J. R Willis Artwork a call for its Rightful Home in Otero County.
Citizens with a nod toward historic preservation call on the Otero County New Mexico Commissioners and the Administration of Otero County and Otero Arts to please return the original paintings by J. R. Willis presently housed in an office at the Otero County Building back to their proper home at the Alamogordo Women’s Club leased under the direction of Otero Arts.
The property of 1118 Indiana “the Alamogordo Womens Club” received the designation to the National Register and as such the property received funding and has national protections under the National Registry.
The original application and approvals to that funding was contingent upon the building remaining in original context of look, feel and public use and that the “focal point the original fireplace with the paintings intact and on display.”
The Alamogordo Woman's Club is a one-story building located at the southeast corner of 12th Street. Since it’s construction as a Works ProgressAdministration (WPA) project in 1936, it has been in continuous use as a gathering place for many of the community's social and voluntary activities and is considered a landmark within the city located at 1118 Indiana now operated under a volunteer lease agreement by Otero Arts.
“Typical of many of the public works projects undertaken during the New Deal in New Mexico, the building incorporates a number of details and materials associated with the Pueblo Revival style, including the locally manufactured adobe blocks used in the building's construction. Featured prominently within its main hall are to remain three paintings done by J. R. Willis, a Federal Arts Project Artist in New Mexico. The building retains its original appearance and continues its historic function within the community,” per the National Register of Historic Places application for Federal Funding and the National Register Documentation.
At present the paintings which per the registry are to be housed at the property at 1118 Indiana are located at the County Building.
Per a description of the property per the National Register…
“The interior measures approximately 3,220 square feet and includes nine rooms. In addition to the large auditorium, a kitchen, two conference rooms, a checkroom, a storage room, a small foyer at the rear entrance. Two entrances flanking the checkroom offer entry for grand marches at dances from the conference rooms into the auditorium. The auditorium retains its original oak floor and ceiling fixtures.
Its focal point is a 3 x 4-foot stone fireplace with an eight-foot long concrete hearth and massive stone mantle. Two large paintings done by Federal Arts Project artist J.R. Willis and purchased by the Alamogordo Woman's Club when the building was formally opened flank the fireplace while a third smaller painting, also by Willis, is located above the mantle. The three paintings are considered as a contributing resource.
Both of the large canvases depict fall scenes with adults and young people. One portrays an Apache family on horseback climbing a wooded slope with Sierra Blanca in the background. The other depicts a mother and child in an upland Hispano village.
The building is set along the edge of an older residential district at the northeast corner of the city's early downtown commercial district. A few trees and evergreen bushes on the south lawn where the building's sign is located as well as along the front elevation, integrate the property with surrounding residences. The scale of the building, its setting on the property, and its relatively unaltered appearance contribute to its feeling as a woman's clubhouse and community hall dating to the first half of the 20th century.”
Now that the building is in constant use and management is by an artisan focused tenant and to comply with the National Register designation the artwork should be on display to the public at its intended home.
The Alamogordo Women’s Club met at the Masonic Temple and at the First National Bank of Alamogordo at the present day Roadrunner Emporium, built the library originally located behind Roadrunner Emporium at the present day Blush Hair Salon. And they sought a building of their own. Their quest appeared in the form of a WPA project sponsored by the Otero County Commission. After George Abbott, attorney for the Alamogordo Improvement Company, in 1935, gave the club the title to land with the provision that the Alamogordo Woman's Club would serve as the building's agent, making it available to all civic groups.
The commission then applied for a WPA grant that was granted in March, 1936. Totaling $5,875, the grant provided for relief-eligible workers to construct the building with the county furnishing materials such as the building's adobe bricks and vigas.
Most likely designed by the project foreman, as were other WPA- funded women's clubs in New Mexico, the project began slowly, prompting the club president to write to fellow-NMFWC member Carrie Tingley, wife of Governor Clyde Tingley, asking her "to talk the matter over with the governor" (Tingley WPA File 1936).
In the letter she compared the building to the one in Albuquerque where Mrs. Tingley was a member, noting that it is "really to be a community building, to take care of all women's and young people's activities, and for the use of any organization which has need for it."
