Above: The Artesia Public Library was designed to showcase the 1952 Peter Hurd mural The Future Belongs to Those Who Prepare for It, which originally occupied a Houston office building.
THE BEST PLACE to admire the beautiful Peter Hurd mural in the new public library in Artesia is from outside the library itself. Across the street. At night. The north library wall is glass, allowing an unobstructed view of the enormous piece, which stretches 46 feet wide and 15 high across an arc that spans the main reading room. From across the street, you experience the piece in full: a pastoral farm scene during harvest season, when the bounty of fruits and vegetables is being canned. A mother and daughter chat beside a tree while the father dumps apples into a basket. A cowboy gallops past a windmill on his horse. Other figures—a wagon master, a government conservationist, a little boy—go about the business of daily living. As was his gift, Hurd made the everyday beautiful. His mural captures the geometry of a moment, the beauty of an instant. And in the evening, the Artesia twilight elevates that beauty to elegance. The library shelves disappear in the dark, and the mural, raised nine feet off the floor, appears to float suspended over the circulation desk, as if the library were designed around it—which, actually, it was.
As evening tints the air blue and a soft breeze wanders the city, the ambience of the outside world merges with the images on the mural, invigorating them with passion and life. The mural becomes dynamic, fully and brilliantly alive. It moves. The mechanical bustle of the train passing through Artesia a block away is surely the crank of the windmill in the mural. A dog is barking somewhere out among the old houses in the neighborhood south of the library—or maybe it’s the one in the foreground beside the little boy. The same breeze fluttering the flags on the library flagpole also rustles the leaves in the enormous tree that bisects and frames the painting, offering shade and shelter to the people underneath, including you.
The second-best place to admire the mural is from inside the library, between call numbers 574.5 (Naturalism) and 646.77 (Dating). Because here, just the opposite happens. Here, the image appears in freeze frame and the world it contains seems self-consciously silent, as if the people in the mural are aware they’re in a library and are holding still so as not to disturb the patrons. In that suspended state, you don’t hear sound itself so much as the anticipation of it: the unheard thump of the apples just about to fall into the basket, the splash the water in the tank will make when the young boy completes his dive, the cautionary word the mother is about to offer her child as she steadies him on the table. This would have been a very noisy mural if Hurd had painted it a second later.
It’s there, in that anticipation of things to come, that you find the main theme of the work, stated succinctly in the title: The Future Belongs to Those Who Prepare for It. That idea is as appropriate for a library as it was for the Prudential Insurance Company, which commissioned the piece in 1951 for its regional headquarters in Houston. The journey of the mural from there to here is a story of a lot of dedicated people and a lot of dedicated effort. It’s the story of a mural, certainly, but there’s a larger story here: one about a community and what it chooses to value.
Like any good story, this ends with a last minute twist that nobody saw coming. But to get there, I have to start much earlier. That's why I'm standing at a remote spot in the desert east of Artesia, a spot with the prosaic name Sec. 32-T18S-R28E. Cattle meander around me as pump jacks nod rhythmically in the afternoon sun—here, as in the city itself, the twin economies of ranching and oil blend. Minus the pump jacks, the landscape I’m seeing isn’t much different from the one Martin and Mary Yates would have seen in their Model T one afternoon back in 1924. Martin and his partners had twice tried unsuccessfully to sink a productive discovery well. Frustrated, Martin put his faith in women’s intuition and asked his wife for help. He and Mary drove until she pointed to a spot she thought promising. A photograph taken later shows the result of that point: the derrick of the Flynn-Welch-Yates Illinois Number 3, its top obliterated by gushing black oil. It was the first commercially successful well on state land in New Mexico, and the first to pay a royalty to the state—all of $159.
I’m at that very spot. Today, the wellhead is capped, surrounded by a metal fence painted yellow. In contrast to the change it brought to New Mexico, the well itself is unassumingly low-key. You might even say humble.
This well was the impetus for the oil-and-natural-gas boom that took off in southeastern New Mexico and continues today, courtesy of oil-rich formations under-lying the Permian Basin here and through West Texas. With the industry as an economic leader, the city of Artesia grew, weathering the ups and downs of an oil town. It’s a pretty city, with a tree-lined, two-lane Main Street fronted by office buildings and stores, and adorned with bronze sculptures of people important to the history of the city, including Martin and Mary Yates. About 12,000 people live here. Many of them work jobs connected to the oil-and-gas industry, either in the fields surrounding the city or in the office buildings that support them downtown. They eat barbecue at Henry’s, they get drinks at the Wellhead Restaurant and BrewPub after a show at the Ocotillo Performing Arts Center, and they spend Friday nights cheering the Artesia High School football team out at the massive Bulldog Bowl sports stadium.
