Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

Hunters in Red and White

Refer to caption
Hunters in Red and White by Olga Mohr
Manitou Springs, Colorado Post Office
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

When Archie Musick was invited to paint the mural for the post office in Manitou Springs, Colorado, his selection had been the result of two key factors: his submission of sketches for a competition for a Denver post officer, and the endorsement of the painter and cartoonist Boardman Robinson. Robinson had been one of his instructors at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, where he studied alongside fellow New Deal Era muralists Randall Davey and Ernest Lawson.1

The Section of Painting and Sculpture was so impressed by Musick’s sketches, Section assistant director Edward Rowan indicated in his invitation letter if he was unable to accept this commission, he would be given the opportunity to paint at a different location in the future.2 However, despite the initial enthusiasm for Musick’s potential, the mural was delayed by criticism of his design, which ultimately lead to significant changes in the mural’s subject matter and its production techniques.

By December 12, 1941, Musick had completed his sketch for the post office, noting in a letter to Rowan that the subject of the painting was The Legend of Bubbling Springs. The springs were considered the sacred location from where the great-spirit Manitou came forth upon the earth. The legend told of the god Manitou in a fit of rage clubbing a quarrelsome Comanche chief, who had killed a Ute Indian at the site.3 In Musick’s original design, this mythological tale was to be framed by historical figures and events from the area, including images of Zebulon Pike and John Fremont – seminal figures in Colorado history.

In addition to the painting’s main theme, the artist’s sketch included a frieze of rock carvings or petroglyphs along the bottom of the design.4 He admitted in a letter to Rowan the frieze was more developed than the main subject matter; a sentiment confirmed by Section administrators in Washington, D.C.5 In his critique of the sketch, Edward Rowan noted that other than the frieze, “the only portion of this which seems well designed is in the left hand area showing the Indians and their wigwams. The rest of the design was entirely without interest.” Rowan went on to suggest Musick eliminate the majority of his sketch in favor of using the petroglyphs, not as a border but as the main subject for the finished mural.6

Musick reworked his sketch several times to comply with additional requests for changes and on-going consultation with Boardman Robinson before it was finally accepted by the Section in mid-1942. Among the concerns was inconsistency of scale of the figures, and apprehension the artist was moving too far from the two-dimensionality of the petroglyph images in favor of three-dimensional forms, particularly in his rendering of the rock formations. Musick defended his work to Rowan noting the “local sandstone rock formations stand vertical, in a number of tiers set back, one from another, sky-scraper fashion, with more or less horizontal ledges dividing the different vertical levels.” Regarding the scale of the figures he further wrote, “In the rock paintings and engravings of America, Dordogne, Altamira, South Africa and the Libyan desert, little attention was paid to scale, the artists only being concerned with whatever rock space was available.”7

By June of 1942, Musick’s full-size cartoon for the mural had been approved; the last hurdle was to arrange a time for Musick to begin painting the mural on the post office. It was unusual for a Section artist to paint directly on a wall, as murals were generally painted on large canvases, then installed at the final location. This method allowed artists to work in their studios, and avoided any distraction to regular post office operations. Nonetheless, Musick’s unique artistic medium of egg tempera and colored pencil was applied directly to the wall, an innovative technique used by the artist throughout the rest of his career.

The result of Musick’s efforts was heavily outlined figures, which created the illusion they had been carved into the rock formations. The painting, almost monochromatic in shades of brown and tan, reinforced the concept the figures were incised into the sandstone. On the other hand, the trees are adorned with green foliage and the cactus blooms with red flowers; the inclusion of this color breaks up an otherwise muted color palette.

Musick elected to retain the vignette originally singled out by Rowan of the “Indians and their wigwams.” The scene, depicted in the upper left hand corner of the composition, intended to portray Zebulon Pike’s interaction with the Indigenous inhabitants of the area, perched along the ledge of a precipice. On the face of the rock formation just below this group, the artist painted three Native American men hunting deer, bow strings pulled taut. One of the deer appears to already have been wounded as it is depicted with its front knees buckled and its head lunging forward.

Despite the flatness of the figures, Musick’s painting does include western aesthetics including perspective. By depicting the precipice receding into space, the viewer’s eye is drawn toward the background where a seated Native American man holds a spear in his right hand as he passes a pipe to a white trapper seated on the ground next to him. Further in the background, Musick included a double row of zigzag lines, which is both an abstract depiction of the mountains surrounding Manitou Springs, and an Indigenous representation keeping with the petroglyph image theme.

The precipice’s strong diagonal line also creates an implied dividing line separating the actions of the Native American hunters from the white hunters on the right half of the composition, their rifles aimed toward a buffalo, bear, deer, and long horn sheep. Beyond these figures, Musick carved the walls of a log cabin into the sandstone formation, a gnarled tree bent toward the door. Like the abstract mountains, the artist included a sun symbol reminiscent of the sun associated with Puebloan culture.

Musick’s image, with the exception the historical figure of Pike, is a creation of his imagination. His artistic style is based on ancient forms of representation found in the petroglyphs created by the Indigenous people who occupied this country long before European contact. It is interesting he elected to incorporate Indigenous art form into his mural as the final product is more influenced by the past than a true replication of it. He breaks from the abstracted figures frequently associated with ancient rock art, seemingly unable to escape western aesthetics, perhaps due to his artistic training, or maybe he was just trying to meet the expectations of his local audience. If satisfying the audience was his objective, it seems to have worked. When the painting was installed, the Manitou Springs postmaster complimented the artist’s work. “In my opinion, it is an attractive addition to the decoration of the building. Moreover it is in keeping with the early history of this region and on the whole has received much favorable comment.”8
By Denise Neil-Binion, Delaware/Cherokee Nation, PhD Candidate, Art History, University of Oklahoma



2) Edward Rowan to Archie Musick, July 30, 1941 and Boardman Robinson to Edward Rowan, n.d.

3) Frederic J. Haskins, “Legend of the Springs,” original The Salt Lake Star Telegram, September 3, 1913, reprinted, accessed June 20, 2016. In some recounting of the legend the Ute is replaced by a Shoshone., accessed June 20, 2016

4) The original sketch for the mural is house at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and can be viewed here,, accessed July 12, 2016

5) Archie Musick to Edward Rowan, December 12, 1941.

6) Edward Rowan to Archie Musick, December 20, 1941. Rowan’s use of the word wigwam as opposed to tipi which are the structures in the original sketch serve as a reminder that the Section was not always interested in historical accuracy and sometimes used generalized terms in reference to Native Americans.

7) Archie Musick to Edward Rowan, May 19, 1942.

8) Gus C. Flake to Edward Rowan, July 15, 1942.

Indians at the Post Office