Food on every plate, art on every wall

  If I were asked to state the great objective which Church and State are both demanding for the sake of every man and woman and child in this country, I would say that that great objective is "a more abundant life."
      —Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933

What would New Mexico be without its wind-worn mesas, without the scent of dew-spotted sage at dawn on a summer morning? That same question might be asked of some of New Mexico’s other simple, yet spectacular, hallmarks: The murals, etchings, pots and textiles that grace many of the state’s post offices, libraries, hospitals, courthouses and schools.

Such works of art grace "common" walls because President Franklin Delano Roosevelt recognized that the loss of hope and inspiration was as devastating as barren fields and defaulted loans during the Great Depression. From 1933 to 1943, as part of the New Deal, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) employed artists to train unemployed men and women to create art that would represent the lives of everyday Americans — and hang, not in art galleries or private collections, but in municipal buildings where they could be enjoyed by rich and poor alike.

Although artists across the country participated in the program, in A More Abundant Life: New Deal Artists and Public Art in New Mexico, Jacqueline Hoefer focuses solely on New Mexico — a state as well-known for its crippling poverty as its Indian, Spanish and Anglo arts traditions. Hoefer explains how the program worked in New Mexico, where, during the teens and twenties, Taos and Santa Fe had become meccas for artists. By the 1930s, those artists, like most New Mexicans, were hungry: Only those on welfare could be hired as WPA teachers, and though mural-painting was initially the most popular medium, craftsmen also taught furniture-making, tin work and architectural drawing. And it wasn’t just "artsy" towns that benefited: Program administrators set up art centers in such far-flung communities as Gallup, Las Vegas, Melrose and Roswell, giving public lectures, offering classes and, as one Taos painter said, making "art okay for everybody."

Hoefer’s book includes three interviews — with Gene Kloss, a University of California graduate who moved to Taos and taught etching, Eliseo Rodriguez, a Santa Fe native born in 1915, who left his job digging a sewer line to become an artist, and Pablita Velarde. Born and raised at Santa Clara Pueblo, Velarde worked for the WPA at Bandelier National Monument, bringing the archaeological ruins alive with her paintings of pueblo life.

In today’s world of slashed social programs and anemic arts endowments, it seems unthinkable that the federal government once trained people to carve wooden saints, revive the art of Navajo weaving, and paint scenes of rural life. But in the 1930s, Roosevelt had the vision to create a program that not only placed food upon peoples’ tables, but instilled a sense of pride in the artists it trained and the communities it benefited. Despite poverty and despair, beauty was allowed to flower and bear fruit, to spread its roots across the state, reaching into such unlikely places as the public schools of the eastern plains, the Raton City Hall and the Deming Post Office.

A More Abundant Life: New Deal Artists and Public Art in New Mexico
Jacqueline Hoefer
195 pages, softcover $45. Sunstone Press, 2003