The Yates family, meanwhile, went on to found Yates Petroleum in Artesia. Back in the 1930s, S. P. Yates, one of Martin and Mary’s four sons, traveled to Boston to study at MIT. There he met Boston native Estelle Hefler on a blind date. The two wed and moved back to Artesia, where they raised three children. Estelle served as vice president of Yates Drilling Company, engaged herself in a number of civic offices, and in her spare time became an accomplished painter and potter.
Estelle Yates loved her family, and she loved Artesia. But if you ask anyone who knew her, they’ll lead by telling you how humble she was, outright refusing recognition for her acts of philanthropy for others and for the community.
And then they’ll tell you that she loved books.
“She was our own private librarian,” Peyton Yates recalls of his mother and her affinity for the written word. “She always told us what we needed to read.”
Estelle chose to share that passion with the community. Originally, a stack of shelves in the basement of City Hall was all Artesia had for a library. As president of the library board in the 1950s, Estelle was instrumental in getting a new building built for that purpose, the city’s first real library. For a fundraiser for that library, Estelle had once reached out to artist Peter Hurd, whom she knew through a mutual friend, and asked if he might loan some of his art for the occasion. Hurd was a logical choice. Born in Roswell, Hurd depicted the Southwestern landscapes and people he had known as a child: cowboys building fences, windmills and water tanks, weathered ranch houses isolated by furrowed grasslands, all done in a softly contoured style influenced by his teacher, the artist N. C. Wyeth—whose daughter, Henriette, married Peter. Hurd’s illustrations for Life magazine during World War II had helped bring his work to the public eye, and by the time Estelle reached out to him, he was nationally known. Indeed, commissions were keeping him very busy, he explained in his response to Estelle’s inquiry, and he was regrettably unable to accommodate her request.
That first library served the community admirably, but it was showing its age by 2010. Artesia needed a new one.
I can remember when I was kid growing up that I knew Mrs. Yates,” Artesia mayor Phil Burch tells me as we sit at a conference table in his office, historic photos of Artesia on the wall. Then he laughs: “And Mrs. Yates knew the little troublemaker Phil Burch.”
But as she and Peyton and the mayor sat together at this table a few years back, it was all business. Estelle made an incredible offer: If the city would build a library, she would pay for half of it.
“That’s the flavor of the community we live in,” Mayor Burch explains. “If there’s something needed in this city, you go to enough people, you’ll find someone willing to say, ‘I’ll take that on.’”
The city agreed to that generous offer. A private-public partnership would need to be formed and donations solicited. A design committee would be required, comprising community members—but no members of the Yates family, by their own choice, so that their presence wouldn’t influence the committee’s decisions. And a complex Rubik’s Cube of land swaps would need to be worked out to create a lot for the new library. Everyone wanted it downtown, an anchor amid the eclectic mix of enterprises that make up this oil-and-ranching city—the Western-wear-and-boot store, the Navajo oil refinery, the First American Bank, the offices of the local petroleum companies—so that it would belong to everyone. And, not incidentally, that would put it near the bronze sculpture of Sally Chisum, the woman upon whose ranch Artesia was founded in the late 19th century. Sally is depicted holding a book in her hand, surrounded by an eager young boy and girl, to whom she is reading.
And then there was the mural itself. Plans for the new library were already under way when the committee learned that the owners of the former Prudential building in Houston, now part of MD Anderson Cancer Center, were offering a Peter Hurd mural in their lobby free to anyone who could move it. When Hurd painted the mural back in 1952, the building was new; he painted as employees and customers watched. He painted people he knew into the mural, including his daughter (the young woman under the tree) and his son (the boy with the dog). Hurd himself is there too, as a cowboy leaning against a truck. But now the old building was slated for demolition, and the mural had to be removed. The logistics of doing so were overwhelming. As a fresco painted into plaster, the mural couldn’t simply be removed from the wall—it was the wall. It would need to be stored somewhere while the library was built. Further, upon its arrival in Artesia, the mural would need to be secured immediately inside a climate-controlled space. That meant that it would somehow need to be placed into a building that was already completely enclosed.
The challenges seemed insurmountable. The project needed a taskmaster comfortable with the impossible.
As I’m waiting to visit with José M. Zelaya, the Albuquerque-based architect for the library, I find a moment to rest in the calm oasis of the main reading room and take in the mural again. The farm scene seems so pragmatic, the people so distinctive, I can’t help but feel that it all seems familiar, like something out of my own life in New Mexico from many years ago. That’s part of the allure. The mural creates a sense of belonging, as if you could close your eyes, summon your willpower to the task, and open them to find yourself looking out, not at.
