Who are the best visual artists in the Pikes Peak region?
That’s an impossible question, given that there are at any time thousands of artists creating work at the foot of Pikes Peak. So let’s sharpen the focus and establish some objective criteria.
• Sustained quality of work. Successful artists nurture and expand their talent, translating their vision into art. They’re productive, engaged and constantly growing.
• Presence in the market. The romantic myth of the artist creating unappreciated and unseen masterpieces that only gain public acceptance after his/her demise is just that — a myth. Even in an obscure market such as ours, good work is eventually appreciated.
• Medium. We’ve concentrated on artists who work in traditional media — photography, painting, prints and sculpture.
• Community presence. Every artist on the list is involved in the community. They teach, they mentor, they start galleries, they join co-ops and they support their peers.
• Depth. When you look at the artist’s work, does it transmit something? Does it continue to do so on a second, third, or 10th look? Duke Ellington on music: “If it sounds good, it is good.” So, 73 years after Billy Strayhorn and Ellington debuted “Take the A-Train,” it still sounds good. We hope that the artists below will similarly stand the test of time — but one of them, the first on our list, already has.
So here they are in random order — the CSBJ’s top artists in the area.
In Bransby’s long life, he’s done it all. Born in 1916, he studied under Thomas Hart Benton, Boardman Robinson, Jean Charlot and Josef Albers. He’s the last surviving New Deal muralist, having executed large-scale commissions during the 1930s in Kansas City. After serving in the military during World War II, he eventually made Colorado Springs his home.
Four of his most significant works of art are on public display in Colorado Springs: the 1968 “Murals of Navigation,” originally commissioned for the Air Force Academy and now at the Pioneers Museum; the 1986 restoration of the Boardman Robinson murals above the entrance to the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center; the 1994 10-by-75-foot “History of the Pikes Peak Region” at the Pioneers Museum; and the 1948 ceiling mural in Cossitt Hall at Colorado College.
His most recent mural was unveiled at the Fine Arts Center in 2012, created by Bransby and largely executed by his assistant, Colorado College art graduate Trevor Thomas. Fittingly enough, the 5-by-27-foot mural was commissioned for the FAC’s 75th anniversary.
Gumpper first came to Colorado Springs in 1995, leaving a tenured position at Concordia College in Minnesota to become the executive director of the Business of Arts Center in Manitou Springs and a part-time instructor at the University of Denver.
In 1998, she was the recipient of an artist-in-residence grant that allowed her to spend several weeks in an historic cabin in Rocky Mountain National Park. There, she found the subjects that continue to inform her work.
She looked at edges, at a quiet sheet of water next to a brook, at marsh grasses, at puddles after the rain.
“[I liked] the unpredictability and disorder of nature — the idea of paying attention to something smaller, more contemplative,” she said in a 2005 interview.
Gumpper’s large-scale reduction woodcuts are printed from a plywood sheet, from which the areas meant to be un-inked have been cut away. Multiple colors are printed in several runs, with additional areas cut away for each run. This layering of color produces striking, often unpredictable effects.
Now a professor at Colorado College, Gumpper exhibits widely throughout the state and nation. Her works are in scores of public collections, and hang on the walls of many local collectors.
Betty Ross is undeniably the Grand Lady of Colorado Springs artists, having spent nearly 40 productive years living and painting in Colorado Springs. She’s done quick, spontaneous watercolors, small-scale prints, grand landscapes and bright abstracts. She has designed and made costumes for TheatreWorks since 1976, although she now claims to have retired.
“The gaps between abstraction and the real are actually what fascinate me as a painter,” says Ross on her website, “often filled with a narrative or strong emotion that drives the process whether at a pond in Derbyshire, or a cabin in the Sangres.” Ross should know. Decades ago, Willem de Kooning painted her portrait, a mysterious swirl of form and color that seems to be echoed in her own work. And if Ross is retired from theatrical costuming, she’s more active than ever as an artist.
“I’ve decided that landscape is the alpha and omega for me,” she noted. “I was once told that I couldn’t do both, costume and paint, and had to decide which path. I couldn’t choose, and I’m glad I didn’t.”
