Fifty Two Originals: Denver Artists Guild Founders

— by Stephen Savageau

Come see some intriguing, accessible, beautiful art. The Denver Public Library opened a new show, honoring the founders of the Denver Artist’s Guild; it runs through August 29. See it early. There’s so much there and it highlights so many levels of interest, you’ll want to revisit it. Remember to pick up the impressive, fact filled, handout and marvel at the labor of love by volunteer curators, Deborah Wadsworth and Cynthia Jennings, You may even find yourself captivated by the art history of Colorado.

Eula Ray (1903 - 1987). Landscape nd, oil
Eula Ray (1903 - 1987). Landscape nd, oil

This show is:
Easy to view, engaging – it’s downright viewer-friendly. The library setting, with art hung on the ends of bookcases and in nooks throughout the room, gives the display a make-yourself-to-home informality. Some art shows try to awe the viewer with a mighty, expressive gestalt. This one invites an unhurried look with discoveries of surprise, insight, and thoughtfulness.

This show is:
Appealing to many different interests. There sure is uplifting beauty and style diversity here, but this comfortable gallery is the Western History Department, after all; the display has Colorado’s story laced through. Colorado’s story, era, context – that’s the stuff of this show mixed with the question: “Who were we?” This show is the truth about Colorado art eighty years ago, with real paintings, sculptures, prints, contemporary magazines, and ephemera. Both the show and the truth are long overdue. Let’s have lots more like this.

“Who were we?” has been the stock in trade of Western History since somebody first asked. Patrons come with a desire to read a story from a newspaper published a while ago, consult a city guide from the 1920s, find out when their parents first came to town and where they lived. Nowadays, examples of the question are everywhere and in new forms. The computer-accessed Facebook-driven “Buckfifty” examines the past 150 years of Denver from any contributor and in any form. Many have status “pioneer” license plates on their cars. The TV advertises genealogy resources for the ordinary viewer. PBS offers The American Experience, Baseball, the Second World War, and many other programs that mix revisionism with nostalgia, tall yarn with true account.

Although contemporary art lives in an eternal present, “Who were we” has a premier place. That’s what museums are all about. Although regional art has had a tough time gaining respect in the national arena, scholars come to examine the resources and tell the story. After all, there are only so many books that can be written about Jackson Pollack.

Don’t look now, but the internet has changed the entire outlook of history, art, region and popularity. It all began with ebay. Ordinary art lovers of all stripes, of all levels of education and understanding, see thousands of pictures every day. The patron numbers are growing exponentially, and so are the offering numbers. Newbies may not ponder what art is or even reflect on what they want, but they gain a better idea looking at picture after picture, click after click.

Ebay changed art and enjoys a vast following: Everyone wants to get in on the act. Every gallery and many artists have their own webpages. Art data sites like and offer biographic material, price information, bibliography, and the opportunity to plug in, to those who are professionally part of the market as well as to others who share the passion.

Regional art scholarship continues to grow, giving collectors and armchair historians all sorts of new resources. In 1976 the Samuels’s book, Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West, pioneered new art history ground with a Western artist biographic work. Since then the newly published work about regional – and ever popular – art provides more no-nonsense information. Now desktop publishing enables more scholars to publish text, and the availability of cheaper printing methods make those texts attractive, illustrated with color pictures. Institutions have started showing the treasures of Colorado’s past. Every year, displays of art from public and private collections find enlarging audiences, and show catalogues and information sheets are added to lists of new-artist biographies to research.

Denver Artist’s Guild Founders at the Denver Public Library is an invitation to join in the contagious passion for art. We are who we were.

You may ask. “Which is your favorite?” I’m guilty of asking that same question of many attendees at the opening party. Here are five artworks not to be missed with some reason and insight why.

Gladys Caldwell (Fisher), 1906 – 1952. MOUFFLON, granite sculpture and MOUNTAIN SHEEP, Plaster sculpture.
Here’s a side-by-side-on-the-same-table study of maturity and mischievousness youth. The Denver Public Library is lucky to have the plaster studies for the celebrated post office big horns – a trademark symbol of Colorado. The works demonstrate all the natural, as well as 1930’s heroic, unities; solidity, staid strength, design, singularity. Here’s comedy and delight. In the 1920’s a very youthful Gladys made a similar work , the Moufflon, probably while studying with Aristide Maillol. The twenty-somethingth artist gave the sheep lots of personality and vitality, especially considering the unforgiving space of the smallish granite block. She made a fanciful pattern of the horns and set a broad grin on the sheep’s face. By 1936 Gladys was internationally known, in the 1920’s she showed a sense of devilish humor and playfulness.

