“Painted: Our Bodies, Hearts, and Village” at Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville is open until July 28, 2024. Photo by Stephen Phillips, courtesy of the Colby College Museum of Art.

The walls of the Lunder Wing are covered in art.

Yes, these walls are located in the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, so it isn’t surprising to see paintings hanging from them. But right now, the art is also all around the paintings, on the walls themselves, which artist Virgil Ortiz covered with traditional motifs from Pueblo pottery.

This departure from usual blank gallery walls was fitting for this exhibition. “Painted: Our Bodies, Hearts, and Village” started with a body of paintings by the Taos Society of Artists, a group of Anglo-American painters who depicted their impressions of Pueblo culture in the early 1900s New Mexico. Those works are housed in the expansive Lunder Collection at the museum. But the curators decided this exhibition should focus not on those artists but rather on the perspectives of Pueblo people.

“These paintings by the TSA painters traveled throughout the country,” said Siera Hyte, manager of programs and fellowships at the Lunder Institute of American Art. “The fact that they are in a Maine museum shows that they had a much bigger life than just this regional specific context, and American art institutions historically have not exhibited these works in a way that either foregrounds Pueblo perspectives or even gives visitors the tools to fully understand the social, political, cultural background of how these paintings were created and constructed. What are the ways in which these paintings have become a stand-in in other American art museums for a broader idea of Native peoples?”

Hyte, who is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation, worked on “Painted” with two co-curators: Juan Lucero, who works for the First Peoples Fund and is a member of the Isleta Pueblo, and Jill Ahlberg Yohe, the associate curator of Native American art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Ortiz, a Cochiti Pueblo potter, fashion designer and multidisciplinary artist, designed the exhibition.

The museum also formed an advisory council made up of Pueblo and Wabanaki artists and stakeholders to guide the process. The staff did deep research on the people of Taos Pueblo, gathering stories of those depicted in the historic portraits and speaking to Pueblo tribal members. They sought out and purchased the work of 20th- and 21st-century Native American artists. Many of the gallery text was written by Pueblo artists or community members.


Ortiz, who is based in New Mexico, said he was excited to create a design that departed from traditional museum displays, and he wanted to bring the exhibition into the “here and now.”

“I want people to see and acknowledge who we are,” said Ortiz. “We’re still here, we’re still thriving, we’re creating.”


The Taos Society of Artists formed in 1915 in New Mexico and was active for more than a decade. Their members had traveled west via the new Santa Fe Railroad to search for subjects they thought would distinguish American art from European traditions. They were attracted to Taos Pueblo, an artistic and cultural hub for intertribal trade.

Jody Naranjo Folwell (Santa Clara Pueblo/Tewa, born 1942), Ghost Hunters, c. 2015. Redware, 16 x 6 ½ x 6 ½ in. Museum purchase from the Jere Abbott Acquisitions Fund. Courtesy of Colby College Museum of Art.

Hyte said research showed varied and complex relationships between these artists and the Pueblo people they painted. Some had long friendships, while others saw the exchange as purely transactional. The curators and advisory council also explored the context that was not directly referenced by the painters; not even a decade before the founding of the Taos Society of Artists, the U.S. government had seized a large swath of Taos Pueblo land, including the sacred Blue Lake, which would not be returned until 1970. The exhibition includes a short film (“Through Eyes That Capture Us” by Mozart Gabriel Abeyta) with interviews with descendants of those painted by the Taos Society of Artists and scenes from contemporary life at Taos Pueblo.

The curators also found a wide range of opinions among the people they consulted about these portraits. They learned in their research, for example, that much of the beadwork and regalia in the portraits in Colby’s collection was actually from the Northern or Southern Plains, not Taos Pueblo. Some thought this finding was a product of the intertribal trade in Taos Pueblo, saying it would be normal for community members to have items from other communities. Others saw an example of outsider artists staging the portraits for a specific look. Hyte said the museum wanted to reflect that nuance, so they hired Jessa Rae Growing Thunder (Sisituwan/Wahpetuwan/Hohe), a Northern Plains art historian and beadwork artist, to research this topic for the exhibition. She made a pipe bag that was acquired by the museum, which also secured loans of leggings and moccasins that show up in the paintings.


“We’re holding both of those truths at the same time,” said Hyte.

The curators also aimed to show the broader history of Taos Pueblo, not just the years in which the Taos Society of Artists were active. Hyte said the contemporary works by Native people show the ways in which the traditions of the past are still present.

“These modes of art-making and cultural knowledge transmission are continuous and ongoing,” she said. “The story doesn’t end with the TSA.”

That idea is also important to Ortiz. He started working with clay at a young age, inspired by his mother and grandmother. He was a teenager when a family friend showed him historic Cochiti figures for the first time, and Ortiz was stunned to see that these ancestral pieces looked so much like the ones he created from his own imagination.

