Awa Tsireh

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Awa Tsireh
Indian artist Awa Tsireh.jpg
Photo postcard of Awa Tsireh in Plains Indian attire, ca 1930s, at Manitou, Colorado.
Alfonso Roybal, Cattail Bird

(1898-02-01)February 1, 1898
Died(1955-03-30)March 30, 1955
Known forPainting
MovementSan Ildefonso Self-Taught Group
AwardsOrdre des Palmes Académiques, 1954
Patron(s)Edgar Lee Hewett, Alice Corbin
"Eagle with Snake", circa 1927. This painting was in the collection of William and Alice Corbin Henderson. The artist's access to the Hendersons' art books may have influenced this and other of his works.[1]

Awa Tsireh (February 1, 1898 – March 30, 1955),[2] also known as Alfonso Roybal[3] and Cattail Bird, was a San Ildefonso Pueblo painter and artist in several genres including metalwork. He was part of the art movement known as the San Ildefonso Self-Taught Group. His work is held by several museums, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Early life[edit]

Awa Tsireh was born into the San Ildefonso Pueblo. His family was very active in the arts. His parents were Alfonsita Martinez, a potter, and Juan Estaba Roybal, the nephew of potter Cresencio Martinez.[4] His nephew José Disiderio (J.D.) Roybal also became a painter.[5] Awa Tsireh was one of the earliest of the San Ildefonso painters. His formal education ended at grade school but he drew from his culture and informal training.[6] Awa Tsireh is also among the students of Elizabeth Willis DeHuff, who instructed students in painting from her own home.[7][8]

In 1917, American artist William Penhallow Henderson painted a portrait of young Awa Tsireh, which is now held by the New Mexico Museum of Art.[9] Henderson's wife, Alice Corbin Henderson, was a patron of Awa Tsireh.[10]

In 1920 Awa Tsireh married a young woman from his village. The following year she gave birth to a son, but both mother and child died soon after. Affected greatly, Awa Tsireh moved to his parents' home.[11]


Awa Tsireh had the support of Dr. Edgar Lee Hewett, who provided studio space for him in the Palace of the Governors.[12] His art is in the permanent collection of several museums, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum.[13]

At various times in his life, Awa Tsireh worked as a farmer, a pottery painter, a museum employee, a painter, a silversmith and a muralist, often combining activities.[14] One of his most notable artistic commissions was for a mural at Maisel's Indian Trading Post in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Murals depicting Indian life, painted by Pueblo and Navajo artists, were prominently displayed.

Awa Tsireh worked in watercolor and in transparent colored ink and pencil. He also created silver and gemstone pieces of art. Awa Tsireh painted in three different styles, "a simple realism, a combination of symbolism and realism, and a completely non-realistic style," per Samuels' Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West, (1968).


It is not known when, or from whom, Awa Tsireh learned silversmithing, but by 1931 newspaper articles described him as a painter, silversmith and dancer. Around 1930 he began working in the summer months at Garden of the Gods Trading Post in Colorado Springs. He was employed there for at least two decades.[11] His sister, Santana Martinez, recalled that "during the summer during the thirties and forties he used to go to a shop in Colorado Springs and do paintings and silverwork there."[15] He worked in silver, copper, nickel silver and aluminum.


  • EITA, Exposition of Indian Tribal Arts, sponsored by the College Art Association, 1931–33
  • SWAIA, Southwestern Association on Indian Affairs, Santa Fe, New Mexico
  • AIW, American Indian Week, Tulsa, Oklahoma



  1. ^ "DBK News, 9 September 2015".
  2. ^ "The Modern Pueblo Painting of Awa Tsireh". Smithsonian American Art Museum. Retrieved 2016-01-11.
  3. ^ "Awa Tsireh, American Art". Smithsonian American Art Museum. Retrieved 2016-01-11.
  4. ^ Henderson, Alice Corbin (6 September 1925). "The World of Art: A Boy Painter Among the Pueblo Indians and Unspoiled Native Work". The New York Times Magazine.
  5. ^ "Untitled (clown dancer) by JD Roybal". Harwood Museum. Retrieved 2016-01-11.
  6. ^ "Alfonso Roybal, Native American Painter". Adobe Gallery, Santa Fe. Retrieved 2016-01-13.
  7. ^ "Velino Shije Herrera." St. James Guide to Native North American Artists. Gale, 1998. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 4 Oct. 2011.
  8. ^ Arthur Silberman. "Herrera, Velino." Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. 4 Oct. 2011
  9. ^ "Awa Tsireh (1917)". SAM | Searchable Art Museum. New Mexico Museum of Art. Archived from the original on 2016-03-04. Retrieved 2016-01-12.
  10. ^ St. James Guide to Native North American Artists. Detroit, MI: St. James Press. 1998. p. 38. ISBN 1558622217.
  11. ^ a b Messier, Pat & Kim (2014). Reassessing Hallmarks of Native Southwest Jewelry. Atglen: Schiffer Publishing. pp. 88–91. ISBN 978-0-7643-4670-5.
  12. ^ "Dead Indian Identified as Top Artist". The New Mexican. March 31, 1955.
  13. ^ "Awa Tsireh Artwork". Smithsonian American Art Museum. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Retrieved 5 June 2015.[permanent dead link]
  14. ^ "Awa Tsireh". Retrieved 2016-01-11.
  15. ^ Seymour, Tryntje Van Ness (1988). When the Rainbow Touches Down. Phoenix: The Heard Museum. p. 156. ISBN 0-934351-01-5.
  16. ^ Lester, Patrick D. (1995). The Biographical Directory of Native American Painters (BDNAP) (1st ed.). Tulsa, Oklahoma: SIR Publications. ISBN 978-0-8061-9936-8.

External links[edit]

Awa Tsireh art collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum