Tahoma’s Artistic Penmanship

In our last post, I mentioned Tahoma’s loopy handwriting, but we didn’t give you a look at it.  He wrote in a style that was more common in the 19th century than in the early 20th century when he lived. I was tempted to call it Spencerian, but it was fancier than that. Like so much of his life story, he embellished his writing.

We first saw it on the back of his paintings. Not on the front, because very early on he developed a specialty signature, and that is another whole story, which we tell in our book.

Don’t forget, Quincy Tahoma: The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist will be available in the Spring of 2011.

But on the back of paintings, he would often write a dedication to the person receiving the painting. He gave away a lot of paintings to fortunate friends. And he would often add where he was when he painted it, so we have found references to “Santa Fe Indian School,” the “Santa Fe Indian Hospital”, “Tahoma of Santa Fe,” Tahoma of Tuba City,” and even “Scottsdale” on one. We never saw one that said City Jail or State Prison, although he painted there as well.

Inscription on back of a 1947 painting, Courtesy of The Family of Richard G. Jones

Since there was so little paper trail, and he was something of a drifter, we really did not expect to come up with correspondence, which is the mainstay of much biography.  However, by the time we had talked to a hundred or so people and visited who knows how many history and art intsitutions, we had amassed a rather surprising number of things in Tahoma’s own hand writing.

The first example we saw was a framed letter owned by the Christian Brothers of Santa Fe. In it, Tahoma is asking his friend, one of the Brothers, for money to pay bail. Later, at the National Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma City, Charnell found a letter and a follow up telegram to famous photographer Elliott Porter, also asking for money.  Porter had befriended Tahoma, and this time it wasn’t bail, but money to get out of Santa Fe and away from people Tahoma thought were a bad influence on him.  (It is a good story, but we have to leave something for you to read in the book.)

Not all of the Tahoma correspondence is about money. My favorites are the love notes and letters that former girlfriends shared with us.  We interviewed those girlfriends and in the book we  tell the story, as well as reproducing a hand-illustrated Christmas card and a page of a love letter.

1943 Christmas card, Courtesy of Jean Wallace McSwain

Two other outstanding examples of Tahoma’s handwriting showed up.

One had survived in New Mexico. David Brugge and his friend Jim Wilson took in Tahoma at their Albuquerque Indian store. David, who told us the story (and later wrote the Introduction to our biography of Tahoma), did not know if the ledger still existed.  Tahoma made some entries in the hand-written ledger of sales of his paintings, and Charnell came in contact with the then-owner of the ledger, the stepson of Jim Wilson.

The second find completed the story of Tahoma’s fancy penmanship. We were contacted by the owner of a sketchpad that belonged to Tahoma.  An artist’s sketchpad tells so much about how an artist works, and besides telling us how he created paintings, this one showed us that Quincy Tahoma created his fancy penmanship. He must have been taught to write in grade school, like all of us, but the artist in him was not satisfied to just follow the forms in the writing book at Santa Fe Indian School.  He created his own gorgeous swirling “Q” and majestic “T” along with the lesser letters of the alphabet.

1944 drawing from sketch book, Courtesy of Frank Tropiano

If you own a Tahoma painting, have you looked at the back of it to see if he wrote on the back?  Have you ever discovered interesting stuff on the backs of paintings by other artists?

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