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In Santa Fe, on the Trail of New Deal Artists

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, March 12, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

It seems as if every artist living in New York in the 1930s worked for the government through one New Deal program or another. Walker Evans was hired to photograph the effects of the Great Depression on rural families. A young Jacob Lawrence was paid to produce murals and easel paintings in Harlem. Even the Dutch-born Willem de Kooning received money from the government to paint — decades before he became an American citizen.

But New York was hardly the only center of New Deal artistic activity. Another hub was northern New Mexico, where more than a hundred artists — including prominent American Indians — signed on to the government payroll. Although scholarship on their involvement has been spotty at best, local curators say that is beginning to change.

"When we look back at the Depression and that time frame, I think we have images of soup lines in New York and factory workers put out of jobs," said Shelby Tisdale, director of the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture/Laboratory of Anthropology in Santa Fe. "A lot of people don't even realize that there were Native American artists involved in the New Deal."

Her museum has organized a group show, running April 5 through Aug. 31, to help set the record straight. On exhibit will be art objects created by American Indians in 1934 under the Public Works of Art Project, a predecessor of the Works Progress Administration.

The National New Deal Preservation Association is also holding a symposium, from April 5 to 6 at the museum, on American Indian projects under the program. Topics will range from individual artists to economic policies.

The events are part of the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the New Deal, which Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated in 1933. The preservation association's Web site,, lists other events and exhibitions this year. The organization's goals include education as well as the documentation and restoration of New Deal projects, said Kathryn A. Flynn, executive director.

Ms. Flynn said that her interest in the period was ignited when she was deputy secretary of state for New Mexico in the 1990s. One of her first projects was to compile its Blue Book. "Anything you wanted to know about New Mexico — government, education, museums, history," she said. She was thinking about what illustrations to use in the book when someone suggested murals.

"A mural flashed into my head from Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, and I wondered why it was there," Ms. Flynn said. "From there I was off and running."

In New Mexico alone, she ultimately found 65 murals or mural-size paintings, 650 easel paintings, 10 sculptures and hundreds of American Indian and Hispanic crafts created under the New Deal.

"And that's just what remains in public buildings," she said.

In addition, she has identified 30 American Indians who were active during New Deal programs in the state and thinks there were others who were not documented. This research fed her book on the subject, "Treasures on New Mexico Trails: Discover New Deal Art and Architecture," published in 1995.

According to her book, it was Roosevelt's appointment of John Collier as commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1933 that led to American Indian participation. Besides his drive for social reform, emphasizing self-government by the tribes, Collier had an abiding — if perhaps overly romantic — interest in American Indian art.

He was a good friend of the colorful Taos arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan and even lived in the area briefly during the 1920s.

Valerie Verzuh, collections manager at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, who organized the New Deal show, said that she, too, "was surprised to discover the level of involvement of Native American artists in the New Deal."

About five years ago, the museum received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to catalog its collection. "That's when we went through all the pottery, weaving and fine art, piece by piece," she said.

They found about 110 objects in her collection made during the New Deal by American Indians. About half are Hopi kachina dolls, which the museum does not display at the request of local tribal leaders, who view them as sacred objects. The April show, she said, will consist solely of secular objects: Hopi figurines, Navajo weavings and, perhaps most prized, American Indian pottery.

The dozen or so pots to be displayed were created under the program by the celebrated husband-and-wife teams of Maria and Julian Martinez, from the San Ildefonso Pueblo, and Lela and Evangelio Gutierrez, from the Santa Clara Pueblo, both near Santa Fe.

"Both of these couples made really traditional wares that have an Art Deco feeling," Ms. Verzuh said. She noted that the pots were not thrown but built up by hand through the coil-and-scrape method. "The woman usually makes the pot and the man paints."

Lela Gutierrez was known for making polychrome pottery, using multicolored clay slips to build earth tones into traditional redware forms.

Even more famous, Maria Martinez made her name with black-on-black pottery, developing an elaborate technique for creating glossy black pots with matte-black designs.

Another American Indian who participated in the New Deal was Pablita Velarde. Her work is featured in a 2007 show at the museum that was extended until April 13 to coincide with the New Deal activities. Because she was a woman, her father discouraged her from painting, but when she was only 16 she became part of a mural painting team at the Santa Fe Indian School under the Public Works Art Project.

In 1939, when she was 21, she was hired by the W.P.A. under the supervision of the National Park Service to create paintings of American Indian life for a museum at the visitors center of Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico. Over six years, she completed more than 80 paintings in casein on fiberboard and glass, many of which remained in storage until the Santa Fe show.

She was considered a pioneer in other ways, starting with her $5 a day salary.

"With the Bandelier project she made more money than the men with the Civilian Conservation Corps," Ms. Flynn said. "She made enough money that she was able to build her own house on the pueblo, and that made her unique."

Others point to her subjects — everyday life and dance and customs on the 20th-century pueblo — as innovative. "I find her work inspiring," said Nora Naranjo-Morse, a Santa Clara potter whose mother was Pablita Velarde's cousin.

Ms. Naranjo-Morse singles out a painting called "Governor Greets the Tourists" as one of Ms. Velarde's most powerful works. It shows an American Indian in traditional dress who stands just outside his pueblo facing a blue car packed with tourists. His right hand is raised.

"You would think that he's welcoming the tourists because his hand is up, but the gesture is not really clear," she said. "He could be wondering: 'Who are these people?' "

Another Santa Fe museum, the New Mexico Museum of Art, also has a small New Deal exhibition drawn from its collection. The show, which runs through May 18, includes one work by an American Indian: a Zia Pueblo artist named Velino Shije Herrera, also known as Ma Pe Wi. His watercolor, on long-term loan from the General Services Administration, depicts three women grinding corn, with native pottery at their feet and peppers hanging over their heads.

You can see other examples of his work in Washington at the Department of the Interior, where he was part of a larger mural project, or at the Santa Fe Indian School, where he began painting in 1917.

This school is one of many cultural institutions and associations that made Santa Fe such a magnet for artists — and ultimately for government financing, Ms. Flynn said.

"There's no doubt New York was loaded with artists, and California was loaded," she said. "But I think New Mexico may have had more people per capita working on these projects. It's an amazing part of our history, and we haven't seen anything like it since."

By Jori FInkel
For The New York Times

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