A tale as big as Texas

buck winn mural

Buck Winn mural hanging in Alkek has a story worth telling

By Steve Ulfelder

Next time you find yourself in the Albert B. Alkek Library on the San Marcos Campus, look up. You won’t be disappointed; recently, a project spanning decades came to fruition with the installation of panels from a lovingly restored mural by one of the state’s revered 20th-century artists.

The History of Ranching was painted by the Hill Country’s own James Buchanan Winn Jr., better known as “Buck.” The historically significant work started life in a brewery, narrowly avoided the trash heap, and was rediscovered by a tireless professor. That led to fundraising, restoration, and, finally, installation in a place of honor in the Alkek Library.

Complicating matters, the newly installed panels had some of their thunder stolen by the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s been a long, strange trip,” Dr. David Coleman, director of the Wittliff Collections, says with a laugh. “But we’re thrilled with the result, and when the time is right, we’ll celebrate the installation properly.”

An artist’s journey

painting of man riding horse

Winn was born in 1905 in Celina, north of Dallas. After studying in St. Louis and Paris, he returned to Texas and spent the 1930s building a reputation as a premier muralist, creating works for the Dallas Medical Arts Building, the Robert Driscoll Hotel in Corpus Christi, the Blackstone Hotel in Fort Worth, and many other clients. Winn even teamed with famed painter and sculptor Eugene Savage to produce the murals at the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition and World’s Fair. Winn already had an enviable portfolio in 1940, when he moved his family to a ranch in Wimberley, just northwest of San Marcos. He would continue to work steadily throughout the 1940s. In 1950s, the Pearl Brewery in San Antonio commissioned Winn to create what many consider the capstone of his career: Texas-sized creation. At 280 feet long, The History of Ranching was thought to be the world’s longest mural; for decades, it wowed visitors at the Pearl hospitality building.

Changing times, changing tastes

painting of man riding horse and a horse eating grass

The 1970s were not the best of times for brewers, art, fashion, or interior design. At the start of that decade, the management

at Pearl decided ranching was out and a Gay Nineties theme — that’s the 1890s — complete with red flocked wallpaper, was in. The mural was unceremoniously scraped from the walls, rolled up, and tossed on a trash heap — or so the world believed. Pearl was sold to General Brewing of San Francisco in 1977. Winn himself died in 1979.

The mural might have been lost forever but for art historian Dr. Dorey Schmidt. During the 1990s, while living in Wimberley, she discovered and became fascinated by Winn's work. Schmidt found sketches used to develop The History of Ranching, which had been almost entirely forgotten. She began investigating.

Her efforts led her to Pearl, then to Chuck Remling, a retired employee of the brewery. Like Schmidt, Remling is one of the heroes of this story; disgusted when Pearl opted to trash the mural, he had secretly saved several panels of the work in a storage shed. Happily, they were still there a quarter-century later and were turned over to Schmidt and the Wimberley Institute of Cultures, where she was working.

In addition to the three panels at the Alkek Library, portions of The History of Ranching live on at the Wimberley Community Center and at the Hays County Government Center in San Marcos.

Former glory

The turning point for the mural occurred when Schmidt secured the existing panels for the Wimberly Institute of Cultures and gained permission from Texas State to use its temperature-controlled facilities, needed for proper storage. Years later, with fundraising for restoration underway, the institute donated two panels and sold one to the university.

Coleman was hired in 2011, and he immediately set about finding a conservator. Fine Art Conservation Laboratories in Santa Barbara, California, was a natural choice because principal Scott M. Haskins had already worked on the Texas Centennial murals in Dallas. Coleman, who has a deep background in art conversation, says, “ Scott and I had good conversation about the restoration approach. The mantra is “Do no harm” so all work was kept reversible. Fix it and be sure you do nothing to damage it.”

The effort required to restore almost 30 yards’ worth of painting that spend decades carelessly rolled up in a storage shed is as painstaking as it is fascinating. With the work finished, three panels from the History of Ranching finally completed the journey to Alkek in early August. The result in breathtaking, a fitting homage to ranching Texas and Buck Winn. While the timing of the unveiling wasn’t all he had hoped for, that’s all right with Coleman. “After all,“ he says, “it’s going to be there for a long time.” 

Winn Mural in concrete embedded at Flowers Hall

concrete mural on side of building

On the west wall of Flowers Hall stands another work created by Buck Winn. Simply called the Winn Mural, it is a large carved ceramic-and-glass bas-relief on the side of the building. 

In 1958, university President John G. Flowers asked Winn to create the work, which used over 22 tons of concrete and stands four stories high. Each of the 138 sections was constructed individually and weighs over 300 pounds. Some of the panels contain pieces of Blenko glass, which the panels on the top and bottom edges have mosaic brick inlaid. These bricks were created by students in the art department at Texas State. 

Winn relied on industrial arts students to build the molds used for the construction of the concrete panels. According to one account, when Flowers asked Winn to create the ural, the only money left in the tenocation budget was the amount the state had agreed to for the installation of aluminium frame windows. Winn undertook the project despite the meager payday he would receive. Flowers Hall was renamed for the president following his death in 1965.

The mural portrays the pursuit of students in academia, including theater, music, art, and science. Winn added a dreamlike essence that represents the types of fields that future students might pursue.