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The Kirkland Connection: Modern artist Vance Kirkland pioneered art education at DU.

"Colorado Rockies, Sunset" by Vance Kirkland

“Colorado Rockies, Sunset” by Vance Kirkland. Watercolor, 1941. Courtesy of the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art.

Vance Kirkland didn’t have patience for fumbling.

The former director of the University of Denver School of Art, whose paintings hang in more than 15 museums throughout the world, once sent a student unable to properly stretch canvas out to find a “stretcher-stretcher.”

Another time, he dispatched a student in search of “vanishing points” so the student could erase mistakes.

Both errands were “cruel, really,” laughs Barbara Sternberg (MA ’49), who knew Kirkland through her husband, Eugene, a professor of architecture until DU closed the architecture program in 1952. “[Kirkland] didn’t have much use for stupidity or lack of mental quickness.”

In a memo in 1948, Kirkland exploded over being asked to dumb down the crafts course into a “macaroni-stringing” class for Phys Ed students.

“I have no tolerance for mediocrity or for the student who refuses to work,” he wrote in a self-evaluation only months before the DU faculty granted him the prestigious University Lecturer award of 1957.


"The Energy of Explosions Twenty-Four Billion Years B.C." by Vance Kirkland

“The Energy of Explosions Twenty-Four Billion Years B.C.” by Vance Kirkland. Oil & water on linen, 1978. Courtesy of the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art.

Modern master

The “devilish sense of humor” that sent students on an occasional fool’s errand sometimes entered Kirkland’s work, most notably in a mural he painted in 1936 for oil and gas mogul Arthur Johnson behind the bar in Johnson’s Denver Country Club mansion.

Johnson had requested a painting on the seven ages of man, but Kirkland decided that was trite and suggested the seven drinks of man through his ages. The result was a mural depicting beverage choices starting with milk, progressing to pop, beer, champagne, whiskey and rum, and culminating in a formaldehyde cocktail for preservation on the slab.

Inexplicably “he left out wine,” observes Hugh Grant, director of the Kirkland Museum at 13th Avenue and Pearl Street in Denver. “He loved wine—and scotch.”

More than anything, though, Kirkland loved art, turning out about 1,200 works in a 54-year career as a painter and educating hundreds of students. Kirkland’s works have hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Chicago Art Institute and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

He is regarded as one of Colorado’s most important modern artists and his paintings, when available, command prices in the tens of thousands.

DU owns three Kirkland paintings. Nebula #25 is part of a series that uses explosions of color to depict explosions of stars. Kirkland stopped the series in 1962 when new photographs of actual nebulae made his abstractions appear too realistic.

Space #10 is one of the oil-and-water dot paintings that occupied Kirkland’s attention in the final stage of his career. Both works are in DU’s permanent collection.

A watercolor of Central City painted in 1934 and donated to DU by the Class of 1936 hangs in the provost’s office.

The University relinquished the 7 Drinks mural in November 2007, when it sold the Johnson estate. Cable TV magnate Bill Daniels had bought the house in 1998 and donated it to DU as a chancellor’s residence. Former Chancellor Dan Ritchie occupied the property until late 2007, when the University sold the home for $3.625 million.

Prior to the sale of the home, DU art collection Curator Dan Jacobs investigated whether the mural could be removed and retained by the University. He concluded that doing so was impractical.

“It’s firmly attached to the plaster, not a separate panel,” he said.

So, the painting was conveyed to the property’s new owner, Vincent Connelly, who says he treasures the painting and will protect it.

Seven Drinks was one of 23 murals Kirkland painted to supplement his income during the Depression, when he ran the Kirkland School of Art in the Pearl Street studio that is now a museum of his work.

Kirkland painted murals in the former Neusteter Department Store on the 16th Street Mall, the old Albany Hotel at 17th Avenue and Broadway, the Denver Country Club, a nightclub owned by a notorious Littleton, Colo., gangster, and post offices in Eureka, Kan., and Sayre, Okla.

Most of these have been painted over or destroyed, although Land Rush in Sayre was restored in November and Cattle Round-Up in Eureka still draws admirers.

“The story going around is that Kirkland didn’t know much about cattle and when he painted the picture, he left the tails off,” says Eureka postmaster Ed Lakous. “He had to come back and paint them on. But it’s really excellent.”


"Prehistoric Flower" by Vance Kirkland

“Prehistoric Flower” by Vance Kirkland. Watercolor & gouache, 1948. Courtesy of the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art.

Training ground

The murals, however, were a sideline. Kirkland’s primary focus was in evolving as an artist and establishing DU as a school where academics meshed with professional training from accomplished artists.

It wasn’t easy. Art was not widely regarded as academic when DU hired Kirkland in 1929, and almost from the beginning he and the University hierarchy bumped heads. Disputes erupted over permitting nude models in the life-drawing classes and granting full academic credit for art courses.

The clashes flared out of control and in 1932 Kirkland left DU in anger, vowing to teach art at his own school on his own terms. He started the Kirkland School on Pearl Street and awarded academic credit through the University of Colorado. The school flourished but times were tough. The building had electricity in only one room, no running water, an outhouse, and coal and wood-burning stoves.

By 1946, DU was eager to smooth differences and integrate Kirkland—and his 200-plus students—into the University.

“They offered him what they thought was a rather high salary,” Grant says. “He replied he wanted a salary equal to the chancellor’s. He thought that would get rid of them. But it didn’t. They said, ‘OK, fine.’

“So, he closed the school, went back to DU and made a tremendous success out of it.”

Whether Kirkland actually made more than Chancellor Ben Cherrington is unclear. Records show Kirkland was hired as a full professor and director of the School of Art for $5,500 per year, plus $1,725 annually over five years for use of the Kirkland School name. In 2007 dollars, that totaled about $74,436.

In 1946, a full professor at DU made $3,400 to $5,000.

Perhaps more importantly, Kirkland won the freedom to establish the kind of art program he wanted. His reputation as a painter attracted talented local artists and his drive for academics ensured that students became well rounded. By the time Kirkland retired from DU in 1969, the art program had grown to about 400 majors.

“Being an artist made it possible to afford part of my life as a teacher,” Kirkland said in a 1979 interview, noting that financially he would have been better off had he not taught. “But I really love teaching. If I had not enjoyed it, I would not have stayed with it.”

Kirkland continued to paint after retiring from DU as a professor emeritus, drawing inspiration from scientific theories on the vibration of color and space fantasies from the TV show “Star Trek,” of which he was fond. He died in 1981.

“He had a great sense of humor but also a tremendous, sophisticated mind,” Grant notes. “He fought hard for modern art.”

With intensity and discipline, adds Sternberg.

“We all have this image of artists painting day and night when they’re inspired, then going practically mad when they’re not,” she says. “But there are some artists who can turn on their artistic creativity regularly.”

Kirkland was one.

View a collection of Vance Kirkland’s work at the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art,

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