The Australian-born Polomka is probably the most-viewed artist in Colorado Springs. Like Bransby, Polomka is a muralist, but one whose art is in the most public of places. One unmistakable piece has been viewed by tens of millions since it was created, and even today attracts over 100,000 eyeballs daily. And no, it’s not a viral video or a web page — it’s the gigantic, 45-by-300-foot mural celebrating the U.S. Olympic Committee’s presence here on the corrugated steel roof of an aging warehouse just northeast of I-25 and Colorado Avenue.
Polomka’s works are in evidence on many downtown structures, including murals celebrating the demolished Burns Opera House and the Giddings Building. He recently completed one depicting a locomotive and passenger cars of the Colorado Springs and Cripple Creek District Railway stopped at Rosemont, circa 1900. Commissioned by Mary and John Murphy in period-appropriate sepia, it features the brothers John and Chuck eyeing the train wearing period-appropriate garb.
What he does isn’t easy, but the unpretentious Polomka doesn’t put on airs. Asked by a reporter whether he’d include him in a mural in progress, he laughed.
“You talk to Murphy about that,” he said. “You help pay for the mural, I’ll put you in — you can be leaning out the window there!”
Born in 1975, Phil Lear had an exacting apprenticeship. He studied to become a commercial artist for four years, and then moved to fine art. It’s easy to see the influence of Renaissance masters and 19th century Academicians in his work.
“My paintings deal with the beauty in common scenes of nature and everyday folk,” he wrote on his website. “I find inspiration in the touching effects of light and shadow, and the narrative splendor of the simple things in life. I prefer to work with a warm, limited palette, using subdued colors to bring a calm and natural mood to the canvas.”
Lear’s work has found a ready market downtown. The Mining Exchange Hotel commissioned several large pieces, as has the Rabbit Hole restaurant. The prolific Lear’s work is eminently affordable, and is widely collected locally.
“There is poetry in everything,” Phil says, “and the painter — like the poet, or musician, or sculptor — must bring it to attention, because he sees what others oftentimes do not.”
Red paperclips. The big red cube. The steel sunflowers. The steel spores.
Those are some of Chris Weed’s sculptures that enliven, or have enlivened, downtown Colorado Springs. Weed, a Colorado Springs native, grew up helping his carpenter/contractor father in his workshop, became used to heavy equipment and to industrial-scale manipulation of materials.
Take “Red Paperclips,” which won first prize in the 2009 Art in the Streets competition. They appear to be just that — a couple of interlocked red paperclips that happen to be 24 feet high and weigh more than 7,000 pounds.
Weed brings a child’s sense of wonder to his supersized subjects. The big red steel cube doesn’t have any transcendent message, doesn’t need explaining, and doesn’t demand that you have a degree in art history to understand it. It is what it is — fun, joyful and lighthearted.
His steel spores are a little more complex. They’re round steel spheres, with almost 500 steel rods welded to them. They could be thistles, or seedpods, or mines. Are they friendly or threatening? You decide — but like all of Weed’s sculptures, they’re visual delights.
If Chris Weed is mostly an outside cat, Sean O’Meallie is mostly an inside cat. O’Meallie’s small, playful wooden sculptures are also geared to the child in all of us, meant to be appreciated instinctively. And while O’Meallie frequently exhibits in Colorado Springs, his work commands a national market.
O’Meallie moonlights as a conceptual artist, having created the Manitou Springs Chair Project in 2011. Remember? There were a thousand empty chairs snaking down Manitou Avenue, framed by an empty streetscape.
Last year, O’Meallie donated a sculpture titled “Circus” to the Gallery of Contemporary Art’s “Brilliant” fundraiser. Here’s what he said about it, and about his artistic vision.
“The idea for this piece grew out of my experience as a toy inventor, which I did full-time from 1987-1997. Most toys are balls, dolls or vehicles which are variously overlaid with an innovative feature or theme. Although the toy business is driven largely by culture, fashion and money, and only partially by kids, what interested me as an inventor was the challenge of communicating to a pre-linguistic child about a relatable object in the room.”
It’s a colorfully painted, spiral-wheeled device with attached handles. It might be your favorite toy, dreamily transformed into something new. What does it mean?
