Will Shuster’s name endures, but not because of his numerous paintings, murals, and works on paper.
Los Cinco Pintores had disbanded as a group by 1926, but its members remained active on their own. In the following decade, Shuster received a commission to create a series of six frescoes in the courtyard of the New Mexico Museum of Art. The murals, which deviated from the more naturalistic landscapes and portraits he made, were painted as a Federal Emergency Relief Administration project during the Great Depression. They depict regional Native traditions and represent the elements of earth, air, and water; and one contains an image of the the small hole in the floor of a kiva that in the Hopi world view represents the portal to the underworld. The murals, inspired by the writings of anthropologist Alice Cunningham Fletcher, were Shuster’s first attempt at making frescoes. It was also a successful one, as the frescoes, made using traditional methods — ground pigments mixed with water and wet plaster — have endured and remain in remarkably well-preserved condition. They were created after Shuster made a study of the frescoes of Leonardo da Vinci and ancient Roman artists along with the work of his contemporary, Mexican modernist and muralist Diego Rivera. Two of the murals depict the daily activities of winnowing wheat and making pottery. He used a repetition of forms, rendering the figures homogeneous in terms of their dress and facial characteristics, and he brings symmetry to the works. Shuster recalled being hired by Edgar Lee Hewett, first director of the museum. Hewett remained close — perhaps a little too close — during the project, which might account for the murals’ distinctive compositional qualities in comparison with Shuster’s other works. “I could hardly make a stroke without his consent. If you knew Dr. Hewett, you know what an autocrat he was,” he told Loomis. “By golly, I had quite a time trying to get any of myself into it.”
Five years after the Smithsonian interview, Shuster died in Santa Fe. He lived long enough to see his Zozobra become an established tradition and an indispensable part of the annual Fiesta activities. By the late ’60s in Santa Fe, as Traugott notes, “Artistic change was in the air,” although to hear La Farge tell it, change had come to the local art scene even earlier. Ellis, one of Shuster’s fellow Cinco Pintores, commemorated his longtime friend in a painting depicting Shuster’s funeral at the National Cemetery: — According to Traugott, it was Ellis’ way of saying the party had, indeed, ended.