BY ROBIN FARWELL GAVIN
In the early twentieth century the traditional arts of Hispano New Mexico were disappearing. Mass-produced items had become increasingly available via rail transport to New Mexico beginning in 1880 and were eclipsing the crafts of local santeros, tinsmiths, carpinteros, and weavers. Artisans who often bartered their work for food and livestock as much as for cash were struggling, and their livelihoods were endangered. Organizations such as the Spanish Colonial Arts Society, founded in 1925, which ran the Spanish Market and the Spanish Arts Shop, along with the Colonial Hispanic Crafts School opened by Concha Ortiz y Pino in 1929 and the Native Market, founded by Leonora Curtin in 1933, focused on providing a market for artists in the hope of preserving these traditions. But all of these endeavors foundered during the Great Depression. Fortunately, the State’s vocational schools expanded to include some of these art forms, and, most dramatically, the federal government stepped in.
In 1932, at the height of the depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president. His challenge was daunting: to lead the country to economic recovery through his proposed “New Deal” legislation. Within the first month of his presidency, Roosevelt proposed and Congress passed—in one day—the Emergency Conservation Work Act, intended to put the nation’s unemployed back to work. The first program to come out of this legislation was designed to provide financial relief for unemployed youth by putting them to work in conservation projects intended to protect the country’s natural resources. This program eventually became known as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
Some twenty-five hundred CCC camps were established across the country, employing a half-million young people. In New Mexico more than thirty-two thousand signed up for CCC camps, where they were trained and employed primarily in conservation-related fields—forest management, dam construction, and road and trail building. In New Mexico alone, CCC enrollees planted almost six million trees. At one of these camps, Camp No. 815 in Frijoles Canyon, CCC workers built thirty-one structures and fabricated all the furnishings for Bandelier National Monument, a park established by Congress in 1916. CCC craftsmen were trained in furniture making, carpentry, and carving, and produced bed frames, dressers, chairs, stools, signs, benches, and couches, as well as architectural beams, corbels, doors, shutters, and built-in cabinets and counters. By the time the Bandelier camp closed, enrollees had produced over five hundred pieces of furniture, furnishing not only Bandelier’s lodge, offices, and museum, but sending pieces as far afield as Tumacácori National Historical Park in Arizona. While enrolled, they had also received training in endangered traditional crafts and acquired the skills necessary to take this work to a broader market.
Under the US Forest Service administration from 1915 until 1932, Bandelier was a remote and challenging destination involving a long trip from Santa Fe and a treacherous trek along narrow mesa paths to the canyon floor where a small lodge was run by the Frey family. When the National Park Service took control of the monument in 1932, its goal of making the park more accessible was accomplished through the CCC. The first step was building a road into the canyon. Bulldozers and heavy machinery were hoisted over the edge of the canyon in parts and reassembled on the canyon floor. A road was then cut leading out of the canyon, in some places lined with cut stone bumper walls that are still in place today —all made by CCC enrollees. A new lodge was built replacing the modest one run by the Freys, along with a museum, offices, residences and dormitories for staff, outbuildings for maintenance, and workshops. It was in these workshops that the furniture and architectural elements were fabricated.
CCC camps were run like military camps; in fact, most of the early supervisors and foremen were military personnel. Young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five could enroll for six-month assignments. Upon arrival at the camp to which they were assigned, they “were issued a standard set of clothes and supplies…: 2 face towels, 1 bath towel, 1 overcoat, 3 pairs of long underwear, 1 wool olive drab coat, 2 flannel shirts, 1 pair of pants, 1 pair of work pants, 1 lumber jacket, 1 belt, 1 overseas cap, 2 pairs of gloves, 1 neck tie, 4 pairs of socks, 2 pairs of shoes, 1 barracks bag, 1 pair of overshoes.”1 Their pay was $30.00 a month, of which, according to CCC policy, they could keep $5.00; the rest they were required to send home. The CCC was designed to benefit both the young enrollees and their home communities and families. For many families these remittances were their only source of income, and for many of the enrollees this was often the first time they had ever had three square meals a day. Many young men found that joining the CCC was a life-altering experience. Valentin Valdez, from Santa Fe, recalled it this way:
When I joined the CC’s [sic], for me life changed completely. I made a lot of friends, I learned how to work with other people, and I enjoyed working with the CC’s because they were taking care of the land…. They gave me clothes. They were the best clothes I had ever worn, the best shoes I’d ever had….2
Upon arrival, the men were assigned to different jobs. At Bandelier one might blast and cut stone for the road and buildings, build check dams or bridges, cook for the camp, or learn one of the many aspects of building construction. Agustiano Gallegos, interviewed in 1988, tells of his assignment to the carpenter shop. “How did you get picked for it [the carpenters’ shop] then?” the interviewer asked.
