Furnishing the Santa Fe Style

Part II: Searching for Good Old Sam, Samuel Francis Hudelson, 1874-1946


Much of the furniture created for the New Mexico Museum of Art over the years since its opening in 1917 still exists in galleries and storage areas. Beyond Jesse Nusbaum’s readily identifiable contributions based on local Hispanic tradition lay a mystery. In a group of significant works an accomplished furniture maker had continued Nusbaum’s vocabulary while introducing elements from various Native American cultures. Who might be the author of this evidence of a developing triculturalism in the Santa Fe style? And when were these pieces made?

Firm in the belief that all the contents of the museum should be documented, Registrar Michelle Gallagher Roberts assigned her colleague Dan Goodman (now curator of collections at El Rancho de las Golondrinas) to work with me, and together we photographed, measured, and recorded every piece we could find. Most bore inventory numbers assigned in 1990, but no further study had been undertaken to determine their author or date.

Moving what appeared to be a battered radiator cover with elaborate carved Indian-style decoration out from under a window recess in a corner of a gallery, we found it to be a desk with the initials MNM carved on the front of the deep file drawer, clearly indicating official use for the Museum of New Mexico. But it was the shallow center drawer that provided the Eureka moment: when we removed the drawer we discovered scrawled in pencil underneath “SFH/ Finished March 10-34.” We now had a lynchpin!

Over the months when Dan could fit periodic furniture forays into his full schedule I was researching in libraries and archives where I had picked up on the name Sam Huddleson, Huddelson, or Hudelson, variously spelled. He had been officially added to the Museum of New Mexico staff in 1920 as superintendent, with responsibility for the Palace of the Governors and the Art Gallery (as the New Mexico Museum of Art was originally called) buildings, then jointly administered with the School of American Research (SAR, now School of Advanced Research) under the founding director Edgar L. Hewett. “Superintendent” was the same title held by Jesse Nusbaum before his departure from Santa Fe in December 1917. Further, Nusbaum in his memoirs credited Hudelson as one of the “good men” he had helping with the elaborate architectural woodwork he designed for the art museum.

Finding S. F. H.

What singled Hudelson out to me was the artist Will Shuster’s passing reference in a 1940 interview as he described the scene in the art museum basement: “There’s Sam Huddleson [sic] presiding over a carpentry shop where Joe Bakos and Fremont Ellis and several other artists are busy making frames and crating paintings . . . good old Sam ready to lend a helping hand or a bit of advice.”

I couldn’t even be sure that “good old Sam” was the SFH written under the desk drawer as I could find no mention of a middle name—at least until I opened a manila envelope in the Fray Angélico Chávez History Library, crammed with yellowed newspaper clippings. I carefully removed each crumbling, irrelevant bit of trivia published in the Santa Fe New Mexican mentioning the Museum of New Mexico until out came a one-paragraph obituary published on June 7, 1946, for “Hudelson, Samuel Francis,” stating he had been custodian of the Museum of New Mexico. At last the correct spelling and his middle name!

The information that he had retired eight years earlier proved incorrect, but it sent me to back issues of El Palacio to see if the fact was mentioned. An appreciation of his service in the July 1943 issue revealed that he had actually retired in 1941. In a brief biography, Assistant Editor Hulda R. Hobbs wrote that this son of a Texas rancher had come to Santa Fe in 1912 when he worked on Jesse Nusbaum’s project of remodeling the Palace of the Governors, doing cabinetwork and continuing improvements, as well as the ornamental woodwork for the new Art Gallery. Hobbs credited Hudelson “with inaugurating the local renaissance of hand-made and hand-decorated furniture.” Now I knew that I was on the right track!

Hobbs’s claim about the significance of Hudelson’s contributions to furniture design is all the more amazing considering that Hudelson’s primary responsibility was maintenance, repair, and additions to the Museum of New Mexico campus (both the Palace of the Governors and the Art Museum). He also did field work every year with SAR working at Gran Quivira and Quarai, Jemez, Puyé, Chaco, Pecos, and Acoma. Hobbs quoted an official statement from Hewett (notoriously loath to credit his staff) saying, with uncharacteristic enthusiasm, “What this capable workman (artist as well as master mechanic) accomplished assisted by a few unskilled laborers, was beyond praise…. His methods have influenced the work of about all of us who have had to do with the preservation of ruins during this generation.”

