In the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt instituted a number of New Deal programs designed to pull America out of the Great Depression. One such program, the Public Works of Art Project, left a legacy that still lingers in a few special Oklahoma locations, including the third floor of the Oklahoma Judicial Center. The historic paintings by Kiowa artists Monroe Tsatoke and Spencer Asah recently underwent conservation work to ensure visitors will enjoy them for the next 80 years and beyond.

Tsatoke’s plans called for ten separate panels painted directly on the walls of the Oklahoma Historical Society. According to Nan Sheets, director of the PWAP at the time, the artists were required to purchase their own supplies before being paid for their commission. This combined with Tsatoke’s inexperience in working with this medium led him to make some unusual choices in art supplies.

“These Indian artists used tempera paints,” Sheets said in an oral history interview done in 1964. “They had never used oil paints.” She went on to relate going to ATA Equipment Company in Oklahoma City and helping Tsatoke pick out paints and palettes. “He got a great kick out of it because it was a new thing for him.”

In addition to vibrant colors and intricate detail, the images Tsatoke selected for the panels make a bold philosophical statement about Native American life. In particular, the Secotan hunter from the year 1650. The Secotan tribe flourished in what is now the Carolinas and greeted the Roanoke settlers in 1587. The relationship between English settlers and the Secotan declined from friendly curiosity to all-out warfare, coupled with epidemics that decimated the population. By 1650, the Secotan tribe had all but disappeared as their lands were taken over by English settlers. By including the Secotan with the other tribes that were relocated to Indian Territory in the 1800s, Tsatoke may have been warning Oklahomans that the Kiowa, Cheyenne, Comanche, Osage, and Choctaw were all in danger of a similar fate. The years listed with each tribe are all subsequent to treaties relinquishing substantial tracts of tribal lands.

While working on the murals, Tsatoke’s health declined when he developed tuberculosis. At the Historical Society, he completed paintings of six Native American individuals: a Kiowa dancer, a Kiowa chief, a Kiowa mother and child, a Comanche medicine man, a Cheyenne flute player, an Osage hunter, and two of his family shields. After Tsatoke died in 1937, fellow Kiowa artist Spencer Asah completed the two remaining panels: the Choctaw stick ball player and the Secotan hunter.

For more than twenty years, the murals greeted school children on field trips, scholars, and Oklahoma Historical Society employees. In the late 1950s, the paintings of Tsatoke and Asah were threatened.

“Not too long ago, they were painting the walls, and they were just ready to repaint over these murals, and they’re priceless, because some of these artists have passed on,” Nan Sheets said in a 1964 interview. Someone in the building called to tell her about the planned painting. “I had to take it upon myself to not permit that to be done. They said, ‘well, the walls are dirty.’ And I said, ‘Well, you paint around that mural.’” Sheets was determined that Tsatoke’s murals would not suffer the same fate as the ones created by Acee Blue Eagle at what is now the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond. Workers painted over his artwork and those murals were lost forever. Sheets persuaded the Oklahoma Historical Society director to have the murals repaired, instead of painted over.

Over the years, attitudes changed and Tsatoke’s murals were recognized as priceless works of art. In 1985, a special exhibit highlighted the mural figures and Tsatoke’s family shields. Conservation efforts began in 2000 when flaking paint samples were chemically analyzed by the University of Delaware. When the Oklahoma Historical Society moved to its new building in 2005, steps were immediately taken to protect and preserve the paintings. Physical barriers were set up to shield the works from dust and other debris associated with construction. Not until the Oklahoma Judicial Center was completely renovated in summer 2011, did the barriers come down to reveal the historic images beneath.

At that time, a team of conservators led by Helen Houp were brought in to ensure Tsatoke and Asah’s murals would endure another 80 years and beyond. Her goal was to preserve rather than restore.

“We restrict our repairs to the area of loss, so we save as much of the original as possible,” she said. Their work revealed at least two previous generations of repair and repainting and in many cases the repair was not an exact match to the original work. Art conservation is a relatively new field – the American Institute of Conservation was founded in Cooperstown, New York in 1972. Since then professional conservationists have followed their guidelines when preserving art. This involves gathering as much information about the piece as possible, documenting the work with photographs and written reports and using synthetic paints that are easily reversible.

Instead of using brushes and palettes, the conservationists used dentist type tools, cotton swabs, adhesives and colored pencils. In spots where the paint was flaking, they used adhesive to encourage the original paint to adhere to the wall. “In the past, they would just repaint the whole hand rather than trying to match a color,” Houp said as she worked on the figure playing stick ball.

Conservator Anne Rosenthal said they think of themselves as art detectives as they search for data about the original work. She was especially excited about a plaque mounted below the Kiowa dancer’s image. “We popped the plaque off and boom, there was the 1934 wall right there. Little clues like that help us work out how the artist worked.” Exposing a sample of the paint that had been Tsatoke’s canvas helped them determine what his work would have looked like when he originally completed it. Rosenthal’s family has a long history of capturing moments in time: her father, Joe Rosenthal took the iconic photograph of Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima. Sculptor Felix de Weldon used Rosenthal’s picture to design the Marine Corps War Memorial near Arlington National Cemetary.

Houp and Rosenthal also spent time talking with Ida Luria Asah Jones, daughter of Spencer Asah, who completed the last two figures after Tsatoke’s death. As a child, Jones accompanied her father when he painted murals in a gym at Fort Sill during the 1940s. “I thought, one of these days I’m going to do that.” Jones went on to become an artist herself and helped her father finish a mural at Hardin College in Wichita Falls after he suffered a stroke.

Jones was very excited to see the level of care and attention her father’s work received at the Oklahoma Judicial Center. Other examples of her father’s work have not been as fortunate. The Fort Sill mural of deer and buffalo roaming the open plain was covered with paint in the late 1950s after someone decided the gym needed to be updated.

“We have been given a rare opportunity to restore priceless treasures so they can be enjoyed by Oklahomans for generations to come,” said Justice Yvonne Kauger, chair of the Judicial Center Art Committee. “We knew from the beginning we had to preserve the murals and they became the centerpiece of our collection.”

Follow the murals to the great room at the end of the hallway.