BY PENELOPE HUNTER-STIEBEL
How many times have you passed by the murals on your way through the courtyard to the galleries of the New Mexico Museum of Art? They are the work of Will Shuster, the creator of the giant Zozobra puppet, whose annual fiery demise takes with him the troubles of Santa Fe.
The August–September 1934 issue of El Palacio announced the series of six frescoes depicting “subjects of Indian life” as a project of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (established in 1932 and replaced by the WPA in 1935). Shuster, “consulting with Director [Edgar Lee] Hewett,” was “employing Indians as models, and . . . also using a number of paintings done by Indians, to assure the murals being authentic in design as well as in theme.”
Hewett’s high-minded program involved depicting the importance of the earth, sky, water, and emergence myth to the Pueblos, yet the small fresco on the right as you enter the gallery doors is distinctly different. Drawn to its intimate realism, I began to wonder: could Shuster’s scene of the inhabitants of a pueblo home engaged in various stages of making pottery relate to the famed San Ildefonso potter Maria Martinez?
Distinguishing the typical Pueblo overdress of the woman shaping a pot is the very same Navajo squash-blossom necklace, with a single turquoise at the top of the naja pendant, that Maria wears in numerous photographs in the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives showing her demonstrating pottery making in the courtyard of the Palace. In the New Mexico Digital Collections (a University of New Mexico online archive that includes material from the Photo Archives at the Palace of the Governors), I found two versions of a commercial lantern slide of one such demonstration by Maria, her husband Julian, and her sister that particularly recalls Shuster’s mural. One version was reversed, showing Julian, who was right-handed, painting with his left hand. This is the way the man in Shuster’s mural paints. Had Shuster held up the hand-colored film sandwiched between layers of glass first one way then the other as he sought to adapt the horizontal composition to fit the narrow wall he wanted to fill? Transposing the photograph’s outdoor scene to indoors allowed him to place Julian at a table above the two women. Further, it was the reversed image of Julian that allowed him to compact and pull Curiously, the lantern slide’s background is the patio doorway of what was then called the Art Museum, not the usual Palace of the Governors. Looking for clues in old issues of El Palacio, I found the same photo used for the covers of both the August 13 and October 22, 1927, issues and illustrating the feature article of the July 9 issue on the Summer School of the School of American Research. In 1927 over fifty postgraduate students attended courses in the history, archaeology, flora, and fauna of the Southwest as well as Indian culture.
The article reported that every day “in the Patio of the Art Museum, there is a visual demonstration of Indian arts. This week Maria Martinez, Julian Martinez and Desideria Sanchez [Maria’s sister] of San Ildefonso exemplified every step in the making of pottery, an art in which they are the acknowledged masters.”
In the mural located just behind where Maria and her family had sat to introduce the assembled students to the living fact of pueblo artistry, Shuster memorialized El Palacio’s cover story!
Penelope Hunter-Stiebel was a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Portland Art Museum before settling in Santa Fe.