“Well, I don’t know. This man asked me if I wanted to go over there and of course the one that was in charge of the carpenter shop, he just gave us a few tips, you know, … and he says I’m going to put you on the band saw, and then, the drill, and then Joe Ortiz had a table saw and a plane. … And I tell you, with the equipment that we had there, the best, the government, you know, there was nothing to it. … We had the plans, and then we used to cut the legs and everything, you know, and then just put them together. We used a lot of glue.”
“Did you use nails?” [asked the interviewer].
“No …. no nails at all. And then putting the ceilings on the rooms, and everything else… and Leo Roybal, he was from El Rancho, he used to do the carving. Oh, he was good at carving. … He was so patient that he took his time and I never saw him make a mistake on any of the carvings.”3
For many, the training received at the CCC camps—on the band saw, the drill, the jigsaw, the lathe—gave them skills that they would apply for the rest of their lives.
Although constructed by CCC enrollees—81 percent of whom had Hispano surnames—the furniture was designed by NPS personnel. At Bandelier the designs were created by Lyle Bennett, a long-time Park Service ranger-turned-architect, and Charles D. Carter, both designers with the Branch of Plans and Design. Bennett and his supervisor, landscape designer Thomas C. Vint, had a clear vision of park policy, which was to design architecture and improvements in harmony with the landscape. Not only did this rustic style (or “parkitecture” as it is often called) open the door to the local artistic traditions, but it was right in line with the international Arts and Crafts Movement. Based on the writings of the Englishmen William Morris and John Ruskin, the movement stressed handicraft and the use of raw materials and local manufacturing over the industrialized production that had swept through the late nineteenth century. On American shores the
movement gave rise to the California-inspired Mission Revival style and the New Mexico-inspired Spanish-Pueblo Revival style. Park Service architects were certainly taking cues from Santa Fe’s Art Gallery (1917, now the New Mexico Museum of Art) and furnishings (see Hunter-Stiebel, this issue), the first modern building in New Mexico to draw upon Spanish and Native American architectural prototypes, and of John Gaw Meem’s designs for the new Laboratory of Anthropology and its director’s residence (now the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art), completed in 1930, also in the Spanish-Pueblo Revival style.
Using the traditional construction techniques of New Mexican carpinteros, furniture for Bandelier National Monument was built from local Ponderosa pine, acquired from the nearby Santa Fe National Forest, and pieced together using mortise-and-tenon joinery and pegs—“no nails at all.” To the typical assemblage of tables, side chairs, chests, and trasteros, the designers added bureaus, ottomans, beds and bedside tables, and desks. To the traditional chip-carved bullet motifs, rosettes, and twisted Solomonic columns, they added incised designs inspired by Pueblo Indian pottery, such as birds, feathers, and stepped and triangular motifs. Proportions were changed to be more in line with Arts and Crafts aesthetics, but the sturdy artistry of traditional New Mexican furniture remains evident throughout.
Photographs taken at Bandelier in 1940 illustrate how the furniture was used and placed in the various rooms. The large benches used in the lodge lobby and lounge, whose relative proportions mimic nineteenth-century New Mexican benches but whose actual sizes are much larger than colonial examples, are decorated with Yei-like figures in place of the more typically scalloped or urn-shaped back splats. Additionally, Pueblo pottery designs, taken directly from Alfred V. Kidder’s 1915 publication Pottery of Pajarito Plateau, are carved on the end skirts.4 The colonial trastero in the lounge was transformed into a modern built-in wall cabinet. The cabinets are then surrounded by a border of the twisted or Franciscan cord pattern found along the bond beam of many colonial churches.
The furniture in the dining room is a blend of Spanish, Spanish Colonial, and Pueblo elements. The tables with splayed legs and braces recall Spanish prototypes with iron supports but are made of sturdy New Mexico pine; the chairs have the proportions and profiles of traditional New Mexican pieces but are embellished with the “Bandelier turkey,”5 a stylized turkey developed from a Mimbres pottery design that was favored by Mrs. Frey, who was for many years the park concessioner. This turkey has been adopted as the unofficial Bandelier logo. Other motifs on the chairs are feathers, stepped profiles on the rails, and the zigzag of the Avanyu, all derived from designs found on Pueblo pottery and pictographs. The low-slung armchair with rawhide seat is a piece particularly influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement in both proportion and style. Low to the ground with broad arms and seat, the contrast here with the more traditional armchairs pictured in the lounge is striking. Yet it, too, relies on traditional New Mexican mortise-and-tenon construction, customary pine, and takes advantage of the revival of the practice of hide-tanning that was being taught in the state’s vocational schools. The furniture was finished by staining, and most of the carved areas were painted, as was the case with much of colonial furniture. The final coat was Bruce Floor Finish, a penetrating oil. Dining tables and chairs were later given a high-gloss finish.
Attention to architectural detail is of particular note in the CCC period. Hand-crafted corbels, beams, doors, shutters, carved rosettes on radiator covers, and other architectural elements were integral design elements that reveal the colonial roots of this work and imbue it with a sense of place. At Bandelier even the curtain rods were ingeniously designed to reflect architectural elements with their corbelled terminals.
