Wednesday, June 25, 2008

“Little Mendocino” and Stealing Souls

I almost feel like I can't comment on this article. Exploitation? Abuse? Complete and total idiocy? Lack of human compassion? Egocentric? I'm fishing for words to describe this artist, who was quite well known. There is a museum dedicated to her in her hometown, people still buy and sell her paintings, and all in all, she did very well making her living off of California Indians.

A brief bio: "Grace Hudson's paintings of Indian children were enormously popular in her lifetime and were informed by a first-hand knowledge of the tribes in her native California. Born and raised in Ukiah, in the Potter Valley, Hudson received her formal art training in San Francisco, where she studied with Virgil Williams. In 1890, she married John W. N. Hudson, a prominent Pacific Coast ethnologist for the Field Museum of Chicago, who diligently researched the life, language, and art of California's Pomo Indians. Painted in 1892, Little Mendocino attracted national attention when it received an honorable mention at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. Her reputation secure, she traveled widely with her husband over the next two decades, painting other Indian tribes including the Pawnee in Oklahoma Territory. Though many of her paintings were destroyed by the earthquake and fire of 1906, Hudson remains well known as California's preeminent painter of Pomo Indian life and children in the late nineteenth century." (from the Autry National Center website, )

I found the following article in the NYT archives. The pdf file wouldn't publish here (although I managed to capture the photograph and headline), so I have typed in the article itself.

"Little Mendocino" - (a crying Pomo baby)

“And you want to know how I get Indian babies to pose for me, do you?”

Mrs. Grace Hudson, the young California artist who has made herself famous by painting papooses, wiped her brushes and dropped into a chair in the ivy-covered veranda of her studio at Ukiah.

“Now, I’ll tell you all you want to know and more, too, perhaps. I have much to contend against, but with the exercise of a little ingenuity and a great deal of perseverance I am able to catch a snap shot of an Indian baby in some interesting attitude or occupation. There’s the little fellow lying on his back trying to get his little brown foot into his mouth,” said the lady, pointing to one of her pictures. “That baby looks as if he never did anything but laugh, but I had to give him gumdrops to get that little rascal to look pleasant. That gave me the expression. The pose and coloring had to be done without the model.

When I see a baby that I want to paint I cannot borrow it for an indefinite period by telling its parents it’s the sweetest thing on earth. I have to kidnap it first and then overcome the natural inclination of a baby to do everything except what is most desired.

“There is a popular superstition among the Indians, that neither arguments nor bribes will shake, that to be sketched or photographed is sure to bring some terrible calamity down on the head of the subject. If it is not a speedy death it is disfigurement for life, or at the very least blindness. As all Digger Indians become blind in their old age from sitting all their lives over the smoke of their campfires, their superstition never lacks confirmation. Why, if those Indians here in Ukiah knew that I photographed and painted their babies I would be regarded as a murderess and my studio would be shunned as a chamber of horrors. I once induced Captain John, a very old Indian, whom I had known from my birth, to sit for me. He was so aged and infirm that he could not earn a livelihood and was in imminent danger of starvation.

“After a great deal of moaning and groaning, he finally accepted a bribe of bread and boiled beef, but he insisted on eating it first, for fear he would not live to enjoy it. When he had devoured the last crumb, he took his seat, and sat for hours staring at me stoically, and awaiting his impending fate like a stoic. Great beads of perspiration [sic] stood out on his face, and every few moments he would draw another long breath and brace himself for another effort. He must have suffered untold agony in the few hours he sat for me, for no bribe that I could offer would induce him to pass through the ordeal again. He declares he would sooner starve. I have tried to induce him to bring his grandchildren to me, but he only shakes his head and mutters: ‘No, bueno Muchacho.’ Nothing will induce him to imperil their lives, for he is positive that he escaped death only because he was so old and tough.

“But about the babies. When I want a subject I first have to find a squaw with a papoose. If the child’s face suits me, I enter into negotiations with the mother to do some work, usually scrubbing or window cleaning. She leaves the baby strapped up in his basket, and braced against the side of the house, where it will be under her eye. The next manoeuvre [sic] is to get possession of that papoose. I must make it cry, so that I may have some reasonable excuse for taking an interest in it. There is where Mascot ‘does his turn,’ as the theatrical people say. Here, Mascot, speak.”

An orange and white St. Bernard, almost as big as a Shetland pony, bounced up out of the cool ivy, and let out a roar that fairly shook the house.

“That will usually make an Indian baby cry,” explained Mrs. Hudson. “If it doesn’t frighten the baby, it does the mother, and I have to go to the rescue in any event. Mascot just loves to poke his cold nose into a baby’s face when it is strapped up hand and foot and perfectly helpless. So the mother is glad enough to let me take the papoose inside, where it will be safe. I promise to take good care of it, to buy it a new dress, and to give it some beads. In a jiffy I have that baby propped up in the light against the front door of my studio. Then comes the task of getting one fleeting expression on the face of the baby indicative of interest in life. They are regular little stoics. They will sit and stare without blinking an eye or moving a muscle while I perform the most grotesque antics in order to provoke a laugh. I can occasionally interest them by giving them something to eat, but there is always something about the way they accept food from me that reminds me of the caged animal.

“I worked three days on a baby before I could get a smile, and only then by putting on a feather headdress and dancing around like an Apache medicine man. I worried, tormented, bullied, and frightened one little fellow for two days trying to make him cry. But when I tried to propitiate him with candy and beads he yelled lustily, and I got a splendid photograph of him.

“But to have them sleep is another thing. I have been almost tempted to chloroform them. It seems to me that they never sleep. I have rocked them and sung to them till I was hoarse, and dizzy, and still their big brown eyes, that looked like painted porcelain, would stare at me just as unblinkingly as if there were no such thing as sleep.”

“Have any of the babies you painted died?” was asked.

“Yes, one. It was my namesake, too. Its mother promised to name it after me, but it chanced to be a boy. Had it been a girl its name would have been Grace Hudson Billy-Bow-Legs – the family name is quite up to date, being hyphenated. The poor baby struggled along under the name of Dr. Hudson Billy-Bow-Legs for about a year and then died. If its mother knew that I had ever painted and photographed it should would hold me responsible for its death.”

“One would think that an Indian village would be the last place on earth in which to study art,” was suggested.

“On the contrary, those indolent, improvident people, who live in little shanties of old boards and boughs, who like nothing less than labor and nothing more than whisky, can teach the world art. They are masters of the art of basketry, and none finer is found anywhere. All of their baskets are made from the roots or twigs of shrubs, but the coarsest of them are watertight. I have found among them baskets which contained fifty-two stitches to the inch and appear almost as fine as linen. The little collection I have made, containing something over 350 baskets, is worth nearly $5,000. Some of the plainest in appearance are the most valuable because they canot [sic] be duplicated. They are woven with the stitches which the oldest of Diggers have forgotten, and basketry is now, to a certain extent, a lost art with them. I have found fourteen different weaves, but the best living basketmakers have forgotten half of them.”

Mrs. Hudson makes her home in Ukiah with her husband, Dr. J. W. Hudson. She was born and reared in Mendocino County, and spends much of her time whipping the trout streams or climbing over the hills with her dog and gun, for she is an ardent sportswoman. She is a crack shot and an expert swimmer, but has never attempted to wheel.

New York Times, November 5, 1895

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