Elwood Decker (1903-1992) arrived at Fort Churchill sixty-six years after it had been abandoned and all of its salvageable materials removed. Fort Churchill was a hastily constructed military post near the banks of the Carson River in western Nevada (then western Utah Territory), intended to protect local citizens and emigrants traveling west following the Pyramid Lake War of 1860. As a visual artist with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1935, Decker documented the restoration work, depicting both the fort's crumbling structures and the men working to restore them. Decker had signed on with the CCC while living in Los Angeles. He anticipated that his artistic skills could be put to use by the Painting and Sculpture Section of the Public Building Service.
By the time Decker and the 250 men hired by the CCC arrived at Fort Churchill in the mid-1930s, the outpost was in a state of advanced decay; the workers spent a majority of their time manufacturing adobe bricks and shoring up deteriorating walls.
The drawings for the Fort Churchill restoration project by the thirty-two-year-old Decker provide vivid insights into its day-to-day operation. Working with grease pencils (possibly of the lithographic variety), Decker created hundreds of drawings. They show workers casting adobe bricks in molds and resurfacing exterior walls. The men, almost all shirtless under a persistent sun and well-conditioned from their labors, seem unaware of Decker's presence. The artist, relying on close-knit parallel lines to achieve the effects of sage, buildings, and sky, deftly controlled the pressure of his stylus as he sketched. A number of Decker's drawings were sent to archives in Washington, D.C. Others currently reside in the old railroad depot museum in Oceano, California, and at the Nevada Historical Society in Reno.
After he left Fort Churchill and the CCC, Decker's life followed the bohemian culture that flourished along the central coast of California. He wandered in search of his muse—painting. He studied under a female Hindu saint at a monastery in Oklahoma City; and returning periodically to the "Dunes," a remote and little-known artists' colony near Oceano. Its inhabitants, a curious collection of intellectuals and social rebels, were known as "Dunites." According to Nevada writer/historian Phillip Earl, Decker became a bearded, shoeless wanderer toward the end of his life, a mystic often identified as the last of the Dunites.
In 1995, the Nevada Historical Society installed an exhibit titled, "Fort Churchill: Sentinel of the Great Basin" that included a number of Decker's drawings. The Summer 1995 issue of the Historical Society Quarterly contained an article about the fort and Decker with ten reproductions of his drawings. Decker's death in 1992 was memorialized by the a cappella ensemble, The Bobs, that same year, in a song titled "Elwood Decker."
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