Truth or Consequences: Boris, and the Indian Bear Dance

Bear Dance Ceremony

There is a mural high up on the wall in the old post office in Truth or Consequences, NM. It was painted in 1940 when the Classical Revival structure was built. The painting is a Work Projects Administration (WPA) art project. The WPA was established as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal that employed people through public works projects during the Great Depression. 1,475 sketches were submitted by professional artists in a competition that resulted in the painting of 48 murals in post offices in each of the then 48 states.

The color studies that the artist Boris Deutsch made for the T or C mural, The Indian Bear Dance, are now held in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution. It’s unfortunate there is no image of the studies available since they apparently reveal a considerable change in subject matter from Deutsch’s original idea to the realized painting. The Spring 2006 edition of the Sierra County Artists Directory points out that the studies depict a Native American chief dancing out of the path of an oncoming Super Chief locomotive from the Santa Fe Railway. The locomotive from the studies is replaced by a mountain in the actual mural. The directory claims, “The balance of the final work is essentially the same as the studies.” This depends on what kind of balance you’re referring to. We cannot say because we have not seen the studies, but perhaps they do have the same compositional balance as the mural. One would not say, however, that a locomotive ironically named “Super Chief,” blazing it’s way across the continent in the name of progress and profit, with little regard for what’s in its way—geography, people and their way of life, herds of wild bison—one cannot say this provides the same balance in content as a majestic and inert mountain.

Why the original content was censored and who did the censoring remains a mystery to us. The artist, Boris Deutsch, was born in Lithuania in 1892 and deserted from the Russian Army during World War I. He became a US citizen in 1916, eventually ending up in Los Angeles where he worked in the special effects department for Paramount pictures. He died in LA in 1978. Deutsch painted two other WPA murals, The Grape Pickers in Reedley, CA, and the mural for the Los Angeles Terminal Annex Post Office. There is an interesting interview with Deutsch from 1964 in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art,  but to our dismay, the content of his murals is never discussed.

Censored or not, the WPA post office mural contest greatly contributed to the distinction of American Mural Art, now recognized as an important and well preserved aspect of 20th century cultural history. In a time of extreme economic hardship and global strife (not unlike the present), the United States government embraced the arts as an integral part of our cultural identity, not for the elite but for everyman in everyday public places. It acknowledged artistic practice as a vocation by including it in the WPA funding. Some municipalities today still have “Percent for Art” projects where a percentage of the funds for new public buildings are allocated for the arts, and the work is usually decided on by a design competition. When budgets are cut, these funds are the first to go. What do we lose when we lose our culture—when we don’t recognize its value and ensure its continued relevance and preservation—when we let it go because there’s no room and no money—when we prioritize progress and profit instead? We lose our way of life–the many different ways of life that make up our rich American culture–like the Native American chief dancing out of the way of the locomotive. And eventually we get the censoring of the image of that loss, so no one will think about what was lost anymore, and we are left instead with a nostalgia for something we don’t even really know or understand anymore. Is this the American plight?

In the midst of the divisiveness that defines our current cultural climate, we could all take a lesson from the people of New Mexico. It may be one of the poorer states in the nation, but it is rich in arts and culture with a strong sense of place and history. We’ve found stretched truths and tall tales throughout our trip, but on the whole New Mexicans seem to have embraced their complicated, multi-cultural past as an asset. They argue over land and water rights that go back further than the laws of this country. We overheard these conversations in cafes, and the random people we met commonly referred to land grants, as if we would naturally understand what they meant (and we still don’t completely understand it). We were inspired by the frankness, at street level anyway, with which people were willing to discuss difference. What we didn’t find was the politically charged bullying in which “American-ness” is gauged by race, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, or ethnicity. New Mexico’s history is full of graft, back room deals, conquest (by Spain and the US), racial cleansing, land stealing…but it seems to be embraced as fact. Perhaps America is having an identity crisis because we don’t know how to accept our real past (it goes back much further than 1776), as the New Mexicans seem to do. Instead we tend to blindly hold onto the separate idealized versions of the myth that help us make sense of the particular way we’ve chosen to live our individual lives, forgetting that there’s a whole lot more to America and Americans than our own living-rooms and bedrooms.

Even before researching the mural further and discovering its WPA/New Deal roots, there was something quirkily American about seeing a painting of a Native American ceremony, executed in a German Expressionist style, in a small town (a town named “Truth or Consequences”—think about it) post office seemingly untouched by time. The details we uncovered only add to the idiosyncratic nature of the circumstances in which the painting came to be, and in which we happened to come upon it and take notice (standing in line at a small town post office with only one clerk, delaying the day’s departure to put some overdue borrowed audio equipment in the mail). We haven’t researched the other post office murals yet, and know nothing about the artists who painted them, or their subject matter, but Deutsch’s The Indian Bear Dance seems entirely appropriate to the place where it resides. In all our praise of the state of New Mexico, which we have come to love, we are not suggesting it doesn’t have the same problems the rest of the country has, but the people who live there collectively show a general awareness that the rest of us seem to lack, of the significance of the history of their land and the blending of cultures that developed it, and that awareness does make a difference.