Quincy Tahoma was a Navajo artist whose work encompassed scenes of tribal life in the southwestern United States, along with with scenes of landscape and nature in which that life was lived. He worked during the first half of the twentieth century, spending most of his life in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Tahomaâ€™s subjects ranged from scenes of mothers and children and quiet moonlight evenings to wild horses and buffalo hunts.
The scenes in those paintings caught the imagination of Charnell Havens and Vera Marie Badertscher. When Havens inherited several of Tahomaâ€™s paintings, she spoke with her friend Badertscher. a freelance writer who had moved to the southwest. The two determined that there was material and interest enough for a book about the artist, who despite being a prolific painter is less well known than many of his peers in American Indian art. The result is their recently published book, Quincy Tahoma: the life and legacy of a Navajo artist. Badertscher offers several thoughts on what the process of researching and writing about Quincy Tahomaâ€™s life was like, along a long with several tips should you be thinking about writing a biography yourself.
â€œWhen Charnell first talked to me about this project, her questions were â€˜Is there enough information about him to make a book and is his art important enough to justify the effort?â€™ That spurred our research,â€ Badertscher says. â€œ It took about two years for us to decide that we could find enough legitimate sources of information to describe his life--even though we learned very quickly how wrong all of the sources printed after his death were. The second question was answered when all the American Indian art experts we talked to urged us on.
â€œOne of our first decisions was that I would do the writing (with close consultation on what to put in and what to leave out and how to arrange things) and Charnell's job would be to track down and photograph or gather photos of paintings, get permissions from owners and get background stories about them. We shared equally in the research, both of us interviewing and doing library research. Charnell is a much better editor than I am, and so she would review everything,â€ Badertscher continues. â€œI will add that although we are old friends, we agreed we needed a contract to spell out the business relationship, and found an attorney who specializes in representing writers to advise us.â€
The research itself proved a long and winding trail, taking the pair more than a decade and comprising more than fifty interviews, along with library and archival research, travel to those libraries and archives and to places Tahoma had lived and worked, and correspondence to uncover sources. â€œThe most important primary source records we found, I believe, were school records we found through an e-mail to the National Archives. From them, we got a lot of personal information and most importantly, [Tahomaâ€™s] Indian Census number. That number allowed a Tahoma fan who worked with us to find him on the Indian Census and determine the name of the family who was looking after him. â€œ This led Havens and Badertscher and the volunteer, Mark Rosacker, to travel to the city where Tahoma had said he was born. â€œWe went to the Senior Center and to the Swap Meet, where elderly show up every week. People referred us to other people, until we met a woman in her eighties who had been the younger sister in his adopted family. She spoke no English, so her granddaughter translated an afternoon of conversation for us. That was definitely the most important of the some fifty oral histories we gathered from people who knew Tahoma or were related to someone who knew him, but each conversation was exciting and valuable.â€
Those years of interviews, research, and writing make Badertscher a good source for advice on how to carry out such project. From her experience, she suggests
â€œMake a list of questions--then revise it.
Rather than a classic outline, we started with a list of questions that we were curious about--questions whose answers would paint a portrait of the person Quincy Tahoma was and how he became an artist. Every time we met someone who knew something about his art or was old enough to have known him personally, we went down that list of questions. The final question was always--who else should we talk to? That way we kept widening the circle.
â€œGet more than one source for every statement you are going to make. Try to use a combination of secondary sources such as newspaper articles published during [your subjectâ€™s] life or books published later and primary sources such as interviews with people, legal papers, and other contemporary records. But remember that all of these can be wrong.
â€œFor every answer we found, more questions popped up, and gave us new challenges,â€ Badertscher points out.
Another thing she suggests is to open as many avenues of communication as you can. Early on, Badertscher and Havens set up a web site about their project. â€œThe emails we received by having an early Internet presence were invaluable,â€ she points out, â€œ leading us to formerly invisible people who knew Tahoma, as well as owners of his paintings. We still get emails weekly with information that adds to our databases of contacts and of his paintings. The research will be ongoing well beyond publishing the book. We also established a presence on Facebook and Twitter, publish an e-newsletter, and we publish a blog about writing the biography.â€
What has been the best part of this continuing journey into writing a biography? â€œHands down the most rewarding part of all this research has to be the wonderful people we met, people on various Pueblos and on the Navajo reservation, and many non-Indians,â€ Badertscher says. â€œAll of them, with no exception, really liked Tahoma and were overjoyed that we were doing this project â€“ that finally, Tahoma would get the recognition he deserved.â€
Charnell Havens adds â€œ Both of us had other jobs, so we could not devote full time to the research and writing. That said, we both encouraged and pushed each other. Thereâ€™s a cadence to co-authoring â€“ going off separately to accomplish something, then getting back together to mesh the findings. Neither of us could have completed this project without the other. Best yet, after working in this mode for more than a decade, weâ€™re still friends!â€
Find out more about the research journey and how to buy the book here: Quincy Tahoma: the life and legacy of a Navajo artist
Kerry Dexter writes about the arts and creative practice at Music Road and is the Music Editor for Wandering Educators, where she writes about music and travel. Her work has appeared in Barnes and Noble Music, Acoustic Guitar, National Geographic Traveler, and other publications, and she is a former music correspondent at Gather.