Pop Chalee was born Merina Lujan on March 20, 1906 in Castle Gate, Utah. Her father, Joseph Cruz Lujan was from Taos and her mother Merea Margherete Luenberger, was predominantly Swiss. Pop Chalee, which means "blue flower", is a Tiwa name given to her by her Taos grandmother soon after birth. In the year that Chalee was born, US President Theodore Roosevelt seized most of Taos Pueblo lands including Blue Lake, which played a vital role in Native American sacred beliefs.
Chalee's early life was fairly chaotic and her living situation changed many times over the years. Early in Chalee's life the Lujan family broke up and moved away from Utah. Chalee was placed in the care of her father's much older half-brother, Santiago Espinoza, who lived at Taos pueblo. Although she was not living with her sisters, they remained close as they were living near each other on the pueblo. After the first summer in Taos, Chalee's father sent the children to the U.S. Indian School in Santa Fe. As a young teenager, Chalee was on the move again to return to Salt Lake City, Utah.
On the journey back to Utah, she realized that she could not remember what her mother looked like. When they arrived at the station their mother never arrived to get them. After seeking out the help of a family friend they finally found their mother's home, but were met with an unwelcome greeting. Chalee recalls their mother turning them away and calling them "little black devils". "And boy, that cooled me out for my whole life. It did. It just cooled me ... that devil business and her not coming down to pick us up were terrible. It took something out of me. And I never could get the feeling I should have had towards her."
Despite the cold welcome, Chalee would live at her mother’s house where she got her first job to contribute to the household. Chalee's mother was a strict Mormon and was a tough disciplinarian. She was also independent, physically strong and mechanically minded. One trait in particular had an influence on Chalee: her mother's love of animals, especially Pekinese and chow dogs. This influence is captured in one of Chalee’s private paintings called Pekinese Dog, a realistic portrayal.
At age 16, Chalee could no longer tolerate the authoritarian and oppressive environment of her mother's house and ran away. She married Otis Fred Hopkins, an Anglo craftsman of wood and metal. As she was starting her married life, international interest was growing for Native American art, which was defined more as the subject of Native Americans and not made by Native Americans. While Native American art shows were traveling around the county, Chalee gave birth to her first son at 18 years old; Jack Cruz (also named Kun Funa or Black Buffalo). Less than two years later, her daughter Betty (named Pop Pina or Red Flower) was born.
With her new family, Chalee moved back to Taos but did not participate in the community. She was further separated because of her marriage to an Anglo outsider, Otis. However, with his woodworking and metal skills he was allowed him to become part of the community, even more so than Chalee. Although Chalee was reluctant to fully participate in the pueblo, her two children grew up participating in the community, as she and her siblings had.
It was only after a year of living back in Taos that the Hopkins family moved back to Salt Lake City. This pattern of "shifting from one residence to another continued." It was the time of the great depression and Native American art began to receive increasing national attention. Chalee was not part of the movement yet, instead she was starting to make public appearances in LDS churches on Native American life. "These thematically linked her to her Native American culture" and inadvertently portrayed her as a representative for her people. This commitment of public speaking to educate a “white” America about Indian life would continue well into Chalee's later years.
Up to this point, Chalee had not considered a career in art. However, “[a]n unexpected visit in Utah to a fortune teller and a subsequent recurring dream inspired one of the most dramatic turning points in Pop Chalee’s life." The fortune teller told her that she would break away from Utah and return to the place that she’d always wanted to go to, Taos. She told Chalee that she would be somebody. This message started Chalee's dreams of returning to Taos.
It was shortly after the meeting with the fortune teller that Chalee and her family moved back to New Mexico in the mid 1930s. She went back to the school she had attended over 20 years ago to open a locker she had dreamed about frequently. When she finally arrived at the school and opened the locker she discovered it was empty. However, she realized that this was her chance to be an artist. It was not long afterwards that she was studying art at the Santa Fe Indian School with Dorothy Dunn.
She started with some difficulty as she was much older than most of the students and the only woman for some time. However, her insecurities about her artwork were put to ease by Dorothy Dunn's supportive encouragement and patience. Chalee seemed to enjoy the school and finally settled into her new role as an artist: "I'd always been kind of funny—I never did anything right. I'd try different things like dancing and couldn't make it. But when I got into the art, I just stuck to it until I finally developed myself, then it just kind of opened the gates and I went on." In Chalee's biography by Margaret Cesa, her progress and involvement at "the Studio could be compared to jumping into a raging river, frightened at first and then later enjoying the speed and power of the rapids so much that she never leaves the water."
