Sunday, March 21, 2021

Will Shuster’s Santa Fe (1893-1969)

The happy news of this Missive is that my wife and I went to the New Mexico Museum of Art for our first museum visit in a full year! There we saw the exhibition, “A Fiery Light: Will Shuster’s New Mexico”.  

Maybe Shuster was not the greatest painter of all time, but he was an effective visual reporter who conveyed the life and spirit of Santa Fe, its surroundings, and its communities.  He moved to Santa Fe in 1920 to recover his health after being gassed in World War I and it was here that he took up painting, mentored by the Ashcan School artist John Sloan who had become a regular visitor to New Mexico.


New Mexico became a state in 1912 and already by the early 20’s was established as an arts colony.  Five artists, one might say, were the founders of this tradition.  They were Jozef Bakos, Femont Ellis, Walter Mruk, Willard Nash and Will Shuster.  They called themselves “Los Cinco Pintores” but were known affectionately as “five little nuts in five mud huts” referring to the adobe houses they built for themselves in the Santa Fe tradition.  They lived on a road that is just above town.  Today it takes 5 minutes by car to get there, but in those days, I would guess, it took quite a bit longer.


The exhibition title, “A Fiery Light”, is particularly well illustrated in Shuster’s painting “Fire at Bustos Midway Cash Store” lent by Zaplin/Lambert Gallery. The event took place in Pecos, New Mexico, in 1947.  Pecos is a small village not far from Santa Fe.  At the time of the fire the population was about 1,200 and has not grown that much since.  Schuster captured the small-town drama vividly.


The story of Santa Fe is that of three cultures, Native American, Hispanics and Anglo.  Only this past year’s Covid restrictions prevented Santa Fe’s annual Spanish Market and Indian Market which are both sales and commemoration events. Members of all cultures are welcomed to most dances in the nearby pueblos under certain rules of respect.   Although photography, and even sketching, by non-tribal members is no longer allowed there was no such concern in Shuster’s day. Here is his 1929 depiction of The Santo Domingo Corn Dance that the artist donated to the Museum.


Shuster’s “Sermon at the Cross of the Martyrs” of 1934 from the Museum’s permanent collection portrays the religious devotion of the Hispanic community. Today the hilltop cross is a tourist attraction for the panoramic view of Santa Fe it offers but it was created for a much more serious reason. It was erected to commemorate the death of 21 Franciscan friars during what is known as the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, a successful indigenous rebellion against Spanish colonial occupation of what is now New Mexico. On Fiesta weekend in September a candlelit procession to The Cross of the Martyrs from Saint Francis Cathedral occurs after a special Mass.


Santa Fe wouldn’t be Santa Fe without Zozobra, referred to as “Old Man Gloom”. Everyone is invited to contribute records of their misfortunes to be stuffed into the giant puppet recreated every year whose burning prior to Fiesta is a cathartic celebration. Believing that an event was needed to bring all parts of the community together Shuster created Zozobra in 1924 with the help of his friend, artist and puppeteer Gustave Baumann. With Newspaper editor E. Dana Johnson, they came up with the name Zozobra by picking a word from a Spanish-English dictionary that means “anguish, anxiety and gloom”.  No crowds were allowed to gather this past year to chant “Burn him, burn him” but Santa Fe’s worries and troubles went up in flames with Zozobra, nonetheless. Here is “Viva La Fiesta” a model of the event created by Luis Tapia in 1996 as well as an image of the actual burning.