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SAN MARCOS — The scale is difficult to absorb.
Three panels from Buck Winn’s giant, recovered 1950 mural, “The History of Ranching,” were recently installed at Texas State University in San Marcos. At a combined 82 feet long — once part of a 280-foot cylindrical mural — the pictures arc gloriously over the welcome desk at the Alkek Library, a modernist tower without much exterior charm, but with lots of space and light inside.
In a style that reminds one of post office murals produced by federal artists during the Great Depression, compressed scenes from the Old West in muted earth tones play out over wide vistas of mesas, canyons and pasturelands.
The panel on the left draws the viewer immediately to a lively scene around a chuck wagon as several men prepare for a meal. Behind them rises a lonely, rugged landscape.
The panel on the right shows calm cowboys on horseback in a field with cattle. One saddled horse stands to the side without a rider, as if one of the cowboys sauntered out of the frame. To the far right are some railroad tracks leading to a settlement out of which emerges a train.
A middle panel separates these two balanced scenes — one dense and inward, the other diffuse and outward — by way of a rocky canyon.
The story behind this mural, reputedly the largest in the world at the time it was conceived for cylindrical events space the Pearl Brewery in San Antonio, is just about as epic as the subject the mural depicted.
According to the Handbook of Texas, James Buchanan “Buck” Winn Jr. was a famed muralist, sculptor, architect and inventor whose celebrity diminished after his death. Winn was born in 1905 in the rural North Texas town of Celina, where he also grew up. He studied art and architecture in St. Louis and Paris, then opened his first studio in Dallas in 1929, just in time for the Great Depression, but also in time for a golden age of American mural making. During the 1930s, Winn created art for office buildings, hotels, theaters, clubs and banks, but also flour mills and a mausoleum. In 1936, Winn helped Eugene Savage paint the murals for the Hall of State at the Texas Centennial and World’s Fair in Dallas. Winn contributed other paintings, designs and sculptures to the idealistic fair as well.
“Winn’s murals depict actual and mythical elements of Texas and Southwestern exploration, history and culture,” according to the Handbook. In fact, the Centennial proved pivotal in forging a mythic image of Texas culture that is hard to escape even today.
In 1940, Winn, with his wife and two children, moved to a ranch in Wimberley — called the Four Winns Ranch — where he continued to produce murals and architectural art for museums, universities and businesses. Using his home studio as a laboratory, he also patented various techniques and machinery, all the while teaching at Texas A&M University, Princeton University, University of California-Berkeley, Rice University and the University of Texas.
Meanwhile, Winn served as a community leader in Wimberley, helping to put together a church, public schools and the local chamber of commerce.
At least one scholarly study and one filmed documentary are devoted to Winn.
“His skill and industry provided him enough private commissions that, ironically, his place as a muralist in Texas art history has been somewhat obscured,” reads the Handbook, “since he did not participate in the much-publicized WPA post office mural projects of the 1930s.”
Buck Winn died on Dec. 18, 1979, and is buried in the family plot at the Wimberley Cemetery.
During the postwar period, while many American advertisers switched to photographs, San Antonio’s Pearl Brewery continued to hire artists such as Winn to create their print ads.
Naturally, they turned to Winn to elevate the Pearl Corral Room, a large, handsome cylindrical building that once housed the stables for the brewery’s delivery horses, but also looks like a railroad roundhouse, which were used for servicing locomotives. Winn produced a 280-foot cylindrical mural, “The History of Ranching,” for the tall room’s second tier.
The mural is also a “cyclorama,” or a panoramic image on a cylindrical form, meant to allow a wrap-around view for viewers in the middle. Sometimes, theatrical cycloramas, which go back to the 18th century, were scrolled so that the image moved, an early “moving picture” so to speak.
Austinite David Jarrott, who grew up in San Antonio, remembers the Corral Room — now known as the Pearl Stable and recently closed as an events venue — well.
“By the late 1950s, it was a large event room with a stage on one side that was made to look like the Judge Roy Bean ‘Law West of the Pecos’ storefront,” says Jarrott, a longtime radioman and now artistic director of Jarrott Productions. “The San Antonio Little Theatre used to end its season there. The other plays were done at the San Pedro Playhouse, now just called the Public. SALT always ended with a good old-fashioned melodrama, so the Judge Roy Bean façade was appropriate.”
In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, Jarrott’s father taught school for a living, but he also served as SALT’s technical director.
“My first SALT appearance was at age 10 in 1955 at San Pedro Playhouse, but I appeared in one of the melodramas as a kid at the Corral Room,” he says. “One end of the Corral Room was truncated slightly, and there was a bar that was maybe called the Safari Room? Anyway, the walls were crammed with hunting trophies — can’t remember whose they were, though. To a 10-year old they were intimidating.”
Saving the murals
Although Winn did not participate in the iconic WPA mural projects of the 1930s, his style in “The History of Ranching” resembles other heroic Americana of the period, including the kind of elongated figures and flowing action found in the work of Thomas Hart Benton and other regionalists.
