With a View to the Southwest
Dorothy Dunn

"Nothing I do will ever be as important as the work
I have helped the Indian boys and girls do."

Dorothy Dunn (1903-1991)

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When Dorothy Dunn established The Studio for art instruction at the Santa Fe Indian School in September 1932, she helped to bring together national and local movements that would improve Indian education, develop a new Indian painting genre, and foster a market for Indian painting. Dunn's five years at the Santa Fe Indian School transformed Indian education from a militaristic discipline designed to suppress the children's cultures to curricula that valued and promoted their traditional heritage.

While teaching at Santo Domingo Pueblo Day School from 1928 to 1930, Dunn used art to encourage the students' creativity (and found, incidentally, that this approach aided the teaching of English). Overall, Dunn's emphasis at The Studio was on improved education and freedom to learn, thus encouraging students' self-confidence and self-respect.

Dunn insisted that her students use Native American subjects and a flat-art style, which to her yielded authentic representations of Indian culture, free of foreign influences that may have been introduced by traders or by outside training in art. The young teacher found support for her belief in this authentic style in the wall paintings and rock art that had been created for millennia and were visible everywhere in the Southwest.

Men's Arrow Dance
Joe Herrera, Cochiti
"Men's Arrow Dance" 1938
Tempera on heavy wove paper 10" x 14"

This narrative style occurred elsewhere in indigenous American Indian art—on buffalo robes and tipis of Plains Indians and on bark containers, shell ornaments, and hide paintings found throughout North America. Though the paintings lack perspective and shading, they depict great emotive movement and rely on an accurate rendition of subject matter to communicate.This is what Dunn termed a naturalistic style and, as far as she was concerned, the only authentic one. She felt the naturalistic style did not derive from tricks of naturalism, such as light and shade or perspective; instead, she believed that Indian art could be deceptively simple, creating illusions of depth, light, and mood through color and composition.

Today, this Indian painting style is widely recognized for its two-dimensional look without use of background or definition that might give temporal or spatial context. The Studio works depict a timeless aesthetic which guides Indian lives, an aesthetic in which religious and domestic life is understood as a process of constant renewal—a continuum of the world's creation. Depictions of dances, therefore, need no background, no context: they are eternal actions performed against a shifting present. Ultimately, the paintings present an aesthetic viewpoint, standing on their own to develop compassion, attitude, and understanding.

Criticism of The Studio and Dunn's method surfaced in 1960 as ideas for a new, invigorated art program and the Santa Fe Indian School emerged. The controversy grew directly from Dunn's once-accepted definition of authenticity in Indian art. During the formation of the Institute of American Indian Art (IAIA), Dunn's view of what was genuine came to be considered a hindrance to teaching the arts. In contrast, those promoting a new direction were determined that the IAIA would be a place allowing exceptional freedom of expression, encouraging its students to view and learn about all art styles and movements.

Each approach was correct for its time. It was with a clear vision of Indian art and its intrinsic worth that Dorothy Dunn began her work at the Santa Fe Indian School, encountering resistance from administrators, teachers and the traditional crafts instructors. She defended her students' rights to self-expression and their love of painting, and her students' work came to represent a new Indian art--one associated with Santa Fe. From The Studio came an extraordinary group who went on to successful art careers. Among them were Allan Houser, Ben Quintana, Harrison Begay, Joe H. Herrara, Quincy Tahoma, Andy Tsihnajinnie, Pablita Velarde, Eva Mirabel, Tonita Lujan, Pop-Chalee, Oscar Howe, and Geronima Cruz Montoya.

Dunn began her instruction in the 1930s. Many of her students and others continued to paint in this style, but in the early 1960s, these stylized watercolors and gouaches with a stencil-like quality no longer adequately expressed the breadth of Native American artistic aspirations. The naturalistic style seemed to have become a limitation, but neither the direction taken by the IAIA—or any other developments in American Indian arts in the late twentieth century—could have taken place without the foundation of the works from The Studio at the Santa Fe Indian School. Geronima Cruz Montoya, who later taught students just as Dunn has taught her, said: "She did a lot for us. She made us realize how important our own Indian ways were, because we had been made to feel ashamed of them. She gave us something we could be proud of. "

Thanks to Bruce Bernstein, former Chief Curator and Assistant Director, Museum of Indian Arts and Culture and Laboratory of Anthropology.

Photo courtesy of Museum of Indian Arts and Culture remote Collection of Margretta Dietrich, gift of Dorothy Dunn Kramer.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume 9

Related Pages

Helen Hardin 1943-1984 article

Ledger Drawings — Then and Now article

Collector’s Resources


Cowboys & Indians Antiques | 505-255-4054

Santa Fe

Addison Rowe Gallery | 505-982-1533


Millicent Rogers Museum | 575-758-2462


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