“When working on the sketches for the library,” José tells me, “I imagined the square of the main collection as a public square—a public plaza. Because this is the one last democratic space we have. The library is like a plaza. It just happens to have a roof.”
José led nine separate meetings with the community, with mothers, young people, members of the law enforcement community, native Spanish speakers, and others to solicit input on what they wanted from their library. He leads me on a tour of the library, pointing out some of the features that came from those meetings. I’m struck by how the mural is not just part of the library—it’s incorporated into it. The mural is elevated, stationed on a platform nine feet off the ground, an idea that José proposed. It was a risky approach, to raise what had once been a wall up off the ground. But it works, elevating the piece literally and metaphorically, as befits public art, allowing everyone to see it. Just like a stage, José tells me, the people in the mural performing their own drama.
The library counts its youngest patrons among the most important ones.
But the most prominent design element isn’t tangible. It’s the feeling of responsibility this city has toward its youth. Children have their own reading room and crafts area, which you enter through a small hallway with something akin to laser lights in the ceiling. The teens’ area on the opposite side of the library is raised so that they can, as they requested, “see and be seen.” All this attention to young people is consistent with other ways the city helps its youth. At the last county fair, after the national anthem was sung against a chorus of braying cattle, more than half a million dollars went through the sale ring in one morning. The Bulldog Bowl stadium includes a museum devoted to student athletes. And the local Chase Foundation, started by Mack and Marilyn Chase of Mack Energy Corporation, provides college scholarships to any student from Artesia who maintains a certain grade point average. Though the oil business can be up and down, the boom cycles have brought wealth to the city, much of which is invested in the future.
In Artesia, Elizabeth Stephens and Sandi Lanning are known as the "Library Ladies." Friends of Estelle Yates, they joined the library board and served on the library design committee, and later formed the Friends of the Library.
“It was a commitment to Estelle as much as to the project,” Elizabeth tells me.
I soon learn the depth of that commitment. The committee had discussions about the role of libraries today to be sure they were building a facility that mattered. They drafted the RFP for the project and interviewed and selected the architect. And they decided the ultimate fate of the mural. With other members of the committee, Elizabeth and Sandi flew to Houston after learning about the mural to decide if it was worth bringing to Artesia. After seeing the piece, the group found that a vote wasn’t necessary.
“We couldn’t leave it,” Sandi recalls.
And so, months later, the rescue effort began. A Houston crew cut the wall from the building, then stabilized it on both sides with plastic, foam, and plywood, all held in place with steel braces. All was going well until the heat of a steel beam being welded into place ignited the cloth covering the mural. The flames were quickly extinguished, but pieces of the mural were damaged and soot had created scars on the right side of the panorama. The damage was stabilized on-site, but full repairs would need to happen later.
After the metal cage holding the mural was secured inside a crate, crews lifted the giant box onto wheels and pulled it from the building, an inch at a time, onto newly hardened cement poured to ensure the area outside the building was level. Then workers lifted it by crane onto a trailer specially configured for that purpose. According to Logistics Group International, it was the largest fresco painting ever moved in one piece.
For the people in the mural, it must have been a strange experience, leaving the only home they’d ever known. But they weren’t alone. Elizabeth was there as the mural came out of the building, and she followed the truck on its three-day journey on the back roads of West Texas to the airport in Midland, Texas, where Sandi joined her. Together they watched as the mural was unloaded from the truck and placed inside one of the hangars, where it would be stored until the library was completed.
There was no way of knowing for sure if the mural was still intact, or whether the trip had taken a fatal toll and the piece was now, in Peyton Yates’ words, “a mosaic.” In its crate, the mural was, in effect, a 65,000-pound Schrödinger’s cat: unseen, unable to be admired, and so both art and not art at the same time. Only when the library was finished and the mural could be uncrated and installed would the cat, so to speak, be let out of the crate. And it would be another two years before that happened.
August 29, 2013, was a hot day, but that didn't stop people from lining the streets of downtown Artesia, some with coolers filled with drinks, some sitting in the back of pickup trucks. Some stood on the roofs of buildings to watch. Just after noon, to a chorus of cheers and applause, the truck came into view. The driver—the same one who had driven the mural from Houston to Midland—maneuvered the corner onto First Street, passed the feed store and the McDonald’s while the utility companies held the power and phone lines aloft so the crate could pass safely, and with one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding his cigarette, effortlessly backed the truck into the library parking lot.
The architect, José, along with the Jaynes Corporation of Albuquerque, which had constructed the library, had developed a novel solution to the challenge of getting the mural into the building. They’d designed the roof so that one section was detachable. In movements described by onlookers as a “ballet,” a crane from Wilbanks Logistics of Artesia deftly lowered the crate through the narrow opening onto a platform of 12 columns inside.
