Las Vegas, N.M. – For decades, seven Depression-era murals that lined the lobby walls in Highlands University’s historic Ilfeld Auditorium were missing one of their own, a blank space on the wall testified to a mysterious missing mural. The series of eight murals is complete again, thanks to a new oil painting by a Highlands student.
In 1939, Santa Fe artist Brooks Willis painted the Ilfeld murals as part of New Mexico’s Works Project Federal Art Project. In 2016, Dyna Amaya-Lainez painted a new mural based upon the clue from the missing mural’s plaque with the Francis Bacon quote “Reading maketh a whole man.”
“We surveyed public artwork of the New Deal throughout New Mexico over the years and there’s nothing like these unique murals in Ilfeld,” said Kathryn Flynn, executive director for both the National New Deal Preservation Association and the New Mexico New Deal Preservation Association. “No other New Deal public art in our state depicts both a quotation and the academic disciplines of a university.
The New Deal is the legislative and administrative program U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt designed in the 1930s during the Great Depression to promote economic recovery and social reform. New Deal programs put Americans to work in public works projects such as the Ilfeld murals.
The murals are Art Deco style oil paintings depicting different kinds of knowledge and include plaques inscribed with quotes like William Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage,” and Thomas Huxley’s “Science is trained and organized common sense.”
In 2011, the New Mexico New Deal Preservation Society funded the bulk of the money needed to restore the Ilfeld murals. Troubled by the missing mural, the society searched without success for clues about the mysterious painting. In 2015, the society held a contest to commission a Highlands art student or Las Vegas artist to paint a new version of the missing mural to complete the series.
Amaya-Lainez won the contest and $1,000 commission.
“We chose Dyna because in her color drawing mock-up she did the best job of putting together the colors and geometric shapes that are similar to those found in the other seven murals. We were impressed with her ability to replicate the work in a similar fashion to the other murals, and yet it was still her own interpretation of the ‘Reading maketh a full man’ quotation. Dyna obviously knew what she was doing,” Flynn said.
She added that the New Mexico New Deal Preservation Society is very pleased with the fine quality of Amaya-Lainez’ finished painting, saying it complements the work of the original artist.
“It’s extremely satisfying to have this mural project completed. It helps to educate the public about the artwork that was done in the 1930s that is still with us today,” Flynn said.
“My goal was to develop a painting that was as close stylistically as possible to the other murals while adding a bit of my own aesthetic,” said Amaya-Lainez, who graduated from Highlands May 14, 2016, with both a master’s degree in public affairs with an emphasis in sociology and a post-baccalaureate certificate in fine arts. “My painting needed to flow in harmony with the other paintings.”
Amaya-Lainez also earned her bachelor’s degree from Highlands in 2014, graduating magna cum laude with a double major in fine arts and sociology/anthropology.
“When I started researching the murals in Ilfeld, I knew immediately from my art history classes that the style was Art Deco, so that was my starting point. Then I took measurements of the recurring themes in each painting – like domes, geometric shapes and figures – and created a small-scale design on graph paper,” Amaya-Lainez said.
She digitized her preliminary design so she could print out multiple copies to experiment with the colors.
On one side of her painting, there’s a line drawing of a young girl sitting as she reads a book, while opposite her, a man adjusts his glasses and pores over a manuscript. The color palette is vivid with maroon, royal blue, burnished gold, chocolate brown and coal black, with each color fading into gradients of lighter hues. A large dome forms a canopy for the figures, which are framed by bold geometric shapes like rectangles and stair steps so prevalent in Art Deco. Line drawings of an open book and bookshelf complete the piece.
The painting’s center leaves space for the quotation plaque.
Flynn said that a week before Amaya-Lainez put the the finishing touches on her painting, a New Deal friend found a photograph of the eight Ilfeld murals.
“The images in Dyna’s mural were remarkably similar to the original missing mural,” Flynn said.
Amaya-Lainez said she started drawing at the age of 9 when her uncle gave her an art set for Christmas, but there wasn’t money for expensive painting supplies. The 26-year-old is a first-generation American whose family fled the bloody civil war in El Salvador in 1990. She grew up in Houston.
“It wasn’t until I came to Highlands and took fine arts classes with professor Todd Christensen that I began to learn to paint,” Amaya-Lainez said. “He was the first person who made me feel like an artist, and that my voice is worthy of being heard artistically speaking.”
Christensen said Amaya-Lainez has strong technical ability as a painter.
“Dyna’s also a highly motivated and hard working individual,” Christensen said. “It’s wonderful that one of our Highlands art students was chosen to paint the missing Ilfeld mural. I’m very proud of Dyna and what she accomplished with this painting.”
Her painting will be installed this summer in Ilfeld Auditorium, the oldest building on the Highlands campus. Listed on both the national and state registries of historic places, Ilfeld is built in the imposing Romanesque Revival style. The local architectural treasure is also a prime, and popular, performing arts venue.
The auditorium was renovated in 1996, returning it to its 1931 splendor and adding modern features like a state-of-the-art sound system.
“Doing this mural project for Ilfeld is a little like leaving my footprint on the wall of Highlands, a school that has provided me with so many opportunities. I truly love Highlands,” Amaya-Lainez said.
She said in the short term she plans to use her sociology degree to do data analysis for a nonprofit activist organization like Black Lives Matter. Amaya-Lainez said she’s also interested in interning at an art museum to test the waters of curating.
“At the end of the day, though, I want to pursue my doctorate and teach at the college level. If I can touch even one student the way my sociology professors Erika Derkas and Tom Ward touched me, I would consider myself to be successful,” Amaya-Lainez said.