Furniture for Private Clients

Hudelson himself was not a man of words, or at least not of written words. The only records that he made relating to the Museum of Art that I could find were his photographs, now in the Photo Archives of the Palace of the Governors. A key image had been published by Lonn Taylor and Dessa Bokides in their invaluable book, New Mexican Furniture, 1600–1940.3 It showed furniture in the Art Museum basement with two of the armchairs for the Women’s Board Room in front of the room’s long table, which was up on saw horses. No trace has been found of the foreground bench or the second table in the background. Could these have been made for a private client? Hewett was notoriously stingy when it came to paying his staff, who worked for both the museum and SAR. Most were considered “part time” employees and expected to supplement their salaries with outside work.

It was just such extracurricular work that forced Hudelson to put words in writing. I was led to the SAR library archive by Kathy Fiero, who is writing a biography of Nusbaum and shared with me an unpublished manuscript by Lonn Taylor on the construction and furnishing of the Martha and Elizabeth White house now occupied by SAR. Although they engaged as their architect William Penhallow Henderson, who developed a furnituremaking business, the White sisters wrote to Nusbaum that they wanted furniture like that they had seen in his home at Mesa Verde. Since he was then fully occupied with his duties as superintendent of Mesa Verde National Park, Nusbaum said from the start that he could design the pieces but that they would have to be made by Hudelson in his shop in the museum basement. An agreement was struck for twenty-two pieces, and correspondence between the Whites, Nusbaum, and Hudelson covering 1923–25 in the SAR archives reveals a dynamic collaboration with sketches and measured drawings and commentary. I found a number of the pieces documented in photographs by Hudelson among the images he donated to the museum, now in the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives. The project stirred great interest, and visits to Hudelson’s basement workshop were so frequent that Nusbaum wrote him, “Who comes the most to offer suggestions and criticisms of ‘Grand Rapids.’ Nordfelt [the painter. J. O Nordfelt (1878-1955), I suppose]. Guess he will be imitating lot of things later in his house if I do not miss my guess.” There was also correspondence with the museum’s assistant director, Paul Walter, about the possibility of an exhibition which never came about.

The White furniture was just one of Hudelson’s furniture commissions: in a letter to Nusbaum dated March 10, 1924, Hudelson wrote, “contracted 2 large chairs—4 benches—one thin table $390.00 for a lady here. Will begin as soon as [I] finish yours.” Clearly these pieces were of Hudelson’s own design and may represent an extended production that is yet to be identified.

The clue to identifying Hudelson’s independent work lies in the carved ornament. In a letter dated March 7, 1924, Nusbaum complained to Martha White “he [Hudelson] was too ambitious in carving and everywhere he could lay a dollar down on it, he had to carve it, That ruins it for me…” Examining the Museum of Art furniture, we may not agree with his assessment of a developing style born of Hudelson’s personal experience.

From the 1943 El Palacio article I learned that at age nineteen Hudelson was hired as a teacher of “industrial arts” for the Indian service. Starting in Oklahoma, where his parents had homesteaded, he was transferred to San Carlos Apache school in Rice, Arizona; then to Fort Dermitt, Nevada, on the Paiute Reservation; and finally to Tohatchi, New Mexico, on the Navajo Reservation, before coming to Santa Fe in 1911. Putting this together with what was happening at the museum from the time of Nusbaum’s departure, the rationale behind the museum furnishings came into focus.

This varied experience of Native American communities combined well with the museum’s increased focus on contemporary Indian arts. What Hewett called “The Santa Fe Program” started with promoting a revival of pottery at San Ildefonso and moved on to the presentation of Pueblo painters in the Art Gallery. Two breakthrough exhibitions of students of Santa Fe Indian school in 1919 brought a “new” art form to the attention of the Anglo community. In 1924 the Art Gallery’s eleventh annual survey exhibition presented as usual the latest paintings by members of the Taos and Santa Fe artists colonies, but also dedicated the upstairs gallery to paintings by Indian artists. Further, the report in the September 24 El Palacio stated that in the arts and crafts section where work was presumably by non-Indians, “the application of Indian designs as applied to the decoration of china and was of high merit and attracted much attention.”The 1934 frescoes by Will Shuster in the museum patio illustrating Pueblo Indian scenes left a lasting reminder of the institution’s involvement.

Hudelson’s Distinctive Designs

Kenneth Chapman stands out as a pioneer in the appreciation of Indian design. As Hewett’s first employee at the museum and SAR he devoted whatever hours could be spared from administrative duties to begin a life-long study of Pueblo ceramics, analyzing the decorations and working them up in hundreds of sheets of watercolor studies. Under the auspices of the WPA he even conducted classes where artists emulated his process. He created a lens through which Anglo admirers perceived this form of ceramic art, and Indian motifs entered the vocabulary of contemporary decoration.

Hudelson’s initial use of Indian-style ornament may have been in two benches supplied to provide additional seating and cover the radiators in the Women’s Board Room, as shown in photographs from the early 1920s. On one he carved friezes and stepped motifs in common use in the pueblos, and on the other he carved openings in the low back that recall motifs of Navajo rugs.