“Exhilarating,” project manager Richard Hefler recalls of that day. “And exhausting.”
After all the work, after all the waiting and anticipating, there was not even the satisfaction of an immediate answer to the question on everyone’s mind. It came slowly, as each section of protective linen was removed individually and the mural underneath inspected by the conservator. Two crews worked for a week, moving from the sides toward the center. Piece by piece, section by section, the mural came back to life—the cowboys at the pickup truck and the mother and the baby and the dog and the boy all released from confinement, resurrected from the darkness, unharmed, taking their first nervous look at their new home.
Conservators re-created the fire-damaged section based on earlier photos of the mural. They worked even after the library opened, allowing patrons to watch. What might otherwise have been devastating became an important part of the story.
“After all the mural’s been through,” Richard Hefler says, “the fire gave the story some character. It’s like a racing yacht that comes back from a voyage and has a scar on the hull. You think, ‘It really went somewhere!’”
Ultimately, the mural itself had proven the truth of its own message: The future did belong to those who had prepared for it.
“The mural has come to its final resting place,” Estelle Yates told her caregiver, Victoria Hurlbut, after learning it was safely installed at the library.
“Yes, ma’am, it has,” Victoria answered.
A few weeks later, Estelle Yates passed away quietly in her home. She was 95.
This story started with an oil well, and it ends with a three-drawer, burl-wood dresser, the one in which Victoria Hurlbut found the letter.
Victoria is a meticulous woman, careful and attentive to detail. The kind of person you want looking after things. After Estelle’s passing, the family asked her to stay on to inventory Estelle’s possessions. One day, Victoria was matching fabric she found in a closet with the drapes in the living room when an unusual thing happened.
“Something made me move to the dresser,” she tells me, “this beautiful old dresser in the corner of the living room.”
Victoria opened the drawers and took what she found—old flashbulbs, papers, photos—to the kitchen table to sort. At the bottom were a few folded papers, yellowed with age.
“I looked at the first paper,” she recalls, “and I don’t remember what it was. It wasn’t important. But then I opened up the next one, and I just about died.”
Immediately she went to Peyton’s office, where she presented the paper to Peyton and Hayley Klein of the Artesia Chamber of Commerce. Peyton and Hayley, coincidentally, were meeting to plan the grand opening of the library.
The letter was the response Peter Hurd had sent to Estelle Yates back in 1952 when she’d asked for a loan of one of his paintings for a library fundraiser.
“It is a most flattering offer,” Hurd wrote, “and I am extremely sorry that at present all my pictures are on exhibit in various locations.”
The letter went on: “The past year I have been busy with mural commissions and have done little new work. ... I am sorry that I have nothing available that could be put up for your opening.”
Though the letter didn’t mention the mural by name, the dates line up.
Incredible as it may seem, the commissioned mural that prevented Hurd from offering a painting to support the old library all those years ago is very likely the same one on display in the new library today.
—Contributor David Pike is the author of Roadside New Mexico: A Guide to Historic Markers (UNM Press).
NEED TO KNOW
THE ARTESIA PUBLIC LIBRARY is open Monday through Saturday. (575) 746-4252; artesianm.gov/146/Library
THE ARTESIA CHAMBER OF COMMERCE AND VISITOR CENTER offers free walking tours of downtown, Monday through Friday. (575) 746-2744; artesiachamber.com
THE OCOTILLO PERFORMING ARTS CENTER, home of the Artesia Arts Council, offers contemporary and classic plays, concerts, and story-telling events in a resplendent performance space that once housed a movie theater. (575) 746-4212; artesiaartscouncil.com
THE WELLHEAD RESTAURANT AND BREWPUB offers good food and beers brewed on-site in a relaxed atmosphere that showcases artifacts and photos of the oil industry. (575) 746-0640; on Facebook
HENRY’S BARBECUE grills its meats using only apple-wood for an authentic barbecue flavor. Briskets, pulled pork, and ribs are specialties, with homemade pie for dessert. (575) 736-1777; henrysbarbecue.com
THE ADOBE ROSE RESTAURANT serves an eclectic range of selections made with locally grown seasonal ingredients. (575) 746-6157; adoberoserestaurant.com
THE JAHVA HOUSE serves specialty coffee drinks and is a convenient place to hang out. (575) 746-9494; on Facebook
THE HOTEL ARTESIA, located downtown, offers comfortable rooms in an understated modern style, and includes a bar with live music. (575) 746-2066; hotelartesia.com
THE HERITAGE INN BED AND BREAKFAST is housed in a grand yet cozy two-story building that dates to 1905. (575) 748-2552; artesiaheritageinn.com