most famous Native artists of all time, Pablita Velarde. Awards from the Gallup Inter-Tribal Ceremonial and Santa Fe Indian Market signaled her growing acclaim. But the cover of the state’s biggest magazine?

“That turned the whole world around for me,” she remembered years later. “Everyone wanted a painting by Helen Hardin. It was insane. Everyone wanted jewelry like I was wearing. A woman married to an art dealer wanted a Pueblo haircut like mine; there were lots of women who wanted to look like me.”

She had figured that she “looked real with-it,” but was shocked when Fred and Margarete Chase, owners of the Enchanted Mesa Gallery, in Albuquerque, told her just how boss she was. Their customers hoped to buy not only her artwork, but “the necklace, the earrings, the concha belt—they wanted the whole Helen Hardin kit,” she said. “I could have cashed in on it, if I’d been smart.”

Given how Hardin’s career then soared, the cover might as well have been her debut, a coming-out party that played neatly into 1970s memes of youth, feminism, civil rights, and a nascent national crush on all things Indian—turquoise, heishi beads, and Billy Jackincluded.

When I began researching  her life for a biography commissioned by her daughter, modernist painter Margarete Bagshaw, I stumbled across the magazine again and again, tucked into various versions of scrapbooks and photo albums that Helen had started with OCD diligence but had rarely completed.

On the second-floor loft of Margarete’s Golden Dawn Gallery, near the Santa Fe Plaza, I burrowed into boxes of the books, hoping to hear the voice and find the soul of a woman who died in 1984, five years before I moved to New Mexico, her legacy now in my nervous hands. I claimed the smallest of work areas on a folding table topped by tilting stacks of scrapbooks, loose piles of family snapshots, and torn shreds of yellowed newspaper articles.

I longed to chat with Hardin, and often found myself listening with extra, invisible ears on the hikes I relied on to mark my way through her life. While wandering in the same areas that once inspired her, I could imagine that an extra-friendly butterfly held a message, that an improbable rain bore a blessing.

But the closest I could come to actually hearing her voice was via a couple of videos, the scrapbooks, and a few handwritten accounts by a woman who simply didn’t have time to “journal” as a verb.

Still, the presence of so many copies of the magazine shouted. Barely five years old when it came out, Margarete remembered it as a watershed.

“It was more about the publicity my mother could generate. She was very aware of herself being a professional woman,” Margarete said. “She wanted to project the best image she possibly could of having it together. She wanted to be seen as someone with taste and self-respect. Her entire self-image was very important to her because she grew up with such a poor image.”

The child of a Pueblo woman and an Anglo father, Helen Hardin felt like an outsider in 1950s and ’60s Albuquerque. When her parents divorced and her father all but disappeared from her life, the too-fat, too-poor, too-ugly inner voice that bedevils teenage girls hit quadraphonic volume. Just a few years before the magazine cover, she was a University of New Mexico dropout, a single mother, the occasional punching bag of her child’s father, a halfhearted waitress, and a clandestine painter of the hobbyist ilk.

On January 27, 1968, Hardin bundled Margarete onto an airplane and fled Albuquerque with “zero ego,” heading to her father’s home in Bogotá, Colombia, still uncertain of where her life should go.

Cooped up in an armored compound provided to Herbert O. Hardin by the U.S. Agency for International Development, Helen had little to do but paint. For six months, through stomach flu, through mosquito bites, through stepmother squabbles, she painted. The works impressed one of her father’s colleagues, and he arranged for a one-woman show. Colombians snapped up the paintings, as intrigued with their Native themes as they were with the coolly beautiful American woman who painted them. Diplomats crowded into photographs with her. Reporters clamored to interview her about art, artists, and that Stateside phenomenon called los hippies.

Until that moment, Hardin’s art had always carried a “daughter of pablita velarde” label. “I was always my mother’s child, and my mother was a great artist,” Hardin said. “She was the star. This was like Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli, you know?”

Within six months of fleeing Albuquerque she returned, a relative unknown in her own hometown, but confident enough to declare herself an artist and bold enough to create a unique style.

Maybe she knew her time on earth was short. Fourteen-hour workdays were the norm as she layered and spattered acrylic paints into complex images that married Native themes with of-the-moment abstracts influenced by Picasso and Kandinsky. She held her own with what Margarete called “the Brat Pack” of male-dominated Native art: Tony Da, Charles Loloma, Fritz Scholder, R.C. Gorman. Her work traveled to shows in Scottsdale, La Jolla, New York City, and Guatemala.

Journalists tried to cast her as a feminist and a civil-rights exemplar. Men had a habit of falling in love with her. Helen rejected the journalists’ labels and, with her bawdy humor and room-clearing laugh, failed to play sex kitten.

“She was not a pop star, she didn’t think of herself as a feminist, she didn’t like labels,” Margarete said. “She loved the things that were wonderful about Jackie O. and Diana Ross, but she just strove to be the best that she could possibly be. In her mind, she was just Helen Hardin.”

Even so, her ego couldn’t resist the flattery of the 1970 cover. Hardin’s brother, Herbert Hardin II, remembered her affecting a haughty demeanor and joking to him, “Well, just because I’m the greatest, most beautiful artist in the world doesn’t mean you can’t treat me better.”

“She had it and she knew it,” he said with obvious pride.

In 1973, New Mexico Magazine called her back as a model for a Native fashions story. She spent the morning in her Albuquerque bathroom, expertly wielding Dippity-Do, Aqua Net, and Maybelline and, eager to please, got to Santa Fe on time. The magazine’s staff, more laid-back, hadn’t arrived. Helen headed over to a friend’s house to kill an hour. There, by chance, was her friend’s colleague, photographer Cradoc Bagshaw. The two fell in love, eventually married, and Cradoc gave his name to Helen’s daughter. In a 1977 story he photographed for the magazine about Santa Clara Pueblo’s feast day, Cradoc caught a shot of Helen sitting down to dine with friends, including famed potters Joseph Lonewolf and Grace Medicine Flower, and First Lady Clara Apodaca.

In 1981, doctors found a small lump deep within Helen’s left breast. Three years of treatments couldn’t outpace cancer’s wolfish hunger. On June 9, 1984, just 12 days past her 41st birthday, she became one of the O-Khoo-Wah, the cloud people.

Today at Golden Dawn Gallery, Hardin’s paintings draw prices that would astound and delight her. The thread she picked up from her mother is now carried by her daughter. The image she crafted in New Mexico Magazine’s pages bears a timeless stamp, as fresh, as youthful, as “with-it” as it was 42 years ago.

When I wander the Puyé Cliffs Hardin loved, I use my extra ears and extra eyes. I try to hear her in the mountain wind; try to see her in the layers of lichens coating the rocks. A Technicolor mix of green, blue, yellow, orange, gray, and black, they resemble the layers and spatters she so painstakingly applied to her paintings. I’m not sure if I ever heard her voice or saw with her eyes, but since meeting her in those scrapbooks, any time I hit the trail, I see more than I ever did before. I see it all and I hear it all, and in my head I whisper thanks.