As a trained watercolorist it was her discovery of ledger art, and her immersion in its history, that found Dolores Purdy breaking gender barriers in this usually male-dominated genre. Modern day ledger art - which re-creates the reservation-era tradition of painting scenes on any available document, such as ledger pages, long after buffalo hides were no longer available – generally retain imagery of battle scenes and bravery. Purdy brings in a Native American woman’s perspective.
“My images can be humorous or serious [while] immersed in Native American heritage, iconography and [also] pop-culture,” she notes. Bright colors and vivid whimsical imagery are ways her work stands out from other ledger artists as she too honors their ancestors. A tongue-in-cheek humor may also be in evidence – an element that few other than fellow Native Americans may have recognized in some of the original ledger art. In the past, Purdy’s artwork bore the influence of Peter Maxx and the psychedelic pop-art movement and she has brought this forward into her ledger art as well: Her figures may ride horses past tipis, or they may ride flame-embellished Cadillacs while clutching a beribboned lance at their side. Women figure in her paintings just as frequently as men.
Purdy’s delicately layered colors and faceless figures (with their air of Surrealism) are hallmarks of her works, along with often a figure, or even a horse, looking out of the painting directly at the viewer, offering a silent and up-for-interpretation communication. She creates her images with colored pencils, just as original ledger artists did, and uses authentic pre-20th century cotton or linen paper documents as a canvas – documents that carry their own meaning within her image – whether complement or irony.
The daughter of a career Air Force father, Purdy relocated often while growing up. As a member of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma (who also has Winnebago, German and Swedish ancestors) Purdy found that time spent with her family in Oklahoma remained a touchstone, a source of traditional stories that had been passed down for generations. It was while researching her family genealogy that she discovered an ancestor who had been imprisoned at Ft. Marion in St. Augustine, Florida in 1875, a location to which many Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche, Arapaho and Caddo warriors had been taken and held. Much of the ledger art created there was remarkable, and it was a book on this topic, Plains Indian Art from Fort Marion by Karen Daniels Petersen (1971) that brought about Purdy’s “discovery” of ledger art.
Today Purdy shares the knowledge she has gained from her studies of every resource she could find on ledger art. “I have enjoyed working with institutions, universities and museums,” she notes. “I have presented or lectured at the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington DC; the Kansas Museum of History, Topeka, KS; William and Mary College, Williamsburg, VA; Brown University, Providence, RI; the University of Minnesota, Duluth, MI; the Museum of Indian Art and Culture, Santa Fe, NM, and the University of California at San Diego, La Jolla, CA, among others.”
Numerous magazines and newspapers have written about Dolores Purdy including the Santa Fe New Mexican, Southwest Art magazine and Cowboys and Indians magazine. She is one of four subjects in the book Women and Ledger Art by Dr. Richard Pearce (2013). Collections that include her work include the National Museum of the American Indian, the White House, Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Haffenreffer Museum, William and Mary College, Tweed Museum of Art, Kansas Historical Society and Santa Fe’s Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. She served as a member of the standards committee for the Santa Fe Indian Market for four years.