One of the many things I enjoy about my job is that I am always learning. In November of 2012 I received an email from a patron looking for a mural by the artist Clifford B. West Jr. According to the patron it was commissioned in 1942 by the Alamosa National Bank in Alamosa, Colorado. A quick look in our database told me that we did in fact have this mural; the database told me little else. Fortunately, the patron looking for information turned out to be the wife of the late artist. In the months that followed I learned a great deal about West and the mural in our collection.
Clifford B. West Jr. was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1916. By 1920, he and his family had moved to Colorado where his father was working as a real estate agent. By 1930, his family had entered farming and ranching in Colorado. These early years in Colorado greatly influenced West Jr. and his art. West Jr. went on to receive his B.A. from Adams State College in Alamosa, Colorado, and later graduated from the Cleveland School of Art prior to receiving his M.F.A. from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
Titled The Story of Man and the San Luis Valley, this mural was West's first major public commission. The five part mural is painted in casein on a gesso size on canvas and measures almost 10 feet high by 42 feet wide. West Jr. worked on the mural approximately eight months and completed it in 1943. The mural was then installed at the Alamosa National Bank. It was donated to History Colorado in 1961 by Anne Wood, the artist's sister.
As public art meant to teach, the mural depicts in five scenes the history of man and the San Luis Valley in Colorado; the Rio Grande River runs through each scene, uniting the images and highlighting the importance of water in the Valley. While researching the mural I found the following description (unfortunately the article is not dated and there is no author to credit):
"This is the story of man and the San Luis Valley. The central panel represents the idea of created appearance of man, the mountains, the elements of the sun and moon, the trees and the Rio Grande River.
"The river furnishes its water for the cattle and sheep as well as for the man who builds his home. These incidents are shown in Panel No. 2, as well as the representation of the early law and order of the Valley.
"The surging force of the river must be intelligently harnessed by the engineer and his helper before the farmer can get his allotted proportion to irrigate his crops. This river is also the playground for the fisherman and the hunter. After it has played its part in the San Luis Valley it disappears into the mountains of New Mexico, wends its way through Old Mexico and eventually empties into the Gulf.
"The river played its part in the discovery and settlement of the San Luis Valley between 1500 and 1600. The Conquistador riding his horse, which he introduced to the Indians, followed the river from its mouth to its source. The priest representing the church, the frontiersmen representing the pioneer spirit both play their part in the settlement of the Valley.
"The mining industry which was early opened in this district, especially in Creede, was also a strong force in the building of the physical and economic structure of the Valley. The spirit of adventure was not always good. Bob Ford met his untimely death at the hands of one of the members of the James gang in a saloon in Creede. His bereaved widow following the funeral procession is one of the two incidents incorporated in Panel No.5."
While researching this piece, I shared with the patron photographs of the mural; they were the first in color that she had ever seen. She is currently working on finding family photographs of her husband working on the mural. My conversations with this patron have brought to light a wonderful piece in our collection, resulted in new information about the piece (including photographs of the artist), and reconnected the piece with the artist's family.
Alisa Zahller, Senior Curator for Artifacts - Curator, Art & Design
History Colorado, April 2013
Images: The Story of Man and the San Luis Valley, Clifford B. West, Jr. [History Colorado H.6390.1.A-E]
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Stephen H. Hart Library and Research Center
History Colorado Center
Denver, CO 80203