If you’ve ever mailed a package at the Gunnison Post Office, you might recall a colorful creation painted on the south side of the building near the front desk. A herd of cattle is seen swirling through a sea of sage accompanied by cowboys, panhandlers, marmots, mule deer and a pair of wolves crouched above the rocky bluff. However, there’s more than meets the eye to this artistic endeavor.
The mural, titled “The Wealth of the West,” was painted by Gunnison’s Ila McAfee Turner in 1940. Back then, the Gunnison Post Office was only three years old — a project constructed during the New Deal to help spur recovery from the Great Depression.
“The sense I get from her work is a time period of the culture of the Southwest,” said local artist and Oh Be Joyful Gallery owner Nicholas Reti, who’s been at the helm of research that delves into the abundance of artists that have resided in the Gunnison Valley.
Born in 1897 in Sargents east of Gunnison, Turner grew up drawing what she knew best — horses, cows and other domestic animals. The subjects of her work depict various parts of daily life, such as cattle drives across the expanse of New Mexico and Native American ceremonies.
Soon after graduating from the Normal School (now Western Colorado University) under the tootledge of artists Henry and Catherine Richter, she met her husband Elmer Page Turner and moved to Taos, N.M.
"It was so different then," Turner said of Taos in a biography written by Robert Parsons. "The village was small and the Indians remained uninfluenced by the invaders. Once I asked one of them, ‘What did you call this country before the Europeans came?’ ‘Ours,’ he told me.”
Upon leaving the Gunnison Valley, Turner wore many hats in the realm of art, designing fabrics, wrapping paper, dishes, calendars, ceramics and even creating wood carvings. She also illustrated the cover to a book by Walter Foster called “How to Draw Horses.”
Turner was a wordsmith as well, coining small rhythmic accompaniments for many of her pieces. Her creation inside the local post office was coupled with a small poem in which she mused on what our wealth was — “the endless sage or the rushing mechanical age?”
During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised “a new deal for the American people,” through the development of government programs to foster economic prosperity. On top of adjusting interest rates, offering farm subsidies and short-term work programs, the New Deal also aimed to provide jobs to artists, writers, theater directors and musicians.
In the fall of 1935, a range of creative, educational, research and service projects was organized to preserve the skills of professional artists. Artists trained in mural, easel, sculpture and graphic art took to American cities and towns to showcase their skills.
As it turns out, Turner’s mural was commissioned as a part of the Federal Art Project to boost morale of fellow Americans experiencing hard times.
Recently, the United States Post Office recognized works of art like Turner’s from the 1930s and 40s — and memorialized the movement of Post Office murals with a Forever Stamp.
Unlike similar programs under the Department of the Treasury which sought to commission outstanding works of art, the program from which Turner was employed was intended to provide work relief for artists during difficult times.
“The organization of the project has proceeded on the principle that it is not the solitary genius but a sound general movement which maintains art as a vital, functioning part of any cultural scheme,” said Holger Cahill, who served as the national director of the program. “Art is not a matter of rare, occasional masterpieces.”
Turner’s paintings, which still auction for between $5,000 and $30,000 are among works by many pioneering women who paved the way for the art culture in Taos. The work of Turner, who died in 1995, was even featured among greats such as Georgia O’Keefe in an exhibit titled “Sirens of the Southwest.”
Turner’s painting “Mountain Lions,” another creation that came from the New Deal, is now housed in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
“I think we’re just beginning to understand the importance of Normal School (now Western) and the Southwest in terms of their influence on the arts,” added Reti.
(Kate Gienapp can be reached at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)