Decorated shovels project promotes preservation of art created as Depression-era jobs program

Santa Fe is a hotbed for art. Yet, you might not think about it as a place rich with 1940s works created under the New Deal. Kathy Flynn thinks about it all the time. And she is determined to save it all.

"It belongs to you and me," says Flynn, a retired state worker who serves as director for the National New Deal Preservation Association.

Robb Rael
Robb Rael | Robb Rael

Started in the 1930s to combat unemployment during the Great Depression, the New Deal was a series of programs implemented under the leadership of President Franklin D Roosevelt. Workers of all sorts found jobs on the federal payroll to build roads and public facilities. Other got federal jobs making craft and art.

Today, the fruits of some of that labor can be found on the walls of post offices, courthouses and other unexpected places of government.

"No one notices the art in government buildings," says Flynn.

The association dispatched an expert to tour the state, find the work and determine how well it was being taken care of. For example, both the downtown post office and federal courthouse in Santa Fe feature artwork by artists Gerald Cassidy and William Penhallow Henderson.

New Deal preservation and education includes more than hanging on to old art. Sometimes it means adding a new take. For example, student Dyna Amaya Lainez recently won the right to reimagine a portion of destroyed New Deal paintings in the Ilfeld Auditorium's lobby at Highlands University in Las Vegas, NM. The eight paintings, which showcase different areas of knowledge and are accompanied by a quote relating to the field of study, were restored a few years ago after being covered up with white paint, but the last one was lost, hence the need for Lainez's re-creation.

"Honestly, it's a very daunting task," she says. "I've never truly considered myself an artist, so to be part of such a serious established organization, it's extraordinary."

The artwork, which will be revealed soon, is meant to relate to the phrase "reading maketh the man," and Lainez says that she took inspiration from the shapes and colors of the original artist, as well as adding some "feminist humor" to the piece by including a female figure.

To date, the association has spent more than $550,000 preserving artwork around the state, the funds coming from the Legislature and private funds. But there's much more to be done, and that requires more money.

That's why the group has been gearing up for a fundraiser on Friday, June 5. Not your typical gala with wine and tiny snacks, this one is more down to earth, with art you can take home on a not-so-normal canvas.

"Shovels," says Flynn, carefully handling and showing off an impressive collection of garden-shovels-turned-artwork at her house. "It's the focus, the symbol, of the hard work."

Kelvin Lopez
Kelvin Lopez | Kelvin Lopez

The artwork on the shovels ranges from oil paintings to light-catching glasswork to fire-carved face etchings. Some artists have chosen to incorporate the shovel handle into the artwork, such as one vibrant painting by Robb Rael of an adobe village with stars ascending up the handle. A few even created sculptures from the framework of the shovel, such as a creative cat face with a chimney sweep tail.

The artists involved are enthusiastic about conserving America's past artwork, and they include the likes of Paul Barnes, who recently produced Ken Burns' documentary on the Roosevelts.

"It's an important part of America's historical legacy and cultural legacy," says Barnes, whose shovel art is a mixed-media interpretation of the New Mexican flag.

Paul White, a local glasswork artist, agrees and highlights the government's crucial role in stepping in to preserve artists' careers.

"We need to always be aware of how art is so important and was supported in the past," White says. "Art is what makes life worth living."

The majority of contributing artists are local, but there are a few whose names may be familiar outside of Santa Fe. One name in particular that stands out is Arlo Guthrie, who signed a shovel for the event after a recent concert.

To raise awareness for the auction, several local businesses displayed shovels in the week leading up the fundraiser, including Chocolate Maven and several Canyon Road galleries. And another business, Payne's Nursery, helped out by providing the tools in the first place.

While technically they’re all still functional shovels, organizers hope their fate is now likely living room corners and business lobbies rather than outdoor projects.

Paint Your Shovel Auction
5-8 pm Friday, June 5, $10
Scottish Rite Center
463 Paseo de Peralta