Robert Alexander Graham, 1873- 1946. ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK. oil on canvas

Robert Alexander Graham (1873 - 1946), Rocky Mountain National Park c1925, oil on canvas
Robert Alexander Graham (1873 - 1946), Rocky Mountain National Park c1925, oil on canvas

Say the magic words “American Impressionism” and summon the story (now a popular art book topic) of how America had our own impressionists, right here. Who’d a’thunk that little ole’ Colorado had vital impressionist painters of the first water amongst us?
Robert Graham was one of the best. He had a distinctive sunny palette and, I’ll bet, a happy heart. He used his J. H. Twachtman and Robert Henri training to show beauty and dignity of the Colorado landscape and he taught many in the same spirit. You cannot look at one of his works without a spirit-redemptive smile. I’m a sucker for Colorado skyblue – and I’m unashamed.

Anne VanBriggle Ritter, 1868 – 1929. LANDSCAPE OF TREE. oil on canvas
Here’s one enchanting, “arty”. work; it’s a painting about painting. Anne Ritter gave everything to it: sunlight, contrast, color theory, design … and real power. That power is the absence of specific mountain subject. One might ask about a Colorado landscape show, “Where would the artists be without Long’s Peak or Pike’s Peak?” This work is Anne Ritter’s answer. She made mystery, magic and pleasure from the ordinary.

Here’s a story of loss for you. In addition to marrying Artus VanBriggle and having distinction as a ceramic artist, Anne Ritter enjoyed a renowned painting career. She showed in many national shows, headed – and helped found – the Broadmoor Academy / Colorado Springs Fine Art Center, and taught. Sadly she had no children or local heirs. When she died, her estate was shipped to a niece in New York City. There, all her paintings were combed into the 1930s secondhand market, far from where they were created. This remaining known work may be the best to be seen.

H. David Spivak, 1893 – 1932. DENVER ROOFTOPS. oil on panel

H. David Spivak (1893 - 1932), Denver Rooftops nd, oil on board
H. David Spivak (1893 - 1932), Denver Rooftops nd, oil on board

There’s a lot of current mention of plein air painting in Denver; the DPL hosts an annual show of this art style every autumn. For all the artists of slavish sunlite flowers and random Denver street scenes I offer you Denver Rooftops, a plein air masterpiece. Here’s magic in commonplace and common feelings. Much of this magic is everybody has painted this work in their heads, looking out a third story window at the city below. We’ve all mentally organized the child’s blocks or patchwork pieces of the buildings beyond the window. The zig-zag snow and the overcast sky add to a feeling of introspection. The blowing steam pipe gives the only action to a building still life.

Let me throw a big, M-80-sized firecracker at the thought that history represents a sense of placidity and happy stillness. The contest between humanism and elitism ran bitterly and deep in little “D” even in 1928. Newspaper articles about the Denver Art Guild’s opening exhibit quoted David Spivak speaking about the inclusive force and redemptive power of art, and how he believed that art and beauty helped shape better citizens and better human beings. These opinions were quickly and publicly reviled by upper echelon Denver Art Museum personnel, who insisted that only the educated portion of the populace could appreciate art.

John Edward Thompson. 1882 – 1945. DECORATING THE DENVER NATIONAL BANK BUILDING. Oil on canvas.
Subject! That’s why I choose this painting for mention. Here are grown men with every type of tobacco product and with a yeomen artistic worker-bee look. They’re a’working on a massive art project. Not only does the painting debunk the ever popular and unstoppable “starving artist” mentality; it also shows that sense of urban optimism that Denver has spoken to the world. “Denver – The City Beautiful,” “Imagine a Great City,” and the next civic slogan are more than feel-good politics. The spirit of optimism and beauty must be in the water. Denver radiates it; always did.

B50 Note: Since 1972, Stephen Savageau has run the Savageau Gallery in Denver. Denver Artists Guild Founders: Fifty Two Originals is on display at the Denver Public Library, Level Five, Gates Reading Room Gallery, through August 29th, 2009. The Denver Artists Guild was founded in 1928. Renamed the Colorado Artists Guild in 1990, it is the oldest continuously active fine arts organization in the Denver area.

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.

Estelle Stinchfield (1878 - 1945), Still Life 1930, oil on canvas
Estelle Stinchfield (1878 - 1945), Still Life 1930, oil on canvas

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, and can be reached through her website,