Pop Chalee’s Blue Horse in the company of Jemez pottery by Mary Small. Photo by Sharon Snyder
Pop Chalee giving an interview to the Los Alamos Historical Society in 1992. Courtesy/Los Alamos Historical Society Archive
By SHARON SNYDER
Los Alamos Historical Society
When we think of the famous people who have been associated with Los Alamos, those who have come here for visits or consultations or lived here for decades, we generally think of scientists, but some have left their mark in other ways.
During the Manhattan Project years, Merina Lujan Hopkins came with her husband, Otis, when he was recruited as a machinist. She found work as a dorm matron, but today we know Merina as the artist Pop Chalee, and the story of her Los Alamos days is exceptional.
Merina Lujan, daughter of Joseph Cruz Lujan of Taos Pueblo, was given the Tiwa name Pop Chalee, meaning Blue Flower, by her grandmother. She was almost 30 years old before she considered pursuing a career as an artist. Mabel Dodge Luhan encouraged her to take classes at the Santa Fe Indian School, where she enrolled as a student of the legendary Dorothy Dunn, who also guided the likes of Pablita Velarde and Allan Houser, among other artists who would become famous.
She also had the inspiration and encouragement of the Taos Society of Artists. Chalee eventually developed her own style of painting idyllic animals, forests and ceremonial figures. It is said that her whimsical interpretation of a deer was the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Bambi. Her art received definite approval in 1945 when she was asked to paint murals for the new Albuquerque Municipal Airport terminal.
During World War II, millionaire Howard Hughes acquired control of Trans World Airlines and played a significant role in the opening of Albuquerque’s first terminal. He admired the art of Pop Chalee and wanted her to paint murals that would accent the traditional southwestern style of the building. However, Pop Chalee was behind government fences on the Hill.
In 1992, Los Alamos Historical Society Archivist Theresa Strottman interviewed Pop Chalee to record her memories of living in Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. Her family was one of the first to move here, and she recalled “We didn’t know what we were getting into. It was rough.” She remembered that “there were no roads,” and “it was hard living at the very beginning.”
Chalee, her husband, and their daughter “had a little house,” but she couldn’t recall if it had been there before or was built for the project. Later they moved to a Sundt apartment.
She remembered that the dormitory where she worked “had nothing but boys, and they were easy to handle.”
She added, “Indian girls made the beds and cleaned and got food for them in the recreation room.” As she reflected on that time, she referred to the “happy time there with the boys. They were all gentleman. I enjoyed it.”
She spoke of meeting Oppenheimer and described him as a kind man and friendly. She and her husband had two of their own horses stabled with the army horses, and they rode often.
“In free time there were dances and picture shows,” she said. “We entertained one another,” but she regretted having to give up her art during that time. As it turned out, she didn’t have to give it up for the entire time the family lived in Los Alamos.
Howard Hughes was apparently good at pulling strings. He managed to get permission from the post commander to meet with Chalee in Santa Fe, although “there was an MP at the meeting,” she noted.
Hughes struck an agreement that allowed Chalee to accept a commission to paint murals in the adobe terminal. Today, her artwork is still appreciated by visitors to the Albuquerque Sunport.
In looking back at that time, Chalee said, “it was an honor to me after years to have been part of it. We were doing something for our country.”
Pop Chalee was presented with the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in 1990 and was recognized as a living treasure for her work in arts education. She died in 1993.
To view to the entire interview with Pop Chalee, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1H6gG6Zfdh4