Vernon Hunter, artist, teacher, writer, and arts administrator, was born on March 26, 1900, in Hallsville, Illinois. His family moved to Las Vegas, New Mexico, when he was a child. He lived intermittently in Texas, developed close ties with Texas artists, wrote articles supporting the Texas regionalist movement, and painted sensitive interpretations of the West Texas landscape. He studied at James Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, the Denver Academy of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago, where he shifted his emphasis from commercial to fine arts. He began his career as an art instructor in the Los Cerillos schools near Santa Fe. He taught at the State Teacher's College in Silver City, New Mexico, from 1923 to 1927 and then at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, where he studied under Stanton McDonald Wright. He then taught at the Roerich Museum in New York City until the Great Depression forced him to return to the Southwest.
During the early 1930s he lived in Farwell, Texas, where he painted landscapes acclaimed by Jerry Bywaters as "some of the best works extant on West Texas material." In 1932 Hunter became interested in popular art education while he was teaching at the Amarillo Conservatory. During this time he developed friendships with members of the Dallas Artists League and published articles that celebrated the Texas regionalist movement (occasionally at the expense of his native New Mexico). The artists of Texas displayed a "unity of thought," he claimed, that surpassed the regionalist movement in New Mexico, where artists' colonies were composed primarily of newcomers to the state. Hunter was an advisory editor for the influential, if short-lived, publication Contemporary Arts of the South and Southwest, edited by Bywaters.
In 1934 Hunter opened a vocational school in Puerto de Luna, New Mexico, that supported a revival of local crafts. In that same year he married Virginia McGee; they had a son, Skillman Cannon Hunter, in 1937. As state director of the federal Work Projects Administration art program in New Mexico from 1935 to 1942 he further implemented popular art education by supporting local artists, establishing community centers, and working to preserve local history. He wrote about Spanish colonial art and supervised New Mexico's contribution-a portfolio of fifty plates that replicated outstanding examples of Spanish-colonial carving, painting, needlework, and other crafts-to the Index of American Design. Hunter served as Regional Director of Building Services in the United Services Organization during World War II; from 1948 to 1952 he worked in Texas as the administrative director of the Dallas Museum of Art. In 1952 he moved to Roswell, New Mexico.
He continued to paint throughout his administrative career. He used simplified forms and slightly distorted perspective to represent the windmills, cattle, and flat expanses characteristic of Eastern New Mexico and West Texas landscapes. He occasionally employed anecdote and verbal or visual puns in his work. In an easel painting entitled American Mural, for example, Hunter replaced the usual subject matter of WPA murals (eulogistic allegory or local history) with a representation of a tobacco advertisement peeling away from the back of a dilapidated building. In the background can be seen the true "American mural," the omnipresent blue eagle that symbolized compliance with Roosevelt's National Recovery Act program. At other times Hunter discarded narrative in order to convey the mood of a place. In Sunday, After Dinner (1943), for example, a busy composition comprising family members and a dog clustered on a precariously tilted porch nevertheless conveys the stillness and languor of a Sunday afternoon in West Texas. Hunter also painted murals at the DeBaca County Court House in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, the Central Baptist Church in Clovis, New Mexico, and the Amarillo Broadcasting Station.
He exhibited his work at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (1946), the Brooklyn Museum (1927, 1931), the Art Institute of Chicago (1925), and the Corcoran Gallery of Art (1939) in Washington. He also showed his work at the State Fair of Texas (1933), the New York World's Fair (1939), the Pan-American Exposition (1937), and the American Federation of Arts traveling exhibition (1942–45). The Dallas Museum of Art, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Denver Art Museum, and the Museum of New Mexico sponsored one-man exhibitions of his work. He was a member of Santa Fe Painters and Sculptors. Hunter's career was cut short by his untimely death in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1955. His work was commemorated in a retrospective exhibition mounted by the Museum of New Mexico in the year of his death. The Virginia Museum of Fine Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Museum of New Mexico include examples of his paintings in their collections.