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Municipal Court murals offer a blend of history and humor

Usually no one wants to go to court.

But there’s a good reason to pay a visit to Santa Fe’s Municipal Court, tucked on a side street off the busy Airport Road/Cerrillos Road intersection on the south side of town, even if you haven’t been arrested or aren’t contesting a parking ticket.

The court building’s hallway is decorated by four spectacular pieces of public art by Zara Kriegstein, a Berlin-born artist and stalwart of Santa Fe’s bohemian culture known for her murals scattered around town.

Berlin-born Zara Kriegstein was a stalwart of Santa Fe’s bohemian culture. (Courtesy of Bob Bell)

Berlin-born Zara Kriegstein was a stalwart of Santa Fe’s bohemian culture. (Courtesy of Bob Bell)

Kriegstein, who died in 2009 at age 57, is said to have been influenced by German expressionism. But that kind of talk makes the works she created for the courthouse in 1995 sound like no fun.

The panels are indeed superbly executed in an impressive, distinctive style, but there’s a lot of humor going on – anyone with even a passing interest in the history of Santa Fe or New Mexico will be amused searching out the stories jam-packed into the images.

The four panels have the grand title of The Judicial History of Santa Fe, with one big, colorful picture for each of four periods: pre-colonial New Mexico, the Spanish and Mexican period, the territorial era and statehood.

Bob Bell, a Las Vegas, N.M., ophthalmologist, art collector/patron and Kriegstein’s friend, still has the small oil paintings that Kriegstein did as studies for the courthouse series. She won a city government public art competition and was paid $40,000 for the four pieces.

“She researched New Mexico history with an eye to how to take it through different periods and turned it into this incredibly beautiful mural, which I think is one of the best and most well thought-out in the country,” Bell said.

Historical detail abounds. The Territorial Period panel, for instance, features the infamous Santa Fe Ring, the fat-cat group of attorneys and land speculators who amassed fortunes through corruption.

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In one of four mural panels by Zara Kriegstein on the walls at the Santa Fe Municipal Court, the Plaza of the 1990s is shown. Details include artist Tommy Macaione at work and the man who chipped a word off the centerpiece obelisk. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Santa Fe gambling house hostess Doña Tules, infamously a confidant to the rich and powerful, is standing over a poker game and handing money to a soldier, representing her loans that shored up the U.S. Army in the middle of the 19th century. Hooded members of the Gorras Blancas – who cut fences, and burned haystacks and homes in clashes with commercial ranchers, speculators and the railroad – invade on horseback.

The panel series is accompanied by historical essays that more or less describe what’s going on in the pictures.

The painting that seems to get the most attention is the “Statehood” panel, a compendium of recent Santa Fe history. The figures depicted include 1990s Municipal Judge Tom Fiorina, shown, as was his wont, accepting frozen turkeys for the poor as an alternative to parking fines.

The frozen poultry is piled up next to the judge’s bench while one woman offers up a live turkey with a “not guilty” tag around its neck. An opera singer whom Fiorina reportedly allowed to trade an aria for a case dismissal sings away.

For this panel, Kriegstein apparently couldn’t resist veering away from courts and justice, and showing her busy version of the Plaza from the 1990s.

The late, long-haired artist Tom Macaione, one of Santa Fe’s patron saints, dabs at a canvas on an easel. The guy who chipped the adjective “savage” before the word “Indians” off the war memorial obelisk at the Plaza’s center – vandalism considered such a good thing that the resulting hole where “savage” used to be has been left in place – is shown in the act.

A detail from one of Zara Kriegstein’s The Judicial History of Santa Fe panels shows cruisers on the Plaza. A Municipal Court administrator was the model for the woman on the car hood. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

A detail from one of Zara Kriegstein’s The Judicial History of Santa Fe panels shows cruisers on the Plaza. A Municipal Court administrator was the model for the woman on the car hood. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

There are young cruisers in a convertible – the driver is holding up a can of Miller Lite with a crumpled Budweiser can flying overhead – and a seductive blonde posed on the hood. Tourists snap a picture while a fender-bender accident takes place in the background.

The inside joke is that many people in the paintings, maybe all of them, were contemporary Santa Feans whom Kriegstein used as models. The femme fatale on the car hood was a court administrator, and the guy with Miller Lite came by the courthouse once and said he now runs a tattoo parlor. “Virtually every face is a modern New Mexican,” said Bell.

Judge Fiorina helped out, according to Bell. Turkeys were for parking tickets, but “when Zara started painting the murals and people came in with other offenses, if they wanted to avoid a fine, they would go sit for Zara,” he said. Kriegstein was quoted as saying that sometimes she would find the face she was looking for in the line for court services.

This Zara Kriegstein mural panel is intended to show justice in pre-Columbian New Mexico, including, at lower left, the offering of a slain deer to a wronged family. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

This Zara Kriegstein mural panel is intended to show justice in pre-Columbian New Mexico, including, at lower left, the offering of a slain deer to a wronged family. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Old drawings name names

Debra Garcia y Griego, director of the city Arts Commission, this week dug up documents from when Kriegstein made her proposal for the courthouse project.

There’s even a set of drawings of the panels identifying modern-day Santa Feans used as models. That’s former Mayor Debbie Jaramillo standing in for a woman who watches as a female prisoner is led on horseback through the Plaza. The woman offender has been stripped to her waist and has her hands tied behind her back; the humiliating punishment is said to have been imposed on a real person for insulting a prominent couple and is shown in the Kriegstein’s Spanish and Mexican period panel. The late Frank Ortiz, who was U.S. ambassador to Argentina and Guatemala, is in the same picture.

According to the notes on Kriegstein’s drawings at City Hall, there was also a real-life model for the half-naked prisoner, even though her face isn’t shown, only her bare back. This striking image in the foreground of the huge panel that’s installed on the wall behind Municipal Court’s front desk attracts a lot of comment, court personnel said this week.

Conflict between the pueblos and the Spanish is shown in one of Zara Kriegstein's murals.

Conflict between the pueblos and the Spanish is shown in one of Zara Kriegstein’s murals.

Kriegstein’s ex-husband, Felipe Cabeza de Vaca, is a pictured as a card player at Doña Tules’ place. The notes say Kriegstein herself is Doña Tules. In the Statehood panel, former Secretary of State Stephanie Gonzales is in line to see Judge Fiorina, but she seems to be holding a pot of food or a cake instead of a turkey.

Jon Singh, deputy court administrator, said the paintings “are a good conversation piece” and people who come to the courthouse constantly ask about them. Couples who come in to get married, including many from other states, like to have pictures taken in front of the panels. Far from Santa Fe’s art-scene neighborhoods, “we’re a tourist attraction,” Singh said.

“I like them,” said Singh, who has worked at Municipal Court for a couple of decades. “They were one of my first impressions of the court. We make sure the lighting is right.”

Bell notes that Kriegstein came up with something totally different than what may have been expected for a courthouse – no symbols, no Blind Justice with her scales. And she realized many murals painted on walls around town were being lost, so her four courthouse panels were done instead “on the finest Belgian linen she could find,” so that they could moved and saved, Bell said.

Those are also her murals on the Empire Builders hardware store on Cerrillos Road and the old state archives on Guadalupe Street.

Kriegstein, Bell said, “was one of the most creative and productive artists I ever knew.”

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