Draper weaves together, art, war and Navajo tradition

By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor

Teddy Draper III has visited lots of battlefields over the last few years, including some in Iraq. But it was his trip to one historic battle site that has had a half century to heal that provided the inspiration for a mural he completed at the Community Services Center in Portales.

CSC officials asked the art department at Eastern New Mexico University if a student was available to paint a mural on the wall of the senior meal-site dining area. Micki Muhlbauer, chairperson of the ENMU art department, put CSC Executive Director Pam O’Malley in touch with Draper.

“We knew our basic idea, but Teddy really ran with it,” O’Malley said.

The mural, which is 36 feet long and 8 feet high, makes the cafeteria wall appear as if one is looking through windows at a landscape of rolling green hills and trees beyond.

O’Malley said that meal-site visitors used to sit facing the doors on the other side of the room. Now they face the mural. She said the seniors enjoyed watching Draper work, and nearly every day someone would ask if he was finished yet and what else he was going to add to the scene.

Draper said he completed the project in four long days, using latex acrylic paints.

“This was a great opportunity for me to practice and learn my trade,” he said.

“This one got really green because I just got back from the Marianas Islands,” he added, referring to the colors.

Draper has participated on one other mural — the Jack Williamson mural at ENMU’s Golden Library. He says he tends to focus on Native American-themed art,
Draper is Navajo, and grew up on the reservation near Chinle, Ariz., moving to Clovis in 2000 to enter the nursing program at Clovis Community College. While he was enrolled, he took a drawing class and became interested in art.

“I picked up my first brush five years ago,” the reserved Draper said, with a twinkle in his brown eyes.

Now he’s a senior art major at ENMU. He says he dreams of a master’s degree in art and the opportunity to be involved in education at some point.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Draper was in the Marine Corps and Marine Corps Reserves. His father was a Code Talker, a member of an elite unit of Navajos who served in World War II by speaking a code on battlefield radio transmissions that was based on the Navajo language. The history of the Code Talkers received national attention after a movie, “Windtalkers,” starring Nicholas Cage was released.

When Draper learned that a documentary about the Code Talkers was planned by Starbright Media Corp., he struck up an e-mail conversation with Dr. George A. Colburn, the person in charge of the production. After learning that Draper was a Marine and the son of a Code Talker, Colburn asked Draper to join in with the production.

The experience took Draper to various World War II Pacific island battle sites, including Iwo Jima and the Marianas Islands, where he was a battle re-enactor and was also interviewed along with surviving Code Talkers and their families.

Draper said the Code Talkers Association wasn’t too pleased with “Windtalkers” because it strayed from the focus on the Code Talker history and tradition.

“The idea had been to use more Navajos, and it ended up being more about Nicholas Cage’s character,” Draper said of “Windtalkers.”

He says the documentary will be an important history of the pressures and problems faced by the Code-Talkers.

“In the Navajo tradition, war is something you don’t talk about,” Draper said. “I was surprised to learn that one of the Code Talkers’ sons didn’t even know until recently (what his father did in the war).

Draper said the Code Talkers were actually under orders not to talk about what they did for 20 years. He said that while he had known about his dad’s service, recent events, including the movie, the documentary and his service in Iraq had brought up a lot of questions for him.

“It will be good for kids to know why their families were torn apart,” Draper said.

For now Draper is content to concentrate on his art, his family and working as he prepares for a show that runs May 6 to 12 at the Runnells Gallery at ENMU’s Golden Library along with exhibits of art by three other senior art students.
According to ENMU’s Muhlbauer, Draper did the CSC mural on a directed study, which puts together an idea and a student for a specific purpose.

“This is nice because it serves also as a community service project,” Muhlbauer said. “He did a great job. I haven’t told him yet — but he got an ‘A.’”

“It’s great to see students engage in the community and see them work out in the community,” Dean of Fine Art Michael Sitton said. “It’s nice to find a match between the community and a student.”