Galena artist Janet Checker presents a selection of five paintings from her series Women of the Americas. With a long background in fashion illustration, Checker developed a fascination with the traditional dress of the women of North, Central, and South America.
Checker’s interest began when she incorporated pre-Columbian symbolism into her own textile weavings and eventually transitioned to painting images of women in full traditional dress, set in surroundings that represent and accentuate each figure.
A California native, Checker was raised in Chicago. She attended the Art Institute of Chicago and the American Academy of Art. She worked in advertising for many years and taught fashion illustration, design, and figure drawing at Ray College of Art (now Illinois Institute of Design). She has taught workshops across the United States and has led student tours to Europe. Her work can be found throughout the United States, South America, and Europe.
"Over the years I have enjoyed painting landscape, seascape, and still life series, even painting these subjects on my walls. My Women of the Americas series has been my favorite. I have learned so much while doing my research, some of which is included here in the labels that accompany each painting.
Early in my career, I worked as a retail advertising artist for women’s clothing for several major Chicago department stores. When my family and I left Chicago, I started weaving and creating my own designs which I sold through apparel marts in Chicago, Denver, Dallas, and Hawaii.
While designing the clothes, I started adding hand-painted silk panels of ancient cultures and their designs. Eventually I decided that I liked researching the designs and the painting process more than the weaving.
Women of the Americas consists of 21 women in their traditional clothing from locations and cultures in North, Central, and South America including Athabaskan, Arapahoe, Hopi, Navajo, Guatemala, San Blaze, Bahia, Argentina, Panama, Uruguay, Peru, USA, Bolivia, Hawaii, Seminal, Tarahumara, Mexico, Oneida, Cherokee, and Cuba (currently in progress). I hope you enjoy seeing this series as much I enjoyed researching and painting it. Now I look forward to the next series. Any suggestions?"
Gauchos of South American have always been a mystery to me. Since I grew up with the traditional American cowboy image, they never seemed that exciting. But the gauchos, their life style, their clothes, and their culture all seem both mysterious, exciting, and romantic like Rudolph Valentino with his sexy eyes. He is pictured as a strong, silent, lonely man, living on his own and wandering the pampas or plains. Later I found out the term gaucho came into existence for the first time in 1790 to describe a rough individual with heavy manners that would travel alone. I was crushed.
Most people think of only men as being gauchos but over the years women joined in and started carrying on the gaucho tradition. Women gauchos are called china or guaynaa.
Gauchos can be found throughout South America. Gaucho clothing is a term used to describe the traditional clothing used by the men and women who mainly inhabit Argentina, Uruguay, and southern Brazil.
Gauchos dressed quite distinctly from the North American cowboys. The typical clothing for the gaucho would include a poncho, which doubled as a saddle blanket and sleeping gear, and a facon (large knife). In addition to the North American lariat the gauchos used a boleadoras (three leather covered rocks tied together with about three feet of cord), a rebenque (whip), and wore loose fitting trousers called bombachas. Knee high boots or alpargatas, canvass shoes with a rope sole (in English they are known as espadrilles), and a boina hat (a type of tam), or a sombrero sureño. The most popular colors are khaki, black, white, dark blue, and dark green.
In the beginning, gauchos were looked down on as lower-class mestizos or mixed race, but when the wars of independence against Spain began, and commanders looked for able-bodied men, the gauchos were called into service and commanded the respect of the military. Today, June 16 is a holiday celebrating the gaucho contribution to the War of Independence.
Curiosity was what got me to do some research – curiosity about those bowler hats the women wore. Why? Such a strange fashion statement! The women have taken the bowler and added their own touches for special occasions by adding ribbons and beads. These bowlers can cost a month’s salary to buy.
