By Aubrey Hobart
Curator of Collections
Roswell Museum and Art Center
One doesn’t often think of museums as places where surprising things happen, but I like to think that the Roswell Museum and Art Center (RMAC) has provided a lot of surprises for visitors and staff alike over the last 83 years. We were certainly surprised recently, when a 100-year-old artwork turned out to be hiding something magnificent.
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While RMAC has been closed to the public, we’ve been working on many long-term projects that we never had time to complete before. One of these projects is the reorganization of the artworks hanging in the vault. When they’re not out on view in the galleries, our canvas paintings hang vertically on screens, but sometimes the organization of the screens leaves us scratching our heads. We often find big heavy paintings hanging at the top of a screen or on the back side, while the smaller, lighter works take up the prime space. So the collections team, made up of Amberly Meli and Flannery Barney, decided to move everything around in order to make access easier for us all in the future.
It was during this process that Barney came across part of the Mr. and Mrs. Robert O. Anderson collection of Native American art that was gifted to the museum in 1993. This collection consists of jewelry, pottery, katsina — a.k.a. kachina or tithu — dolls, and pre-Columbian ceramics from Mexico. There are also about 20 watercolors that mostly date from the 1920s to the 1940s, and these are what Barney found hanging on a screen in the vault. As an art conservator, she is well aware of the fact that works on paper like these should not be framed and hanging for long periods of time. Gravity, acid burn and light damage are all possible dangers of this kind of storage, so she decided to de-frame these objects and store them properly in drawers. This is good, standard practice and would have the added benefit of freeing up some space on the screens we’re trying to rearrange.
After removing the frames from several of the paintings, Barney began work on the piece illustrated on this page. Unfortunately, we don’t know too much about it; there is very little information in our files. The artist is unknown, but we presume male and self-taught based on his style. From the title, “Shalako Katchina,” we also assume that the artist is from the Zuni Nation, as they are the only people who practice the Shalako winter solstice/harvest rituals, but there’s no indication as to how we know the title; it’s possible that the Andersons bought this work directly from the artist and he told them the subject matter. Either way, it’s a charming watercolor full of movement, color and pattern. I especially love the two people looking out the window at the costumed dancer.
However, when Barney disassembled this piece, it became obvious that it had not been removed from its frame in decades — not even when it first arrived at RMAC. The matting was old and stained, the work was affixed to the mat with clear scotch tape, which is not considered safe practice anymore because of the chemicals in that kind of tape, and no previous staff members appeared to have found or noted anything about what was on the back of the picture. Barney discovered that the work had been painted on the reverse of an old silent-movie poster.
Specifically, the film was called “The Humming Bird,” starring Gloria Swanson — it was released in January 1924. The film’s story is about a young woman who dresses like a boy, while she runs a thieves’ guild in Paris. An American reporter decides to aid the police in tracking down this notorious thief known as the Humming Bird.
“The reporter falls in love with the thief Toinette when he finds out she’s a woman. The Great War (World War I) breaks out, the reporter enlists, and Swanson’s character inspires her gang to fight for France. Toinette, arrested as she is giving her spoils to the church, is imprisoned. When she hears that Carey has been badly wounded, she escapes and is reunited with him. Carey recovers, and Toinette receives the War Cross for her work in recruiting some heroic soldiers.”
I’ve done some research and there are movie posters and theater cards that still exist for this film, but I haven’t found a single one that looks like the poster we have in our collection. It’s entirely possible that this is the last one in the world, preserved by chance only because an artist chose it as his canvas nearly a hundred years ago. We don’t yet know how he got his hands on this poster. In very faded letters, it appears to read the “Rey Theater” but the Historic El Rey Theater in Albuquerque wasn’t built until the 1940s. I’ve found nothing in New Mexico or Arizona with a similar name from the ’20s.
From the 1860s to the very early 1900s, there was a tradition of Native American artists using whatever paper they could find as canvases for their work. Most famous are the ledger drawings of the Plains peoples, painted on lined pages that shopkeepers and accountants used to keep track of money long before calculators and computers, but I’d never heard of an artist using the back of a movie poster before. He might not be alone, though. As Barney continued deframing the works from the Anderson collection, she found another piece that appears to have been glued to the front of an old advertisement. It’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to see that image without destroying the art on top, but these two examples may inspire other museums to start looking a little more closely at their own collections of early 20th century Native American art and broaden our understanding of this field.