Times and tastes change and, by the late 1960s the Corral Room had closed. When it reopened with a new decorative theme a few years later, Winn’s mural was cut into sections and assumed to be discarded like an old Pearl Beer billboard.
After the fragments were recovered from a shed in the 1990s, they were taken to San Marcos for climate-controlled storage.
“The mural was rolled up, but the rolls got flattened over time — there was nothing to support them when they were stored,” David Coleman, director of the Texas State’s Wittliff Collections, which took responsibility for the murals, recently told Deborah Martin of the San Antonio Express-News. “So there was lots of undulating surface, there was paint loss, a lot of paint was no longer there. There were a few rips and tears in the canvas itself, but I would say that overall, they did a pretty good job of taking them off the walls. They didn’t just go right through the middle of it.”
It’s a shame to compress journalist Martin’s sometimes thrilling newspaper story on the subject, but the recovery of the mural begins with art historian Dorey Schmidt, who got to know the artist’s daughter, Kathryn “Tinka” Winn Eoff, through the Wimberley Institute of Cultures in the 1990s. Schmidt toured Winn’s ranch studio and when she got to know his work better, she put together a touring exhibit about him. In the process, she stumbled on some working sketches for the Pearl mural.
Relentlessly, Schmidt tracked down the former manager of the Pearl events venue, who had salvaged remnants of the mural when the room was redecorated in the early 1970s. He had stashed them on top of some lockers in a shed. When Pearl workers found them, Schmidt headed to San Antonio to pick them up. She also drafted a lawyer to make sure the remains of the mural were on permanent loan to the Wimberley Institute. She also persuaded Texas State to store them. In gratitude, the Institute gave two sections to the Wittliff Collections, which then purchased a third panel.
Years of fundraising and conservation efforts under Coleman’s oversight ensued, but installation was delayed by renovation of the library
“We didn’t want a brand new, clean mural with a big construction project going on all around it,” Coleman told Martin. “The last thing you would want is to put all that time and energy and money and donors’ money into something that then gets damaged.”
The other seven parts
Seven other salvaged portions of “The History of Ranching” can be seen in three buildings: the Hays County Government Center in San Marcos, the Wimberley Community Center and the Wimberley Valley Museum, itself housed in the historic Winters-Wimberley House, closely associated with the Wimberley Institute of Cultures.
Texas State’s are the only panels on public display today that attempt a version of the Pearl roundhouse’s curvature; the others hang flat.
The two on view at the Government Center hang on the high walls of the formal building’s lobby, which opened in 2012. Dense with images, they appear to be in excellent shape. One depicts a cattle branding witnessed by men in and around a corral; the other is split between two scenes heavy with historical meaning for cattle ranching. To the right in this panel, a shepherd and his sheep dog tend a flock of sheep that flow over green grasslands. To the left is a covered wagon drawn by six lively mules passing by a magnificent mesa. Is the driver a supplier or homesteader?
Only one of the four panels at the Wimberley Community Center on RM 12 rises to the quality and condition of the five in San Marcos. Smartly, it is positioned in the center’s entry lobby at an easily perceived height. It shows an Old West street scene that includes wooden storefronts, lounging cowboys and a seemingly incongruous dandy who looks a bit like Hollywood actor Zach Scott. Rare for this series, Buck dramatically frames a single stone-faced cowboy at the center. To the side, somebody in a sunbonnet drives a buggy. We do not see a face.
In the community center’s main Johnson Hall, three panels hang almost too high to evaluate in detail. The light is not flattering. The most active panel depicts a cowboy lurching atop a bucking horse and surrounded by seven other cowboys entirely focused on his predicament. Unlike the similar branding scene at the Government Center, this grouping seems a bit crowded, especially considering the danger of the action depicted.
The last fragment of the original mural, unrestored, hangs on the walls of the Wimberley Valley Museum alongside some displayed background about Winn. It shows a tiny structure and a windmill in the distance, almost lost in Winn’s dreamy, lonesome western landscape.
Confession: I saw this final piece of the mural puzzle through an uncurtained window. The center was not open because of the pandemic. But the fragment is small and the natural light was strong that day, so I got the picture.
It’s telling to see all 10 public parts of the mural.
It’s impossible to ignore, for instance, that only one faceless woman turns up in this history. Winn is right to include Mexican Americans among the many men, since so much of American ranching culture is closely linked to its vaquero counterparts. Yet the artist sustains the myth, perpetuated by hundreds of Hollywood westerns of the time, that African Americans, for instance, took no significant part in the ranching world.
It is unlikely that many people noticed these things — or the tiny mistakes, such as an out-of-place saguaro cactus, or a railroad crossing sign without a road — when the mural was unveiled in 1950.
Instead, “The History of Ranching” would likely have opened eyes with its scale and sparked imaginations with its fervently idealized images.
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