The traditional dress of Bolivia is similar to that of nearby Peru, although there may be regional variations. For indigenous Highland Indian women, the traditional skirt called a pollera, was originally a garment that they were forced to wear by colonial rulers. Spanish colonizers made the women discard their previous traditional clothing. The new clothing was intended to easily identify and set apart the often looked down upon native community. Once a derogatory term for women of indigenous or mixed heritage, the word Cholita has come to have positive connotations as a name for the modern woman. Despite its origins, it is seen as a status symbol for women who were proud of their indigenous heritage and roots.
The basic traditional clothing consists of El Sombrero, La Pollera, Las Enaguas, La Blusa, La Manta, Los Calzados, and Joyas. The most interesting and distinctive garment worn by the Cholita is El Sombrero, the bowler hat. The bowler is worn to signify the marital status of a woman – worn in the middle means the woman is married, worn to the side means they are single or widowed and, jokingly, if the bowler is worn to the back that means the relationship is “complicated.”
The story behind the bowler hat is funny. The bowler hat was originally ordered from England for railway engineers working in Bolivia. When the shipment arrived they were too small. In a clever marketing move they were sold to local women as a fashion statement and the craze was on. Each woman went on to personalize their El Sombrero with ribbon and beads.
La Pollera is a pleated skirt and achieves its volume by using up to 8 meters of colorful cloth. The skirt reaches all the way to the ankles, which is considered to be the most attractive part of the woman by many Bolivians. The skirt also has to be really high up to make the girl’s bottom look big, another desirable trait in Bolivia. Under the skirt you will find multiple layers of petticoats (Las Enaguas) helping to give the skirt as much puff as possible. The La Blusa (blouse) is usually lacey with either long or short sleeves depending on the climate. La Manta is a heavy shawl worn around the shoulders. Made of wool from llama or alpaca, it is one color and pinned together in the front with a long stick pin or safety pin. The shoes are flat with rounded toes. The whole ensemble is completed with joyas (jewelry), earrings and brooches.
During competitions or parades, the wealthiest cholitas hire security guards to protect their jewelry. The completed outfit can run as high as $2500.
Unlike in many countries, the traditional dress is not only worn for the tourist. In Bolivia, wearing the traditional costume is the everyday clothing that the women will wear the rest of their lives.
The national costume of Panama, the pollera, is the most beautiful and admired of the Americas. When wearing the garments, which can cost thousands of dollars, for parades, the women sometimes hire bodyguards for protection. There are many tales related to its origin, but the most popular is that it was adapted from a gypsy dress worn in Spain at the time of the conquest of Peru and brought to Panama by the servants of the colonial families. The garments consists of three pieces: the blouse, the skirt, and petticoats. The total yardage is at least 12 yards of fine white linen, cambric, or voile. The designs on the garment are garlands, flowers, or birds and are either cross-stitched or an elegant needlework known as talco en sombra, or appliqué.
The blouse is worn off the shoulders and has two large ruffles. The first ruffle is attached to the neckband and falls to the middle of the bodice. The second ruffle is added under the first and falls to the waist. The neckband at the top of the blouse is trimmed with handmade lace which is edged with another heavier lace. This band has openings in the front and the back where wool pompons are placed. The neckband is also interwoven with wool the same color as the pompons. Two ribbons, called gallardetes, hang from the waist – one in the front and one in the back – and match the color of the wool.
The skirt is long, full, and loose and reaches the ankles. The skirt is put together with two long pieces of fabric. The upper section comes to the knees and is separated by an insertion of lace. The second layer is heavily gathered with twice as much fabric as the first. The edge of the skirt is trimmed with 25 yards of lace that is 4-5 inches wide. The skirt is gathered at the waist and tied with four narrow ribbons, two crossing in the front and two crossing in the back, running through button holes of two gold buttons on either side of the waist.
The petticoats are handmade of very fine white linen and can be as elaborate as the skirt trimmed with lace, cutwork, and embroidery. Usually two or three are worn. The shoes are heelless made of velveteen or satin and are the same color as the pompons. No stockings are worn.
