Peter E. Lopez was introduced to the work of Edward O’Brien four years ago, when he visited the abandoned main building of the St. Catherine Indian School campus.
Lopez, a santero who lives in Montezuma near Las Vegas, N.M., made arrangements to get inside the building at the behest of his sister, a home designer who had a client request for a rendition of a mural inside the building. The electricity on the campus had been shut off, leaving the mural in darkness, so Barbara Tafoya, the real estate agent who led Lopez inside, agreed to remove the window coverings.
“When we returned to the room, sunlight was streaming through the windows onto the 20-by-10-foot mural that stood before us,” Lopez writes in his new biography of O’Brien. “There was complete silence between Barbara and me as we gazed upon the mural. I was in awe of the magnificent work of art before me.”
O’Brien’s mural, “Our Lady of Guadalupe’s Love for the Indian Race,” depicts the Virgin of Guadalupe surrounded by images of Native Americans – from ancient Maya masks to more modern images of Southwestern Indians at Roman Catholic services.
Lopez said he had never heard of O’Brien before seeing the mural. After viewing the work, he searched the Internet for information about the artist, but found nothing.
“He was off the map,” Lopez said. “I wanted to put him back on the map. New Mexicans should know about him.”
That led to Edward O’Brien, Mural Artist, 1910-1975, published earlier this year, the first biography of the muralist.
O’Brien was born to Irish Catholic parents in Pittsburgh in 1910. He studied art at Carnegie Tech and then the Art Institute of Chicago, and then he lived in a cabin in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. A punctured ear drum kept him out of World War II. The postwar years found him roaming the country, riding freight trains and doing odd jobs, but remaining true to his artistic and spiritual quests. For a time, he lived in a Trappist Monastery in Kentucky. He also visited Mexico to see its murals.
Upon returning from Mexico in 1960, O’Brien, then 50, moved to Santa Fe, at the suggestion of a friend, to work as a book illustrator. Soon after, he was offered a commission to paint a mural at the Loretto Academy for Girls. The work was lavishly praised in The New Mexican, “setting into motion events which changed his life,” Lopez writes. When Loretto Academy was demolished, O’Brien’s mural, painted on canvas, was moved to a morada in La Madera.
During the next 15 years of his life, O’Brien completed six religiously themed murals, each taking two to three years to complete. In addition to the two in Santa Fe, he painted one at the Benedictine Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey in Pecos, one at St. Benedict’s Abbey in Benet Lake, Wis., one at the Catholic Parish of St. Pius V in Chicago and one at the Sikh ashram in Sombrillo near Española.
O’Brien died in 1975, less than a month after completing the Sikh mural, which depicts white-robed, turban-wearing, bearded men in meditation surrounding the Virgin of Guadalupe. His remains were brought back to the St. Catherine campus for a viewing and funeral in front of the mural he had painted there. He was buried in the campus cemetery.
Lopez, 73, paid to publish 144 copies of his biography about O’Brien, which is available at the Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe or through Amazon.com at $25 per copy.
Lopez, who is putting the finishing touches on El Campesino, a 14-foot sculpture of a farmworker carved from a dead Siberian elm in Las Vegas’ Old Town Plaza, said about half the initial copies of the book have sold so far, and that he will consider another press run in the future.