WPA and New Deal artworks are highlights of a road trip across southern New Mexico.
Each time I vote at the Otero County Administration Building in Alamogordo, New Mexico, I stare at frescoes by Peter Hurd: a shepherd holding his hand to soft rain, a farm woman and her barefoot child in a field, sorghum, and yucca, each painted between the late 1930s and 1942.
Why is this worth mentioning? Because it’s part of the numerous public artworks and buildings from a bygone era that remain scattered throughout small-town New Mexico.
In 1935, president Franklin D. Roosevelt jumpstarted New Deal and Works Progress Administration programs designed to offer economic relief and employment to end the Great Depression. The public works infrastructure projects—which employed tens of thousands of visual artists (including Jackson Pollock) as well as musicians, writers, and other creatives—included new municipal school buildings, hospitals, and post offices, many of which included murals, paintings, sculptures, and more.
For New Mexicans, drought and dust storms plagued the agriculture industry, mining and railroads drastically cut their workforces, and public grazing lands were sold to private owners. Nearly 100 years later, it’s easy to make the comparison to our current moment, with many rural New Mexicans caught in the same social, economic, and climate crises, with laborers of all trades—especially artists—desperate for public funding. Even so, many New Deal-era artworks continue to serve their intended communities.
Today, throughout the southern portion of the Land of Enchantment, one can find art deco eye candy at a small-town post office, frescoes lining the entrance of a New Mexico State University building, and a turtle pond fountain in a town that renamed itself after a radio-show dare.
My folks, my daughter, and I—curious about the state’s New Deal and WPA artworks spanning from Deming to Truth or Consequences—recently embarked on a road trip to see a few in person. I’ve also included fun facts and recommended spots for food, drink, and lodging while you’re traveling to the past.
Elevation: 4,334 feet.
Town Name Etymology: Named after Mary Ann Deming Crocker, spouse of a titan in the early California railroad industry. Deming was part of the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico in 1853 which provided a southern railroad route connecting California to the rest of the states.
Fun Fact: Deming Luna Mimbres Museum displays one of the country’s largest collections of Mimbres pottery.
Arts + Culture
Kenneth Adams’s Mountains and Yucca is located in the lobby of the Deming Main Post Office, built through New Deal programs in 1937. The mural is a pastel, geometric landscape featuring nearby Cookes Peak. The building’s entrance includes relief images of a ship, plane, and train—even the post office boxes hold Art Deco charm. Deming Luna Mimbres Museum, a former armory, boasts free admission and an impressive collection of pottery, artwork, rocks, dolls, and local history memorabilia—be sure to check out the sign for a historic walking tour of downtown Deming near the entryway. Deming Arts Center resides in a former bank building, with monthly exhibitions and events taking place at the volunteer-run gallery.
Sounds Good Café serves delicious tacos al pastor and Coke in glass bottles. Copper Kettle Coffee features a well-stocked kids’ corner—we were able to leisurely sip coffee inside of the historic building bursting with architectural wonders and large windows. Sunrise Kitchen and Irma’s Restaurant were both cozy breakfast spots filled with locals.
There is a string of RV parks along Pine Street. Little Vineyard RV Resort includes an indoor pool, playground, dog park, and more. Rockhound State Park, named for the agates and quartz crystals that folks can mine themselves, allows primitive camping.
Silver Whiskers is a tidy thrift store run by volunteers from the Deming Animal Guardians no-kill animal shelter. Readers’ Cove Used Books and Gallery, a charming pink bookstore with floor-to-ceiling stacks of local and Southwest books, has operated for a combined twenty-five years under two different owners. (The current folks are looking to sell the business as an intact bookstore.) Sexy Red Used Books, a massive metal barn on the outskirts of town in Luna County, includes rows of immaculately organized antiques and oddities. The signs leading to the barn say “Rope Walk Used Books” and owner Terry McMahan and son Seth Dreier enthusiastically showed my daughter how to manually make her own rope. Be sure to ask about their artifact from the Titanic.
Elevation: 3,900 feet.
Town Name Etymology: Spanish for “the crosses.”
Fun Fact: Much of the area’s agriculture is fed by Elephant Butte Dam near Truth or Consequences. The reservoir was built for irrigation as part of the large-scale Rio Grande Project.
