Although she is the fourth generation in a dynasty of accomplished women artists, Helen K. Tindel wasn’t eager to inherit the mantle from her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. “When I was a kid, I said [being an artist] was the last thing I would do,” says the painter, who is represented by Blue Rain Gallery in Santa Fe.
While Tindel is a self-described nerd who preferred math to art class as a kid, her mother, Margarete Bagshaw, was flamboyant. “It was a very intimidating legacy,” Tindel says. “My mom was a rock star, and I thought I would have to be like my mom to be a successful artist.”
What Tindel didn’t realize was that art is in her blood, just as much as the grit and independent spirit that defined her forebears.
The dynasty began with Tindel’s great-grandmother, Pablita Velarde, who was born into Santa Clara Pueblo. Velarde began painting at a time when Native artists were almost exclusively men. Tindel tells of how Pueblo leaders demanded that Velarde stop painting. Velarde, in so many words, told them where to go. She became the first Native woman to paint full-time, supporting herself and two children.
Velarde’s daughter, Helen Hardin, sold paintings, participated in a major Native American art project and was featured in Seventeen Magazine — all before she was eighteen years old.
Hardin’s daughter, Bagshaw, carried on the family practice. While she found success, there were tough times. “My parents struggled with the business of art,” Tindel says, recalling a livelihood dependent upon the art world’s uncertainties. Tindel’s response: Get a degree in economics and Spanish from University of New Mexico.
Call it genetics or destiny, but before Tindel graduated from college something pulled her toward art. Wanting to be near her mom in Santa Fe, Tindel became a regular fixture at Bagshaw’s studio. One day, Tindel sketched the studio. Bagshaw looked it over. After Bagshaw said, “That’s actually not bad,” Tindel began creating in earnest.
And then tragedy struck: Bagshaw died of brain cancer in 2015. “I had just turned twenty-seven, but I was a very young twenty-seven,” Tindel says. “I felt like I couldn’t make art without my mom.”
In a state of grief, Tindel threw away her art supplies and wouldn’t paint again for three years. “People would ask me if I was an artist,” she says. “I would say I used to be, but that didn’t feel right in my heart.”
Art pulled her back. Tindel bought a tiny canvas and paints. Watching herself paint was like watching her mom’s hands with the paintbrush.
Tindel noticed something else. Her style had matured. It had become vibrant, bold and filled with shapes that dance across the canvas. The art world took notice.
“Helen’s paintings are uniquely different from those of her familial predecessors,” says Denise Phetteplace, Blue Rain Gallery’s executive director. “It impresses me that she was able to take in the strong influence of her family’s work, yet take her own artwork in a completely different direction. That requires moxie.”
Tindel’s work feels like joy on canvas, and that’s not coincidental. “I’m excited to make art,” she says. “If you’re not excited about what you do, you shouldn’t be doing it.”