George Molnar, Picturing Earlene
Written by Budge Ruffner
Southwest Art Magazine, March 1993
We turned north at Kayenta, crossed Laguna Creek and entered the valley at dusk on an autumn evening. Arizona and Utah share this brittle land where hundreds of ageless sandstone icons tower above the desert floor. Monument Valley is a silent symphony composed not of sounds but of colors, configurations and space. This is the home of many Navajo families and it was here, 11 years ago, that George Molnar [b1953 PA] found the focus of his art.
While Molnar’s subject matter is varied, his is recognized for his insightful portrayal of the Navajo. The largest native American tribe in North America, the Navajo number 200,000 and live on a reservation of 15 million acres in the states of Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. Molnar brought me to an area of Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah border where the family of his favorite Navajo model lives. A six-hour drive from his home in Prescott, AZ, this remote area offers hundreds of beguiling faces and the colorful country that created them.
Earlene Holiday was 5 years old when Molnar first saw her in the early 1980s. He had gone to her grandmother’s hogan to buy a rug. Earlene was there, watching intently as her grandmother Susie Yazzie worked the wool and loom. Earlene’s long black hair was lovingly brushed and parted by the wind; her dark brown eyes displayed the innocence of her age and reflected a kind of hope that only children have.
At this point in his life, George Molnar was no stranger to either Indians or children. He was the father of a boy and girl; his hometown of Beaumont, CA, was surrounded by three small Indian reservations. The setting of Monument Valley, where man and model first met was the third leg on a sturdy stool of creativity.
Molnar has used this dramatic expanse of high desert as a studio and setting for his Navajo studies in oil. John Ford with John Wayne had preceded him, framed by films. Fort Apache, Rio Grande, The Searchers and classic Stagecoach were but a few of the many productions wherein these red volcanic monoliths towered a thousand feet in the background. Ford ignored the Navajos… Molnar did not.
Molnar’s paintings of Navajos are far more than portraits. They tell the story of cultural change in an enduring landscape. This was not a happening- it was a development. The average Navajo living in a remote section of this huge reservation is hesitant and frequently avoids any face-to-face contact with a bilagaana. This reluctance to accept and relate is not normally abandoned after a few exchanges between the two. Yet, when George Molnar came to this sparsely populated area of the reservation he did so with an artful, unhurried approach. He seemed to fit into the cultural collage. The result, after a few visits, was a willingness to relate, to aid and assist and above all, to understand.
Molnar moved to this area in 1979, after attending college in California and marrying his high school sweetheart. Although he and been painting the Navajo since 1975, the relocation to Prescott, AZ, was a turning point. In Arizona, a land rich and varied in cultural and geological resources, the budding Molnar began to bloom. In studying the Navajo, he learned that these high-desert people with a once-rich ceremonial life were in cultural transition. They had poor medical card, a self-serving tribal leader, and constant and tragic border wars with their Hopi neighbors. The old days of continuity and cultural identity that had once existed were dimly remembered. They were moving with frightening speed into a value system of red pickups and the contemporary problems of novelist Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn.
“There were times when I thought I had arrived here too late,” says Molnar. “So I began painting the elders before they were gone.”
Both the old and the young have posed for Molnar, and of the latter, none have come under as much attention as Earlene whose maturation has been recorded by Molnar in a series of portraits. Windy but Warm for example, is a straightforward study of the child as she stands huddled in a prized Pendleton blanket. The background is rabbit weed and a modest mound of red sandstone. The child’s face does not conceal the novelty of her experience. Here is a graphic concert of the man, model and Monument Valley. Similarly, First Flower pictures Earlene as she examines a desert marigold which blooms in early spring on the sandy shoulders of the roadways. This is a classic work that needs no adornment. Earlene’s ponytail clasp and Zuni brooch symbolize the cultural exchanges her people have experienced.
Now, what the Navajos call neya has come to this young lady. Earlene has matured. She attends Monument Valley High School near her home and is a straight “A” student. On a shyness scale, she is a 10-quiet, withdrawn, at times almost ethereal. Yet she is highly competitive in school sports and academics. Her Mother, Effie, is employed in the mission hospital nearby. Her example may be a compass pointing to the direction Earlene wants to go.
She volunteered the scenario: “First I want to join the Navy to see something of the world and prepare for college.” She plans to study medicine, for she has seen the health problems of her people. Tuberculosis, diabetes, glaucoma and trachoma are traditional enemies of the Navajo. Earlene, maturing in both mind an body, foresees waging war against all evil things that plague her people.
Molnar prefers to think of his paintings of Earlene and her people not as portraits but as “intimate insights into an evolving culture.” Sometimes a facial expression becomes a text, telling the story with an accuracy unknown in the tomes of anthropology.
Molnar’s experiences photographing his models in Navajo country have included both high and low moments. Once, while standing on a sandy slope, his lower legs began to tingle. “At first I thought it was the heat,” Molnar recalls, “but I soon discovered that both my legs were covered with black ants! Then, last summer when Earlene was posing on a mound of sandstone just after a rain storm, I heard this strange noise and figured that my camera had started rewinding. When the noise continued, I discovered a rattler coiled on a ledge 2 feet below where I was standing. When a baby rattler moved across the ledge, I realized that we and the rain must have disturbed a whole family of them…” This time around Molnar made one of his rare decisions not to suffer for his art.
Molnar’s recent paintings of Earlene disclose her transition from child to womanhood. Eyes of the Canyon [cover] depicts a tranquil, sophisticated Navajo perched in the fork of a shagbark juniper. It is the advent of a girl on the rim of a life passage. Simple, yet spectacular, she stares down at us. Her feminine beauty contrasts with the haggard arms of the tree, while her self-assurance is punctuated by her vantage point high above the ground. Richly complemented by the plush burgundy and pink velvet of her dress, she is self-contained in both body language and her vision of the future. In the decade that George and Earlene have worked together, both have matured and grown. Each has a tended trust of the other, but soon they will separate. Earlene will leave the sandstone monoliths she has always know. She will go to a strange new world in hopes of returning to help and heal. Molnar, too, will explore beyond this valley, searching for other tribes and other places, pueblos and wickiups before they are all replaced by double-wide trailer homes.
In this decade of discovery both man and model refined their gifts. George: warm, outgoing, relaxed and self-assured. Earlene: shy, determined, focused on tomorrow. Together they created a bridge of mutual understanding… Indian-Anglo. They documented a time, a place and a people.