Arts + Culture
New Mexico State University, much of which was built through the New Deal, displays murals by Olive Rush and Tom Lea (Thomas C. Lea III). Rush’s protozoa enliven the ceiling of the entrance to the biology department in Foster Hall. Frescoes of local flora, fauna, and people surround the walls of the entrance. The frescoes and mural were restored in 1983 and 2008, respectively. Lea, a born-and-raised El Pasoan, depicted various battles in Conquistadors and La Mesilla on view at the NMSU Branson Library. While on campus, be sure to check out the outdoor Sol Lewitt sculpture at a nearby bus stop. The gorgeous NMSU Art Museum has been in Devasthali Hall since 2019. At the time of my visit, there was a small and fantastic exhibition, Establishing our Own Art History: The Influence of Judy Chicago. The chapel-style room that houses a permanent collection of Mexican devotional retablo paintings is also worth a visit. The Las Cruces Museum of Art, adjoined to the Museum of Nature and Science, is currently hosting an American Impressionist exhibition, free of charge.
Grounded on Main Street is a hip and friendly coffee shop that offers açaí bowls in the morning and wood-fired pizza and beer in the afternoons and evenings. Spotted Dog Brewery in Mesilla boasts a delicious Hatch green chile cheeseburger, dog-friendly patio, and good brews. Little Toad Creek Brewery and Distillery in downtown Las Cruces makes a tasty Reuben and boozy ice-cream floats—there’s also a public splash pad steps away from the brewery’s patio. Paisano Cafe crafts modestly priced Mexican food: the mole enchiladas come in several varieties, but the enmoladas mancha manteles, made with pineapple, red apples, and plantains, were satisfyingly elegant comfort food.
COAS New and Used Bookstore stocks a massive location on Main Street. The knowledgeable “shelvers” were able to find my dad a revised copy of Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner in the surprisingly large “water resource management” section.
Truth or Consequences
Elevation: 4,245 feet.
Town Name Etymology: The town changed its name from Hot Springs to Truth or Consequences as part of a Truth or Consequences game show contest hosted by Ralph Edwards.
Fun Fact: Each May, T or C hosts “Fiesta” with a beauty pageant, dance, and more. Edwards, who also hosted This is Your Life, attended the Fiesta annually for fifty years.
Arts + Culture
Geronimo Springs Museum is fun and funky with large pottery, mineral and gem collections, and chronicled area histories. New Mexico artist Shel Neymark’s vibrant Las Palomas Plaza is adjacent to the museum. The New Deal-era post office houses Boris Deutsch’s mural that depicts Native ceremonial dancers in a style evocative of Native or Cubist works. This building shares the same relief of a train, plane, and boat as the Deming Main Post Office.
New Mexico State Veterans’ Home is the site of the WPA-funded Turtle Pond fountain by Eugenie Shonnard. The fountain has an uncertain future, though a conservation group is currently raising funds to safeguard the work. “Our goal is to preserve, conserve, and restore these works of art for future generations,” says Kathy Flynn, executive director of the New Mexico Chapter of the National New Deal Preservation Association. In order to respect the privacy of the people who live there, I called the administrators to schedule an official tour to see this work in person. While many of the New Deal and WPA artworks were made for the public, it was a comfort to know that Shonnard’s carved ducks and turtles were still serving their purpose of bringing joy to the building’s inhabitants close to a century later.
Ingo’s Art Cafe is a relaxed coffee shop where locals hang out. Truth or Consequences Brewing Company offers tasty brews; there is no food but you can BYO with several restaurants on the block. Pacific Grill delivered excellent service with equally great food and generous portions—and the best coconut cream pie to top it all off.
Rocket Inn is a recently remodeled retro motor inn. The simple and clean rooms face a courtyard with communal seating and mountain views across from a mission-style church. Rooms are dog friendly and come with a pet kit including extra sheets and towels. T or C has hot springs hotels galore. TV-retro-themed rooms are available at Blackstone Hot Springs, you can soak riverside at Riverbend Hot Springs, or rent a yurt at Hot Springs Glamp Camp.
Xochi’s Bookstore and Gallery is a labyrinth of rare books and other interesting materials—I walked out with a lovely David Hockney retrospective catalogue. Elephant Butte Lake State Park is only minutes from T or C with easy trails (though these are best in the early morning or in the fall when it’s not blazing hot). The lake also offers cheap RV and tent sites, fishing, and water play. A brief highlight of our road trip: a quail family with babies skirting from bush to bush.
T or C’s travel guide has an entire section dedicated to the healing arts—make sure to book a massage, pick up some crystals, or have your tarot cards read. However, if this trip is in your future, it’s certainly looking bright.