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Margaret Lefranc and Laura Gilpin

In 1939, when Margaret vacationed at Frieda Lawrence’s in Taos, New Mexico, Rudy and Marjorie Kieve, Lefranc’s friends from New York, introduced her to Witter Bynner, poet, and Randall and Belle Davey, the painter and his wife. Margaret became friends with the Daveys when she returned to New Mexico in 1945 to live. There were also Oliver Lafarge, Laura Gilpin, and O’Keeffe, as well as Nicolai Fechin, who drove in from Taos to go sketching with Margaret and to see his daughter, Eya, who was a dancer, and her husband, Dane Rudhyar, who was an astrologer and philosopher. They were neighbors and close friends, and Eya would oftentimes look after the Nambe house while Margaret and Alice traveled to Oklahoma for Lefranc’s exhibitions or Marriott’s work in a library as well as speeches about her books, or when they traveled under a grant to various cities collecting artifacts for museums they set up in public spaces across Oklahoma. Also, they socialized with Gustave Baumann and his wife, Jane. He would take time out from carving and printing his marvelous and intricate wood blocks while Alfred and Dorothy Morang, both painters, stopped for a cup of tea (as Margaret didn’t drink). John Brinckerhoff Jackson [1], the Guru of Landscape, lived about a mile from their home and sometimes rode horseback to see them. Margaret admired his architectural sketches and he, Margaret’s drawings. Every Friday night the ladies went to his house where he and Margaret spoke French and German and Margaret and Alice took warm baths—for the duration of their situation of no running water and plumbing—and ate a leisurely dinner afterward which “Brinck” cooked. Brinck was putting together a magazine devoted to town planning and ecology. It was the first of its kind, original in concept, and Margaret and Marriott become involved in its inception—Landscape [2] as the magazine was called.

In Nambe between illustrating Maria: The Potter of San Ildefonso and The Valley Below as well as receiving the Fifty Best Books and the One Hundred Best Books awards in 1948 and 1952, respectively, for Maria: The Potter of San Ildefonso and Indians of the Four Corners from the American Institute of Graphic Arts in conjunction with the Library of Congress, Washington, D. C., Margaret continued illustrating other books for Marriott while at the same time she labored assiduously on plumbing, digging a well, assembling electrical wiring, and building a bathroom. Also, she knocked out a wall and installed a kitchen window facing Mr. and Mrs. Nestor Sandoval, one of her Spanish-American neighbors (whose livestock knew no fencing boundaries), built a kitchen cabinet with a sink, then sat on the sturdy cabinet with her feet in the sink and painted the view of The Corral, Nambe, New Mexico (1948). 

The house in Nambe was always under construction. It originally consisted of three small rooms in a row, about twelve feet wide by twelve feet long, totaling thirty-six feet, looking much like a railroad box car. Two of the rooms had small windows opposite the doors to the outside. There was no heat, no water, no electricity, no bathroom, and, of course, no well—but certainly lots of mice and rats which required resident cats, including one or two from Georgia O’Keeffe delivered in a gunnysack by Maria Chabot [3]. At the back of the house at a discreet fifty-feet was an unpainted privy. Parallel to the front of the house at about twenty paces was an arroyo, the “Mother” irrigation ditch which ran twice a week for a couple of hours in spring and summer.

The Valley Below [4] is the story of these two independent women living in Nambe—Alice Marriott, an author and ethnologist, and Margaret Lefranc, an artist by vocation but a plumber, architect, and mechanic when pressed into service by their demanding adobe structure which eventually became a home—and the friendships built among the Nambe and San Ildefonso Pueblo Indians. As Margaret recorded, “I was adopted by a Nambe family.” [5] Leonidas Romero y Vigil, who Margaret called grandma, was a medicine woman and the best fireplace builder for fifty miles around [6]. Her seven-year-old grandson, Frank Romero, tagged along helping his mother, Clara Romero Leon, in whatever fashion his age permitted. In 1963, before Leonidas died, grandmother related her will to Margaret, who was to tell the family how she wished to dispose of her assets. Leonidas’ wishes were followed partially because the Indian family trusted Margaret’s word.

The Summer Shelter in the Cove, as titled in the 1968 publication of The Enduring Navaho [7], is a 1934 photograph by Laura Gilpin. Margaret and Laura Gilpin both lived during an era when they encountered Indians experiencing a vanishing way of life. Margaret lived among her adopted Nambe family for over ten years while Laura visited the Navaho in 1930s with her friend Elizabeth “Betsy” Forster, a public health nurse, but did not return for over thirty years when Forster, Gilpin, and the Navahos had gray hair and were almost unrecognizable but celebrated joyfully when recognition finally occurred. Both Margaret and Laura’s relationships required years and decades of building great trust.

[1] John Brinkerhoff “Brinck” Jackson or J. B. Jackson, (1909–1996), writer, publisher, sketch artist in landscape design.

[2] Landscape by John Brinkerhoff Jackson, editor and publisher during 1951-1968.

[3] Maria Chabot (1913-2001), advocate for Native Americans, rancher, and close friend of George O’Keeffe.

[4] The Valley Below, author Alice Marriott with drawings by Margaret Lefranc, Norman University of Oklahoma Press, 1949.

[5] Margaret Lefranc interview with Marc Simmons, September 29, 1996.

[6] Lois Katz, A Lifetime of Imaging: The Art of Margaret Lefranc, pg. 182, Nouveau Ventures in association with the Margaret Lefranc Art Foundation.

[7] The Enduring Navaho, author and photographs by Laura Gilpin, University of Texas Press, published in 1968 with the assistance of Dan Daneiger Publication Fund © by Laura Gilpin,  photograph on pgs. 52-53, taken in 1934.  Note on mat underneath in Margaret Lefranc’s writing, “This is another glossy original reproduced in The Enduring Navaho given to me in 1977 by Laura Gilpin.  Margaret Schoonover.”

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