The enrollees also learned to make new styles of furniture that would be much more in demand in commercial and public buildings, such as butcher-block tables, ash trays, bureaus, ottomans, and bedside tables. The overall scale of some of the pieces, such as the armchairs and benches mentioned above, was also adjusted to meet commercial rather than domestic needs.
The young men who worked in the carpentry and sign shop at Bandelier were trained on the band saw, electric drill, table saw, and plane, and appear to have been quite productive. In one month in 1937, the project superintendent reported that: “Three each of hand-carved tables and chairs have been completed by the carpenter crew and delivered to the Custodian for permanent Monument furniture. Two hand-carved beds for the dormitory rooms are now being assembled in the shop.” Another monthly report from 1939 stated: “During the month the carpenter crew has been entirely occupied upon furniture construction, completing all pieces for which plans are available.”6 Bandelier’s carpenters became so well known that they were commissioned to make and carve the massive doors for the new museum at Tumacácori.
other new deal programs also helped to promote the traditional arts of New Mexico. The Federal Art Project (FAP) sponsored a project to record the traditional art of the state, hiring artist E Boyd to travel the state recording the colonial art in churches and homes. Her renderings were translated into woodblock engravings and then hand-colored by other FAP artists and published in the Portfolio of Spanish Colonial Design. In Clayton, school superintendent Raymond Huff started a National Youth Administration (NYA) program to train students to build the furnishings for the high school and remodeled junior high that were newly completed with WPA funds. A 1940 Time magazine article stated: “His students carved, pegged, built all the furniture, tanned leather for office chairs, wove rawhide for classroom chairs, hammered hinges, lamps and other hardware from scrap iron, wove mohair rugs and draperies…. Meanwhile, the fame of Clayton’s revival of primitive arts spread far & wide. By last week, tourists had swamped Superintendent Huff and his students with orders for hand-carved furniture, pottery, rugs.”7
As with many federally sponsored programs, however, the arts programs had their pros and cons. Curator Tey Marianna Nunn notes in her publication Sin Nombre: Hispana and Hispano Artists of the New Deal Era: “At the time it was produced, furniture made under WPA umbrella programs was categorized as ‘handicraft,’ despite the labor-intensive artistic talent it took to make it…. Donald Bear, the regional FAP director, and Russell Vernon Hunter, the state director, consistently had to justify the inclusion of furniture in New Mexico’s art projects.” Much of the furniture created during the CCC and other WPA projects was designed by Park Service personnel of the Branch of Plans and Designs. These designers are identified by name on the plans and in the records, while most of the actual furniture makers at Bandelier (as in all of the WPA programs), predominantly nuevomexicanos, remain anonymous, or “sin nombre.” Interviews conducted by Bandelier staff in the 1980s and a review of CCC enrollee records revealed the names of only the three New Mexican carpinteros from the 1938 crew mentioned above: Agustiano Gallegos of Santa Fe, Joe Ortiz of Santa Fe, and Leo Roybal of El Rancho.
Ultimately, the benefits of these programs rest not only in the immediate employment that they provided but in the designs that were introduced and the historic results still in evidence today. These designs, which catered to an Anglo-American aesthetic, considerably widened the market for these products for years to come. Not only was the training given the many young people in CCC camps life-altering, but the federal government, through the WPA, helped to sustain and revitalize the traditional arts of Hispanic New Mexico. This official validation, along with the infusion of new forms and motifs, contributed to building a market for the traditional arts and carrying this legacy forward.
1. Richard Melzer, Coming of Age in the Great Depression: The Civilian Conservation Corps Experience in New Mexico 1933–1942 (Las Cruces: Yucca Tree Press, 2000), 48.
2. Valentin Valdez, Mi Vida en Santa Fe (Santa Fe: self-published, 2005).
3. From interview conducted by NPS staff with Agustiano Gallegos, July 20, 1988, at his home in Santa Fe. On file, Bandelier National Monument, museum archives.
4. Alfred V. Kidder, “Pottery of the Pajarito Plateau and of Some Adjacent Regions in New Mexico,” Memoirs of the American Anthropological
Association, v. 2, no. 6 (October 1915): 407–462. My thanks to Bandelier archaeologist Rory Gauthier for pointing out this reference to me.
5. See Harrison, Copeland, and Buck, Bandelier National Monument.
6. H. B. Chase, Southwest Monuments Monthly Report, April 1937 and February 1939. Reports on file at Bandelier National Monument.
7. “Primitive Arts, 1940 A.D.” Time, August 12, 1940.
Robin Farwell Gavin is chief curator for the Spanish Colonial Arts Society and the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art in Santa Fe, and formerly a curator at the Museum of International Folk Art. Her books include Converging Streams: Art of the Hispanic and Native American Southwest (co-edited with William Wroth), published by the Spanish Colonial Arts Society and distributed by the Museum of New Mexico Press; and Cerámica y Cultura: The Story of Spanish and Mexican Mayólica, University of New Mexico Press.