By Margaret McKinney
New Deal era murals at New Mexico Highlands University’s Ilfeld Auditorium were restored to their original beauty this summer, thanks to a partnership between the New Mexico Chapter of the New Deal Preservation Association and the university.
“There’s nothing else like these murals anywhere in New Mexico, and we felt they were very important to restore,” said Kathryn Flynn, executive director for the Santa Fe-based preservation organization. “The mural restoration this summer was funded through the generosity of the Stockman Family Foundation.”
The New Mexico New Deal Preservation Association provided most of the funding for the restoration project. The nonprofit organization locates and conserves public art created in New Mexico from 1933 to 1943, and also presents programs and exhibits statewide on this little-known subject.
Ilfeld Auditorium is the oldest building on the Highlands campus and is listed on both the national and state registries of historic places. Built in the imposing Romanesque Revival architectural style, Ilfeld is considered a local architectural treasure. It’s also a prime, and popular, performing arts venue.
The grand old auditorium was renovated beginning in 1996, returning it to its 1931 splendor and adding modern features like a state-of-the-art sound system.
“This mural restoration project is important because it completes the historical integrity of the building, and it’s very exciting,” said Donna Martinez, manager of Ilfeld Auditorium. “We invite the public to look at these beautiful murals when they visit Ilfeld for events.”
In 1939, Santa Fe artist Brooks Willis was hired by New Mexico’s Works Project Administration Federal Art Project to paint the murals.
The seven restored murals line the upper walls of the Ilfeld lobby. Each one depicts a different field of knowledge and includes a plaque inscribed with quotes like William Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage,” and Thomas Huxley’s “Science is trained and organized common sense.”
“These murals are an important part of the university’s artistic heritage,” said Steven Prins, the art conservator who completed the mural restoration project this summer along with his associate, Doris Welch. “The murals are painted in what’s called a graphic modernist style, and each one has four icons related to the subject matter. I’m sure they were intended to inspire the students who passed through the doors of Ilfeld.”
Since 1985, Prins has owned Steven Prins & Company, a Santa Fe art conservation studio. He earned an MFA in art conservation from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University.
Beginning sometime in the 1960s, the Ilfeld murals were covered with five or six layers of white paint. In 2004, the N.M. New Deal Preservation Association secured funding from the state legislature to hire an art conservator to uncover the murals.
Prins was hired then and completed the initial restoration, meticulously removing the thick white paint to bring the seven murals back to life.
He said this summer’s work included removing residual overpaint, clearing off the grime remaining on the surface, inpainting and restoring the images, and varnishing.
An eighth mural painted on canvas has been missing for decades, its content a mystery. The remaining plaque gives clues.
Flynn said because the Francis Bacon quote on the plaque is “Reading maketh a full man,” the mystery mural likely featured an English or education theme.
Flynn and Highlands University are interested in knowing if the missing mural still exists or if anyone can remember its appearance. If the mural isn’t found, the goal is for a new mural to be painted, perhaps by a fine arts student at the university.