What do Caballo Reservoir and Elephant Butte Irrigation District have in common with Human Systems Research (HSR) and a well known southwestern artist from the 50s and 60s? It’s a bit of a mystery, but the pastel painting depicts several men, NMSU deans as it turns out, fishing in Caballo Reservoir about 1938, right after the lake was filled.
So how did HSR acquire this artwork? Karl Laumbach, Associate Director relates, “Dr. Quentin Ford and his wife Ruth owned this piece… I haven’t taken it apart to see if there’s anything that would give any clues. Dr. Ford was a professor of Engineering at NMSU; he was head of the department and served on the state highway commission. He was born and raised in Glenwood, NM. Their families go back to the days of Oliver Lee and the movement of Texans into New Mexico, everyone coming in on wagons and all that. “
Laumbach and his wife Toni are long time friends of the Fords’ daughter Dabney Ford, a fellow archaeologist. (Toni is the recently retired Chief Curator and Deputy Director of the NM Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum) Karl and Dabney worked together early in their careers, prior to her move north to work as an archaeologist at Chaco Canyon. During the 70s the three friends often explored the Black Range searching for archaeological clues. Laumbach traces a brief history of the personal determination, educational training and will to learn of he and his colleagues, quipping, “Con ganas se puede” which translates to “With desire you can do it.” Good motto. And one that came in handy trying to find a bit of provenance about the mystery painting.
Dabney inherited her parents’ lifetime store of treasures and appreciates the Cañada Alamosa Project. Laumbach says, “Each year, God bless her, she goes through a marvelous collection of items that her parents had and some of her own and she sends us a big box for the silent auction. So that’s how this painting came to be in our possession.”
HSR provides archaeological, historical and educational services in New Mexico and the surrounding area. Ford’s donation continues a long-standing tradition begun by her parents. She didn’t know where they acquired the painting but back in the 40s and 50s Corder was well known in the southwest. HSR’s annual fund-raising event was successful; however, this particular piece did not sell. That’s when Laumbach got an idea and began some online digging to find out more.
Dabney remembered her father saying that this was a bunch of deans, Laumbach recalls, and they were fishing right after Caballo was filled. “Which would have put it about ’38,” he says, “I suspect that there’s only going to be so many deans at New Mexico State University in 1938, there’s four of them there. You might be able to isolate and guess who some of them might be. That might be an interesting connection.”
He got in touch with Silver City resident Susan Berry, researcher extraordinaire, past director of the Silver City Museum. She is the co-author with Sharman Apt Russell of Built to Last: An Architectural History of Silver City, New Mexico and has published numerous articles. Berry passed along numerous vintage news clippings about Corder. Barry says “Elene turns up in Marfa, Texas in 1935 and by 1937 she is one of many artists with work in a show sponsored by the El Paso Woman’s Club. She married Benjamin Theodore Corder, a Texan, in Eddy County, NM in 1938..In 1947 she’s described as a “Las Cruces artist” Sometime soon afterward they must have come to Silver City, as he (her husband) died there in 27 Dec. 1950.”
A Las Cruces Sun News obituary notice from May 11, 1964 included the following information, “…one of her paintings presently hangs in the lobby of the Milner-Murray Hotel.” Conversation with the Murray’s current manager has not turned up any information on this but someone reading this may remember and fill in the missing details.
Tripadvisor.com calls the building, “The most beautiful historic hotel in Silver City, the Murray Hotel is a fine example of Art Deco Streamline Moderne style.” Originally completed in 1938, the hotel fell into disrepair until renovations began in 2006 (Desert Exposure article 10/2006) and were completed in 2012.
An El Paso Times article from Oct 9, 1953, pg 16, has a photo of Elene Corder and this note: “To EXHIBIT – Mrs. Elene Moffett Corder of El Paso and Las Cruces, N.M., will show three pastel paintings in the Outdoor Art Show to be held in San Jacinto Plaza Friday and Saturday. Mrs. Corder is an active member of El Paso Artists Association.” Some of Corder’s other work includes, The Apache, Glenwood Sycamores, and Noisy River,
The artist’s obituary in the Silver City Enterprise, 6 Feb 1964 fills in a few details:
“BROOKS: Mrs. Elene P. Brooks, 66, nationally known pastel artist passed away Thursday in Silver City, where she had resided the past 18 years. She was the former Mrs. B T. Corder. Her paintings had been exhibited throughout the United States in art galleries. Some years ago one of her paintings exhibited in New York City received an award as one of the finest pastel paintings ever displayed…Before making her home in Silver City after coming to New Mexico Mrs. Brooks had resided at Glenwood and Gila.…”
“Who knows the roads that painting has traveled in its lifetime?” said Laumbach, “The more that I looked at it and the more I thought about it, I thought it really needed to have a home where its history would be both appreciated and appropriate and I thought…well we’ve got EBID right across the street. It has a chance of it being there for a long long time.”
To celebrate its 100th Anniversary last year, EBID created an interior visual display on the walls at its headquarters on Melendres St., starting with a series of large panels about Elephant Butte Dam donated by the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Museum. It turns out Toni Laumbach played a vital role in that particular NMFRM display. Historic and current photos relevant to agriculture and irrigation provide District visitors and staff with a “walk through history” and even now additional images are slated to be added. Thus, when Laumbach called to inquire whether the District would be interested in the artwork, the timing was perfect.
EBID District Manager/Treasurer Gary Esslinger made a quick trip across the street to visit with Laumbach at HSR headquarters, built by the CCC. There, he was presented with the painting and Laumbach filled him in on its provenance. After an interesting conversation comparing notes about the shared history of their headquarters, they walked out the front doors of the old building to continue their workdays. The overlapping and sometimes unusual intersection of story lines provides mystery and historical depth that the District and HSR are proud to be a part of.