At the school, Chalee was exposed to art techniques and art history that strengthened her pride in the work of Native American artists. Responding to a lecture given about modern American art, Chalee commented "Some of our Indian artists paint in a style that the white man says can not be done, but still the Indian gets a perfectly balanced picture and the white artist generally puts a lot of unnecessary lines in a picture. We strive to tell a story in our paintings with as few lines as possible and leave out all unnecessary details. It is all done from memory." Chalee was beginning to form a very clear direction and model for her own art work.
After finishing her first year, Chalee began to work at the Laboratory of Anthropology as a paid copyist for Kenneth Chapman to document designs from the Laboratory's vast collection of Native American pottery. "These tasks served to increase Pop Chalee’s appreciation of Native American arts and heighten her pride in her Pueblo heritage." During this time Chalee was also invited to show her work at an exhibit at Stanford and also contribute to the magazine School Arts. This would be the beginning of a very long and celebrated art career.
During the 1930s, when Chalee was becoming a household name, there was a "dense thicket of misinformation and sensationalism that circulated" about this new and upcoming artist. She was called Princess Popshilee or Princess Blue Flower, even though there were no Indian Princesses in the pueblos. A late bloomer onto the emerging Native American art scene of the 1930s, she quickly became one of the most successful and sought after artists of her time. This was no small feat, considering she was a woman and much older than most of her peers at the Santa Fe Indian School, where she studied under Dorothy Dunn. "Her works are included in numerous museum collections, including the Gilcrease Museum (Tulsa, OK), the Heard Museum (Phoenix, AZ), and the Millicent Rogers Museum (Taos, NM). Several of her murals are permanently displayed at the Albuquerque Airport."
Known for her mystical horses and enchanted forests, she also painted scenes from her participation the Native American Church at Taos. Her paintings can be described as ephemeral. "Pop Chalee transformed a traditional style of painting to create magical, idyllic images of wide-eyed animals, ceremonial figures, and woodland settings."
In her mythical horse paintings, Chalee paints a dreamlike and whimsical horse. Although the space is rendered in a clearly two-dimensional style, the horses have such energy and movement. "Her treatment of horse is mythically stylized with elongated legs and long swirling manes and tails. These horses evoke a Taos story of a stallion that watches over the Pueblo at night."
In addition to mystical horses, Chalee's forest compositions often teemed with frolicking deer as well. It has been proposed that Pop Chalee's work might well have served as direct inspiration for the 1942 American animated drama film by Walt Disney, Bambi. Chalee has in fact been called a "Bambi painter." Pop Chalee's magical forest fantasies were exhibited at Stanford University in 1936. It is notable that the sketches for Bambi did not commence until 1937 prior to the film's 1941 release.
Rhythm and movement of ceremonial dance had a strong influence on Chalee and her art; "the rhythm the Indian has, I just go out of this world with it, and the drumbeat, your heart is beating with them, with the rhythm of their bodies". When asked if her life at Taos had an identifiable effect on her art, Chalee replied: "[t]hat I couldn’t answer, that I don’t know, I really don’t know. Maybe an outsider could see it, but..." Whether or not Chalee was aware of her influence from her pueblo community, she was clearly affected by the Taos religion. "Ceremonial life, 'based on a belief in the oneness of all living things', provided her with an opportunity to observe 'the delicate balance of the relationship of man and nature.'" It is clear in all of her work that Chalee felt a strong and deep connection with the world around her and was in touch, not with a specific horse or creature, but rather the spirit of the greater being it represented.
"Museums and galleries sought her exotic and captivating works and she was frequently requested to make personal appearances. Chalee attributed her success as an artist to the encouragement of Mabel Dodge Lujan and the instruction of her admired teacher Dorothy Dunn, to whom she paid tribute throughout her life." While Chalee accredited others for the success of her work, she was also very much a personality and had a wonderful energy that people sought after. In an article published in Southwest Art magazine, Sally Euclaire describes Chalee as a dynamic woman with an image. "Standing tall at well under 5 feet, she sported full bangs and a waist-length braid, body-hugging Capri pants, high-tech sneakers, and New Age crystal jewelry. She was clearly a woman with an image."
A quote by Jack Cruz Hopkins, Jr., Chalee’s grandson, sums her up thusly: "Anyone fortunate to have met Pop Chalee never forgot her. She was like a sparkling blue flower and a beautiful human being. Her love of life and her pursuit of beauty enchanted everyone she ever touched. Her Taos kin called her Merina. Her sisters called her Pinkie. Her friends and loyal public called her Pop Chalee. To me she was Grandma Pop ... Nobody could laugh as loudly, smile as clearly, or shine as brightly as my Grandma Pop. She lit up a room."