“I make objects. They disappear. I make more objects.”
Minnesota native Lorelei Beckstrom came to Colorado in 1994 after studying painting, sculpture and graphic design for seven years. She co-owned Rubbish Gallery, downtown’s first alley gallery.
Beckstrom’s most recent works, “Fluff” began as a series of paintings of stuffed animals, much-loved toys that are part of the landscape of childhood.
“Our toys shared a secret world with us,” Beckstrom said, “and I was attracted to the innocence and quiet magic of this relationship.”
As a narrative figurative painter, Beckstrom missed painting the human form, so she combined the two in striking, often faintly uncomfortable images.
“I found that the creepy cuteness and the concept of anonymity appealed to me,” she said. “I imagine that my idea of what these paintings are about will differ from yours. I love leaving the door open just enough for us to peek in. I want to inspire curiosity. I want us to wonder.”
Beckstrom is represented here by the Modbo, which occupies the alley space that once housed Rubbish Gallery.
Colorado native Brett Andrus studied painting and art history at the Savannah School of Art and Design before returning to Colorado in 2001. According to the Modbo’s website, the hyper-energetic Andrus “divides his time between a career in the financial industry, co-ownership of the Modbo and S.P.Q.R., directing and teaching at the newly formed ModboCo School of Art at Ivywild, working as a musician and producing as a disciplined artist.” During the past 15 years, Andrus has exhibited his work in Santa Fe, Denver, Atlanta, New York City, New Orleans, Trinidad and Colorado Springs.
Degas painted dancers. Monet painted water lilies. Gauguin painted Tahiti. Andrus paints women.
The images are striking — louche, direct, sensual. The women seem familiar, yet distant, recalling neither the idealized sensuality of a Bunny Yeager shot of Bettie Page, nor the tired playacting of porn. According to the Modbo’s website, “The viewer in these pieces acts as both witness and voyeur — sharing a clandestine moment with the artist’s subjects.”
Andrus’ new show, Hypothesis, will open at the Modbo today (June 6).
If Bransby is the dean of Colorado Springs artists, Charles Rockey is the dean of Manitou Springs. His light-filled impressionist landscapes of his beloved city are unmistakable in style and content, and rarely come on the market. CSBJ profiled Rockey in a 2010 feature, which is excerpted below:
Most professional artists spend as much time marketing their creations as they do making them. The quest for shows, for gallery representation and for affluent collectors is part of the package. Yet the 82-year-old Rockey, arguably the region’s most successful artist, hardly markets his paintings at all. And when he does, he invites everyone who has asked to buy a painting from him, as well as his friends and neighbors from a lifetime spent in the Pikes Peak region.
“The last one [on Jan. 27, 2001] was quite sad,” he said. “People flew out from California and arrived just before the sale. It had snowed, and there wasn’t enough room inside, so they had to wait in the snow. When they finally got in, there was no more art. I felt terrible.”
As he has for decades, Rockey loans his paintings to restaurants, churches, friends and even casual acquaintances. Of the “thousand or so” paintings he has created, as many as 300 are out on loan.
Like so many Manitou businesses, Rockey’s creekside studio was severely damaged in the 2013 floods. He didn’t dwell on the losses.
“The beauty is we have a place where people care about each other,” he said. “They work their tails off cleaning up and helping each other.”
Arguably our city’s most celebrated artist, Floyd Tunson has had the kind of career most artists only dream about. Tunson doesn’t limit himself, working in photography, printmaking, drawing, painting, mixed media and sculpture. His work was the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Fine Arts Center, which drew rave reviews — but that doesn’t mean it’s comforting.
As an African-American born in Denver in 1947, Tunson has infused his art with his experience. In reviewing Tunson’s retrospective, Ray Mark Rinaldi wrote in the Denver Post, “Tunson’s work requires a trip into the danger zone, through the unsettled terrain of race and inequality, and into discrimination, subjugation, incarceration, and objectification.”
That may be true, but Tunson’s art is extraordinary in itself, as technically accomplished and visually seductive as that of any artist in Colorado.
The takeaway: The visual arts in Colorado Springs are not only alive, but thriving.