Early in our exploration Dan Goodman and I stumbled across a small bookcase in the museum storage. The carvings of the sides are almost a lexicon of Southwest Indian design. The inclusion of the design of the swastika that had long figured in Navajo weaving told us that the piece had to predate American awareness of the threat from Hitler, who had appropriated the age-old symbol for his Nazi party.

A double bench still in use in the galleries recalls the commercial “Mission style” of the benches purchased by Hewett for the gallery opening, but the outlines are softened and the sides with cut-out slats below incised Indian-inspired motifs convey a distinct Southwest character.

Were the Indian motifs Hudelson carved on the art museum furniture copied from Chapman’s designs? After examining a number of Chapman’s works I felt the carvings were of a very different character. I was vastly relieved when Dody Fugate, assistant curator for archaeological research collections at the Laboratory of Anthropology, confirmed my observation, saving me hours and hours of poring over still more Chapmania. Most of Hudelson’s carvings are free improvisations adapting Indian design elements, from Mimbres pots to Navajo weavings, drawn from his personal experience. There were two outstanding exceptions, however. One was the front panel on a small reception desk. On seeing my snapshot, Dody cried out, “That’s a Hopi pot!” as indeed the carved bird design resembles that painted on a Hopi pot that she led me to on the shelves of the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture storeroom.

In the second case I already knew the source, since Dody had published it in her recent El Palacio article coauthored with Pete Pino. I recognized the sun symbol carved on the side of the chest of shallow drawers in the museum basement and also on the side of a desk that has has been traditionally called and remains in use as “the Director’s desk.” Both of these carvings differ in character from the symbol as adopted for the New Mexico state flag, with only three, not four rays. The sun on the Director’s desk has a face, with eyes and mouth. I had not realized until the Fugate/Pino article that this was precisely the decoration on the Zia pot donated to SAR in 1931 by the painter Andrew Dasburg and recently repatriated. Hudelson would certainly have known the celebrated acquisition. He would have been well acquainted with ceramics in the collection, as he would have relocated their storage on the repeated occasions when Hewett reassigned spaces in the museum buildings.

Several pieces in the art museum that have elements suggesting Hudelson’s work give evidence of being subsequently heavily reworked and/or transformed by succeeding generations of carpenters. The huge table currently occupying the location of the original table made for the Women’s Board Room, which is now in the museum lobby, appears to be a composite. The Indian motifs carved on the apron are in Hudelson’s style but they include one carved on the inside of the apron, indicating the wood was a trial piece or salvaged from another use. As in the 1917 original, the massive Solomonic spiral column legs are hand-hewn, but the overall proportions are awkward, being exaggerated in length with a single central stretcher and a shallow apron. The structure is held together with metal plates bracing the corners, unthinkable for a craftsman of Hudelson’s caliber.

Not long ago I learned that the chest with shallow drawers carved with stepped Indian motifs and sides carved with the Zia symbol had narrowly escaped plans for cutting it up for adaptive use. Some twenty years ago the museum director hesitated and consulted Robin Farwell Gavin, then curator of Spanish Colonial art at the Museum of International Folk Art. She advised him that though it was not a Spanish Colonial antique, it was a piece of real merit that might be part of the early furnishings of the museum and should be preserved. It has carving on all sides indicating that it was made to be free-standing in a place where it could be seen in the round. Its shallow drawers were probably made for the storage of works on paper, perhaps the paintings by Indian artists that were not only exhibited but also sold by the museum. It would make sense to associate the decoration of such a functional showpiece with its contents.

An Artist Too

Recently I discovered an unexpected aspect of Good Old Sam’s unsung creativity by following a lead in Kenneth Chapman’s papers at the School of American Research.7 He listed Hudelson as a participant in a two-week exhibition staged in a single alcove at the Art Gallery at the height of the controversy over “Modernist” art in 1924. The museum seemed to have no record of the exhibition, but searching through microfilm of the Santa Fe New Mexican I discovered a review titled “Astigmatic Expressionists” (February 16, 1924). While most works were given tongue-in-cheek criticism, Hudelson’s contribution received straight-forward comment. His silver-point drawing of the Devil was commended as “remarkable for its intimacy and detail.” Further it was stated, “His woman drawn with a single line also reveals this carpenter’s familiarity with his subject.”

There is so much more to be learned about Sam Hudelson, but identifying some of the furniture he made for the New Mexico Museum of Art is a first step that sheds light on this historic phase of the Museum of New Mexico as it took the lead in embracing and validating Native American creativity. Hudelson’s furniture incorporated Indian design into the evolving “Santa Fe Style.”