The headdress is an important part of the pollera. The women’s hair is parted in the middle, pulled tightly back behind the ears, forming two braids which are wrapped at the back of the head. The braids are covered with several parts of tembleques, glittering sprays of flower-like filigree ornaments made of gold, silver, and pearls. Their flexible stems tremble as the wearer moves. Several combs are worn. Two are crested with elaborate gold work called de balcon and placed on either side of the head toward the back. A third comb is called de perlas because of the pearls which are added to the gold work. This comb is worn a little to the front of the head.
For jewelry, four to eight gold chains are worn. These can include coral and pearl rosaries, gold filigree, a gold cross on a chain, and sometimes a narrow black ribbon. Large earrings of gold or silver complete the look.
Four days before Ash Wednesday are carnival days and la Pollera comes into its own. The streets are filled with merry makers and each pollera ones sees seems more beautiful than the last. La Pollera has to be seen to appreciate the work and imagination that produces this loveliest of dresses.
The Hopi are noted for their pottery, especially the black on black designs originally created by Maria Martinez in the early 1900s. Another famous Hopi pottery family is the Nampayos. The design shown behind the figure in this painting is from a piece of Nampayo pottery.
The Native Americans of our country have always been an interest of mine, especially the Southwest. Several years ago, through a friend, I had the honor of teaching an art class on a reservation. What a great experience. My first question to the boys and girls was “Are any of your family members artists?” at which every single hand was raised.
The Hopis live in Northern Arizona, encircled by land owned by the Navajo nation. Hopi is shortened from Hopituh-Shi-nu-mu which means “Peaceful Ones.”
Like the Navajo, the Hopi make turquoise and silver jewelry. They tend to use smaller pieces of turquoise in creating their beautiful designs. The clothing worn by the Hopi women consists of the traditional dress called a manta. This rectangular piece of fabric is woven out of black wool. The fabric is wrapped around the body, attached at one shoulder and held at the waist by a woven belt. They also wear traditional turquoise and coral beads.
In the old days, little clothing was worn in the summer because of the heat. In the winter, both men and women wore blankets around their shoulders. Moccasins made of buckskins with leggings wrapped up to the knees completed the traditional dress.
When young girls are old enough to marry, they wear their hair in a squash blossom style which symbolizes fertility. This is accomplished by wrapping their long hair around a bent piece of wood on either side of their head. After marriage their hair is usually worn in braids.
Before the missionaries and traders came to the pueblos, the Hopi men did all the weaving. Now women also weave and follow the tradition of putting one mistake in their weavings to avoid perfection, which is only found in the creator.
The background of this work is a stylized painting of the rising sun using the traditional colors of red, black, and white.
The basis of this painting is the Athabaskan mittens. My husband and I were lucky enough to find them at an antique shop. With the mittens, we learned some history and from there I wanted more information about the people and their culture.
The Native Alaskans from the interior of the far north are called Northern Athabaskan and are thought to be related to the Navajo (southern Athabaskan, also Apachean) through DNA and a subfamily of the Athabaskan language. This diverse group of people, whose ancestors were the first ones to call the Last Frontier their home consists of Aleuts, Indians, and Eskimos. Collectively they are known as Alaskan Natives, however, all three are part of different races, creeds, and philosophies. One bond they all share is a respect and reverence for the land, water, and creatures of the land.
Their industry relied almost exclusively on animal hides and bones, although some tools were also made out of worked stones. Walrus ivory was a particularly essential material used to make knives.
The environmental conditions in the north forced the people to live a nomadic lifestyle. Living by rivers and streams in tents in the summer, in the winter, more permanent dwellings were constructed of wood or sod.
The women made the clothing and footwear from animal skins, tanned caribou, or moose hide, sewn together with bone needles with sinew as thread.
In summer, sealskin was worn. In the winter, the clothing was made of caribou skin, which is lightweight but very warm. Both men and women wear hooded tunics and trousers over long boots. Women’s tunics were made very large so the mother could carry infants and toddlers inside the tunic. Both were decorated with quills, pieces of fur, beadwork, and embroidery. Their richly ornamented garments are considered the finest made anywhere.