Published on June 8, 2014 by Carol
Peña, Tonita (María Antonia) [Quah Ah: ‘White Coral Beads’ or ‘Little Pink Shell (Beads)’] (Tonita Peña was born 10 May 1893; d 9 Sept 1949).
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Native American Pueblo painter of San Ildefonso Pueblo, NM. She was the daughter of Ascensión Vigil Peña and Natividad Peña but was brought up by her aunt, Martina Vigil, a prominent Cochití Pueblo potter.
She attended elementary school at San Ildefonso and the Santa Fe Indian School, where she was a child prodigy, producing successful sketches at the age of seven. Ten years later, she was a recognized professional artist.
She was an instructor at the Santa Fe Indian School and at the Albuquerque Indian School and became the most influential Native American woman artist of her time, a dominant force in the maturing of contemporary Native American art.
Affectionately titled the ‘Grand Old Lady of Pueblo Art’, she was a major success in painting and generously shared her skills with younger artists, many of whom owe their careers to her influence.
Her medium was primarily pen-and-ink embellished with watercolour, the favourite medium of the early 1920s and 1930s, since professional materials were rarely available to most Native American artists. She executed several wall paintings in New Mexico, was a featured participant in the 1931 Exposition of Indian Tribal Arts organized in New York City by John Sloan and demonstrated at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933.
Tonita married three times and had six children, the most noted of whom was the painter Joe Hilario Herrera, who in turn influenced the Santa Clara Pueblo painter Helen Hardin. At Tonita’ s death, her husband, in compliance with Pueblo custom, burnt all her remaining paintings and personal effects.