Down in the foothills of a chain of mountains that looks like northern New Mexico sits an incongruous white dome with a slender spire — steeple? minaret? neither? — stretching into the sky.
And that’s not the only mystery in the mural, one of two painted in 1936 on the walls of the cafeteria at the New Mexico School for the Deaf.
Kathryn Flynn, who rallies conservation of such artworks through the National New Deal Preservation Association, said she knows almost nothing about Edma Pierce, whose blocky signature marks the bottom right of both murals.
The only other place she has found the name is among 43 artists who worked on the “Portfolio of Spanish Colonial Design,” which includes 50 images of objects significant to that tradition. That New Deal/Works Progress Administration project, done in 1938, spanned all 50 states, with artists putting together images particularly relevant to local culture and traditions.
It’s possible that Pierce came from Carrizozo and studied art at the University of New Mexico around 1937, but a 1947 article in New Mexico Magazine refers to her as being at student at New Mexico State University, according to Flynn.
So who was she, and what the heck was that domed and spired structure doing in a mural titled “New Mexico Mountains”?
“No one has been able to identify the source of that (domed image),” said Steve Prins, who added that, to him, it looks somewhat Southeast Asian. Just this month, he finished conservation work on that mural and its partner, “New Mexico Range Land,” which shows a mounted cowboy surveying cattle, a windmill and a distant adobe dwelling amid yucca and a sweeping mountain background. These, at least, look as if they might fit a scene somewhere in the southern portion of the state.
In the other scene, while the mountains could be in New Mexico’s el norte, many of the trees have a profile with a Mediterranean feel.
As for the dome, Prins said with a puckish gleam in his eye, “an alternative explanation is that it’s a UFO.”
Conservation work on the murals, each about 45 by 122 inches, is part of $551,000 in preservation work the New Deal Preservation Association has sponsored since its founding in 1998, according to Flynn. In this case, the conservation of the murals marks their 80th anniversary and they had remained in surprisingly good shape over that time, Prins said.
“The best we can tell, they were painted directly on the plaster,” he said, making them unlike others that were completed on a canvas in a studio and then glued to a wall. There might have been a primer coating, with oils painted on to create the image. “Until this time, they’ve never been varnished before to protect them from all the traffic,” he said.
Considering they are in a school cafeteria, Prins added that he was a little surprised to see very little food grime on them and no evidence of graffiti. “It’s a reflection on the good behavior of students in this institution,” he said, explaining that his work mainly involved cleaning the images, with only a little replacement of chipping paint.
Evidence suggests that the images, now bare on the walls, were previously under Plexiglas and framed, said Flynn, adding that school officials had indicated an interest in having students gain vocational experience by replacing those missing elements.
In good condition
The murals by the mysterious Edma Pierce aren’t the only ones from the Depression’s job programs at the school. Four paintings by artists well-known to the area, such as Fremont Ellis and Sheldon Parsons, grace the walls of the superintendent’s residence. “They’re beautiful,” Flynn said.
Prins added that those paintings, too, are in generally good condition, but could use a cleaning.
Not long after its founding, the Preservation Association hired a California conservator to find and record artwork in New Mexico that resulted from the federal programs, focusing on buildings from the period. “He said he had never seen such quality or quantity of works with no graffiti,” Flynn said.
One artwork, a piece at Clayton High School in northeast New Mexico, showed some male genitalia added to a depiction of Santa Fe Fiestas, she said, adding that those additions have been removed.
Clayton High School has 26 New Deal artworks, she said, but that is topped by 37 at Melrose.
Over in Las Vegas, N.M., an unveiling of a replacement artwork is coming up at 3 p.m. Thursday at Ilfield Auditorium on the campus of New Mexico Highlands University. Prins had done work there to uncover seven murals by Brooks Willis that had been buried under five to six coats of white “and hospital green” paint, and discovered that an eighth scene was missing from a panel in the building.
A Highlands student, Dyna Amaya-Lainez, won a competition staged by the Preservation Association to create a new image under the known title of the missing one: “Reading Maketh a Whole Man,” a quotation from Francis Bacon. Since that time, though, a drawing of the missing mural was found, and it’s amazing how similar it is to the replacement, Flynn said.
Anyone who wants to donate to preservation work done by the association, or who can give more information about Edma Pierce or the white dome in her mural, can contact the association by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 505-473-3985. The association’s website is newdeallegacy.org.