“Painted” includes one such Cochiti figure made in the late 1880s by Seferina Herrera. Ortiz wrote the accompanying text about how Herrara and others presented a satirical critique of settler occupants of Pueblo lands in their pottery, and that tradition now inspired his own work.

“I think my role now is to help be a part of the continuation, part of the timeline,” he wrote.


Ortiz focuses his work on educating people about the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, a successful uprising against the Spanish. The exhibition includes two large images from his Revolt 1680/2180 project, a futuristic retelling that allows time travel and cultural exchange between generations of Pueblo people in 1680 and 2180.

“I’m glad they took a chance on me,” said Ortiz. “I wanted to really push Colby to represent it in a really forward thinking kind of way and to break out of the box of boring museum shows.”

The image overlooking the galleries is “The Translator,” from Virgil Ortiz’s Revolt 1680/2180 project, a futuristic retelling of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. Photo by Stephen Phillips, courtesy of the Colby College Museum of Art.


The exhibition surrounds the work of the Taos Society of Artists with the work of Native artists.

Cara Romero (Chemehuevi, born 1977), “Crickett,” 2014. Archival inlet print, 40 x 27 in. Museum purchase from the Jere Abbott Acquisitions Fund. Courtesy of the Colby College Museum of Art.

From across the gallery, for example, the visitor can feel the gaze of the young woman in a 2014 photograph by Chemeheuvi artist Cara Romero. It is titled “Crickett,” for her stepdaughter who looks directly out of the black-and-white portrait. Romero wrote about the moment between girlhood and womanhood, as well as the strength and grace her stepdaughter had exhibited in her young life. When Romero made the photograph, she instructed: “Look fierce.”

“Crickett” is one of the works acquired by the museum for this exhibition, and Hyte said the image of contemporary Pueblo young womanhood raises questions within the larger project: “What is the importance of self representation? Who gets to tell the story? Whose story is it? Who speaks for Pueblo people? Who speaks for Native people?”


The striking portrait hangs on a wall Ortiz covered with a wildflower motif that Hyte said references the women in his family. In the same room is an image from Ortiz’s 1680/2180 Revolt of “The Blind Archers,” a group of women and girls who ensure the survival of Pueblo culture despite the threat of colonization.

Ernest Blumenschein (American, 1874–1960), “Girl in Rose,” 1926. Oil on canvas, 30¼ x 25 in. The Lunder Collection. Courtesy of the Colby College Museum of Art.

And on the wall next to Romero’s photograph is a 1926 portrait by Taos Society member Ernest Blumenschein called “Girl in Rose.” The subject has turned her eyes down and away from the artist. Her identity was long unknown, but the curators at Colby conducted research to say that she is most likely Maria Mondragon, a Taos Pueblo community member whose husband also modeled for the Taos Society painters.

“It’s not to put them at odds with each other,” Hyte said of the two portraits. “It’s to put them in the company of one another and to have that enveloped with Virgil’s nod to the women in his family.”


Maine and New Mexico are hundreds of miles apart. Hyte said the team did not want to create connections that did not exist, but they did find shared experiences between Pueblo and Wabanaki communities.

Theresa Secord is a traditional Penobscot basketmaker and the founding director of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance. She serves on the museum’s board of governors and participated in the advisory council for “Painted.” Secord has known Pueblo artists for years through her own work and recommended many of the collaborators for this exhibition. The show also includes a photograph of her great-grandmother, Philomene Saulis Nelson, selling her baskets many years ago in a nod to Indigenous artists across tribal communities who sell their art.


Secord said the Indigenous voice was not included in Maine arts institutions for many years, and fine arts museums in the state only began to exhibit Wabanaki baskets in the last decade. Colby’s museum laid the groundwork for “Painted” with its 2019 exhibition “Wíwɘnikan … the beauty we carry,” she said, which included Native American curators and consultants.

For “Painted,” Secord said she was glad to see the museum invest significant dollars to bring Native voices into the process and also to purchase work by contemporary Native artists. One such commission was an untitled basket by Penobscot basketmaker Sarah Sockbeson, who also served on the advisory council. Such baskets are traditionally made with brown ash and sweetgrass, but that tradition is imperiled by the emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle species. Sockbeson chose to make this basket out of found materials such as aluminum house siding and plastic in order to experiment with new materials and draw attention to the threat to Wabanaki art.

“It’s so landmark,” Secord said of “Painted.” “You just don’t see this in museums, where they bring in this whole curatorial team of involved communities, especially from far away. The art is truly spectacular.”

Those involved with the project said they hope this exhibition serves as a model for other art institutions.

“All of us felt like this reinstallation is potentially a really exciting model for museums going forward with thinking about how to reinstall or create a more reparative sense of art history that looks again more fully at the whole story of this moment within American art,” said Hyte.

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