In Praise of Rediscovered Founders
— by Renna Shesso
Architecturally, the Western History Reading Room of the Denver Public Library is one of the most elegant locations in town, with its Michael Graves-designed wooden “derrick” holding the center space and the book shelves and seating areas radiating out from that, like wagon wheel spokes, or like the panels on a windmill’s wheel.
Through the summer of 2009, there will be a special, very appropriate selection of artworks encircling the space as well. The DPL is hosting “Denver Artists Guild Founders: Fifty Two Originals,” an exhibit of wildly diverse works created by an influential group that formed in 1928-1929. As stated in the exhibit materials produced by the DPL and the show’s curators, Deborah A. Wadsworth and Cynthia A. Jennings, this group “believed deeply in the redemptive powers of art, and in the joy of the creative process.” Part of the Guild’s own statement of purpose states that their goals were “to encourage the practice and appreciation of the fine arts and to promote the highest professional standards in original art.”
That sounds great, but talk is cheap. The trick is that this group delivered, and sixty years later, they still do, as evidenced by this show.
Some of Denver Art Guild’s members had strong careers that have carried their names into our own era. Gladys Caldwell Fisher’s sculptures remain (her “Rocky Mountain Sheep” grace the original main Post Office downtown); Laura Gilpin made a strong name for herself in photography; Vance Kirkland’s reputation has grown steadily, bolstered by the museum that bears his name; Charles Waldo Love’s dioramas at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science are a core strength in that facility; John Edward Thompson’s decorations remain at St. John’s Cathedral, and Allen Tupper True’s murals can be found throughout the city. Some founding members moved on, to become better known – or court obscurity – in other parts of the country. As the Depression took hold, some by necessity disappeared as professional artists, which means that some of these artists, despite their gifts, are now largely forgotten. This exhibit brings together work by all of the founding members, providing a snapshot view of the wealth of talent working in Denver in the late 1920s, contrary to old stereotypical beliefs that Culture didn’t exist west of the Mississippi (references to “fly-over country” are sad indications that such ideas haven’t really vanished).
As Wadsworth and Jennings point out, over half of these fifty-two artists had trained in Europe (six were born there), and an equal number in studied in New York City. They traveled widely, and were aware of and influenced by the contemporary artistic movements of their time. Hints can be found here of Impressionism, Cubism, Expressionism and Abstraction. The Denver Artists Guild exhibited as a group at the Denver Art Museum, and had a seat on the DAM’s board. Yes, voting representation of local artists at the local art museum (which was, after all, founded by local artists, via the Denver Artists’ Club in the 1890s) – what an intriguing concept!
While the works included are by the 52 founding members, the individual pieces date from varying eras in each artist’s career, and inclusion has been based (at least in part) on availability, rather than showcasing the strongest pieces by each artist. “Wish-lists” notwithstanding, curators can only show the works they can locate.
In the realm of the totally subjective, I’ll mention a few of the stand-outs.
“Frozen Pond” (1918, oil/canvas) by Albert S. Bancroft (1890-1972) is pristine like a crisp winter day: You can nearly smell the cold air. The detail in this small work has that same sense of heightened clarity, and comes across as an example of photorealism as a result.
There are three strong lithographs here by modernist Arnold Ronnebeck (1885-1947), two NYC cityscapes and one western landscape, “Rain Over Desert Mesas” (1931) that captures the moodiness of weather and the expansiveness of the land. It’s a quietly powerful piece.
The large “End of Summer” (undated, oil/canvas) by Louise Emerson (1901-1980, better known now as Louise Emerson Ronnebeck – the curators list the artists under the names they held at the time the Guild was founded) is one of the treats in this exhibit. Two girls curl up together on their seat in a train, sleeping, as they pass through a desert landscape. Back to college after a summer spent helping on the family ranch? Heading home to the southwest following a big-city vacation? The viewer gets back-story speculation along with the masterful visual treatment: it’s a grand painting.
There’s a just-right “Landscape” (undated, watercolor) by Grace Church Jones (1868-1959) that captures the softness of the hills unfolding themselves into the distance, punctuated by a few trees. The sense of place – rolling plains, perhaps an unseen creek – is evocative despite the apparent simplicity of the piece.
I first saw John Edward Thompson’s still-life “Green Thermos Jug” (1943, oil/canvas) several years ago and am glad to find it again here. Thompson (1882-1945) is one of the bigger names in this group, which might make this arrangement of mundane objects seem a bit trivial. Instead consider all those dusty old classical still-life paintings that center around a somber ewer (probably full of ale, milk or cider), ensconced among fruits and vegetables, symbol of bounty and a rich pastoral feast. To the modern eye, isn’t a thermos jug the new equivalent? The newer 21st century thermos looks a bit different than this post-WWII model, but it’s still the thirst-quenching thing we tote along on picnics. Thompson’s painting is formal and very traditional in composition, but true to his own era in terms of the objects he chose to portray.
These are just a few of the hits, and there’s plenty more good stuff in this show, including photographs, magazines, exhibition catalogues and children’s books from the period. Given the traditional materials, formal presentation, thoughtful display and elegant frames, the chosen works feel appropriate and totally “at home” in their Reading Room setting. This is a great show for anyone curious about Denver’s cultural identity in earlier times. Anyone who simply wants to enjoy a strong and very viewer-friendly art exhibit: Here it is.
On a final historical-update note, artists’ associations are alive and very well in Denver. Among just six of the city’s co-operative galleries (Core, Edge, Next, Pirate, Spark and Zip 37), I counted roughly 180 full and associate members, and these are just the galleries that I’m aware of or for which I could find membership figures. While these groups are sometimes (foolishly, mistakenly, perhaps arrogantly) given short shrift in their hometown press, they’ve been the proving grounds – where artists can be nourished, grow and mature – at the heart of Denver’s art community for over 30 years.
Oops, scratch that “30 years”: That’s just the era I’m familiar with. Denver’s art-associations go back much farther, to the Denver Artists Guild’s founding in 1928 and beyond. They clearly express the willingness of artists to choose community over competition, to band together to create their own opportunities, to create a culture in which all can flourish. This exhibit provides new context with which to view the city’s modern artistic vitality. “Denver Artists Guild Founders: Fifty Two Originals” is a rich, intelligent and welcome exploration of our artistic roots.
Art grows well here. Let’s appreciate our heirloom plants.
B50 Note: Long time Colorado resident Renna Shesso is a writer and independent researcher whose work focuses primarily on art and spirituality. She is the author of Math for Mystics (available from Amazon.com), and can be reached through her website, rennashesso.com.
Tags: 1920s, Allen True, Chares Waldo Love, denver art museum, denver artists club, denver artists guild, denver public library, Gladys Caldwell Fisher, John Edward Thompson, Laura Gilpin, Renna Shesso, Vance Kirkland