ST. PETERSBURG — In Native American art, the spirit line is an indicator of the inner strength or the soul of the subject.
So “Spirit Lines” is a suitable title for the powerful exhibition by the groundbreaking Santa Clara Pueblo, N.M., artist Helen Hardin. She broke from tradition by using a modern, linear style rather than a flat style. Intricate detail and geometric forms were hallmarks of her paintings. After she was featured on the cover of New Mexico magazine in 1970, she rose to prominence in a male-dominated art world and became an in-demand artist.
She made a remarkable switch from time-consuming paintings to copper plate etching. The exhibition, on display at the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art, features 23 of these, showing the prints and the plates.
The fact that Hardin’s life was cut short by breast cancer in 1984 at 41 pervades the exhibition. It brings a moving layer to these introspective works, which were all created in her last years.
Hardin had an inkling that she might not live long. A quote on the wall from 1975 reads, “I can think about growing old and passing on and I think the reason I don’t fear this, I don’t fear death, is because I know that I’ll always be here through my art. ... It’s the only thing I can give that’s really me.”
Her spirit reverberates throughout the exhibition, not just in her works, but in multiple photographs around the gallery, numerous quotes from her writings and a video of her on the PBS series American Indian Artists. She was the only woman to be profiled on that series.
“Spirit Lines” also includes works from Hardin’s mother, Pablita Velarde, who was also considered groundbreaking. Instead of being a potter, as was the tradition for Pueblo women, she preferred painting images of Pueblo life and ground her own pigments.
Also featured are pieces by Hardin’s daughter, Marguerite Bagshaw, who painted and made etchings in a more abstract style. She died at 51 from brain cancer.
The exhibit is rounded out with work by contemporary Santa Clara Pueblo artist Tammy Garcia. Three totemlike bronze sculptures with geometric shapes and traditional figures are an excellent complement to Hardin’s work.
Hardin’s “Woman” series of copper plate etchings began just before she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1981. Uncannily, she started the series with Changing Woman in 1980. The masklike portrait features a long spirit line leading to and forming the figure’s mouth. Although Hardin was in a transition in her personal life, she had a feeling there was something going on physically.
“Streaming from the mouth is the fact that something is going on inside me," she said. "I’m trying to say what is happening but all I can say is that I am changing.”
She was nearly finished with the second in her series, Medicine Woman, when she received the diagnosis. The round portrait is intersected diagonally by a prominent line, in the same rich ochres, deep siennas and pale turquoises that connect the series. Hardin’s initial round of treatments for the cancer was successful, so the piece took on another symbolic meaning.
Listening Woman (1982) was the last of the series, and the only one in which the figure looks straight ahead, with a seemingly sympathetic gaze. It’s reflective of how Hardin was listening to her body after a time of healing, when the doctors discovered the recurrence of cancer.
In other works, Hardin explores the four seasons, the passage of time and aging.
Mimbres Kokopelli was the last piece she made before she died. She was so sick that she couldn’t even sign the prints. People were shocked by the inclusion of the phallus, even though the Kokopelli represents fertility. But Hardin didn’t hold back from doing what she wanted. “In some ways," she said, "it’s nice to have nothing to lose.”
IF YOU GO
“Spirit Lines: Helen Hardin Etchings” is on view through March 1. $20, $15 students and seniors, $10 ages 7-18, free for 6 and younger. $10 all day Tuesdays. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesdays. 150 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. (727) 892–4200. thejamesmuseum.org.