Maria Antonia Peña, or Tonita Peña, was born at San Ildefonso, New Mexico, in 1893, deceased in 1949. A member of the San Ildefonso Pueblo, she was also known as Quah Ah (Coral White Beads). She went to St. Catherine’s Indian School in Santa Fe, but was trained in pottery by her aunt Marina Vigil, and is considered a self-trained painter.
As an artist, Tonita was known as a painter and muralist. She had been a pioneer in the Southwest easel painting tradition. She was the only female painter in the early 1910’s among the San Ildefonso watercolorists.
Her artwork emphasized the role of women in everyday life. She is credited with expanding the expectations of women in art by refusing to limit herself to the traditional female role of potter. She controversially created paintings that recorded sacred rituals and tribal secrets for generations to come, and received much opposition from her fellow tribesmen.
Tonita occasionally taught art in Santa Fe and Albuquerque Indian Schools, having great effect on her contemporaries. She also created a series of murals in the 1930’s, solidifying her position as a muralist in the art world.
She has been included in group exhibitions that have continued past her death in 1949. From 1955 to 1956 and from 1958 to 1961, her artwork was included in a European tour put on by the University of Oklahoma. She was showcased in the 1988 exhibition, entitled When the Rainbow Touches Down, at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, as well as Heard Museum exhibitions in 1991 and 1994.
Her artwork is part of the public and private collections at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio, the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Michigan, the Heard Museum in Arizona, the Dartmouth College Collection in New Hampshire, and many others.