By late that year the building was approved and building began. On May 6, 1937 the building was dedicated. An exhibit of paintings by J.R. Willis of Albuquerque marked the occasion, the club purchased two of his works to always flank the fireplace. Club minutes noted by the National Register application for designation note of that first meeting; “with the dedication of the important artwork and of Aubrey Dunn, son of the club president and, later, speaker of the New Mexico House of Representatives, sang "Alice Blue Gown" with his nine-year old soprano voice.” ( Alamogordo Woman's Club 1999:np).
The artist J R Willis was a significant artist of his time period…
J.R. Willis is best known for his Indian photographs and paintings and Southwestern landscapes. During the winters, he spent time in the Miami, Florida area where most of his brothers, sister, and mother lived, and from there, he made frequent trips to Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic where he did landscape painting. He also made frequent painting trips to Mexico and at least one trip to Guatemala, Central America.
The artist, known as J.R., was born in Goloid Community Screven County, Georgia, near Sylvania, on the 24th of November, 1876. He died December 30, 1960 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He married Tempie Easterling of Reidsville, Georgia in 1899. They had three daughters and were divorced. In 1916, he married Violet Powell of Ontario, Canada.
Willis traveled throughout the Southeastern part of the United States where he took advantage of the beauty of the region to paint many portraits and landscapes. Near the end of his life, he was faced with failing eyesight, but continued to paint until the time of his death.
His career began as a political cartoonist during the Spanish American War. He worked at the "Atlanta Constitution" before going to New York to study art about 1908. Then he went to California, where he was a pioneer in the cartoon industry. He also spent 10 years as a "chalk talk" artist in vaudeville.
In 1917, he was booked at a theater in Gallup, New Mexico when the owner of the theater died of influenza. Willis bought the theater and established a photography studio in Gallup. In 1931, he moved to Old Town, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and in 1938, he built his home and studio at the corner of Rio Grande and Alhambra Drive South West in the country club district of Albuquerque. The property is now a bed and breakfast known as "Casa de Suenos."
Willis was known as the "Aspen King" because of his many paintings of the beautiful aspen trees which turn a golden color in the fall of the year. He was also known for his portraits of American Indians, principally of New Mexico and Arizona. His work was realistic. Photography was another medium for which he was well known. Many of the photographs were used to make view- master reels and post cards, which have become quite collectible today.
In addition to the Albuquerque Museum, his work is found in a Japanese museum in Imabari, Shikoku and a museum in Valledupar, Cesar, Colombia, South America. Many pieces of his work are in private collections in this country and Germany.
His style is very similar to Frederic Remington and Charles Russell. He studied with Robert Henri in New York.
He was a legend in Albuquerque. He was a slim gent with a small mustache. He wore capes. He twirled canes. He smoked Pall Malls (cigarettes) in an ivory holder. He loved, more than anything, to discuss his paintings. Albuquerque old- timers, who were fascinated by his foppish bearing, remember him. He had flair, a flakiness that today would be considered weird. J. R. Willis was just different. Some referenced him as a “dandy.”
He was foremost an artist. He came from the Southeast to chronicle the Great Southwest.
Alamogordo and Otero County is fortunate to be in procession of a few of his works and they deserve to be on public display and housed at their intended and original location 1118 Indiana Avenue. We call on Otero County administration and Otero Arts to collaborate and return these original pieces to their proper home for public display and appreciation.
Sources: Concerned Citizens and Advocates for the Arts, Chris Edwards & Rene Sepulveda, 2nd Life Media, 1209 New York Ave, Alamogordo, New Mexico, National Register of Historic Places, Alamogordo Daily News. Various issues, 1997, Alamogordo Woman's Club Centennial History Committee Notes, History Report on the Alamogordo Woman's Club. Alamogordo Woman's Club Centennial History Committee, 1999.
Glisson, Ruth. Interview with David Kammer, November, 2002. New Mexico Federation of Women's Club. Annual Yearbooks and Bulletins, 1911-1930. Housed in the Museum of New Mexico History Library,Reflections 1991. Tingley, Clyde. WPA Correspondence 1935-1938. Housed in the Governor Clyde Tingley Manuscript Collection at the New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, Adobe Gallery.