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Former DU instructors among rebel “15 Colorado Artists” on display at Kirkland Museum

Frank Vavra’s “Colorado Mountain Town” is among more than 100 pieces on display as part of the “15 Colorado Artists” exhibit at the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art. Courtesy of the Kirkland Museum.

In 2011, when pretty much anything goes in the world of visual art, it’s hard to imagine what a big deal it was 60 years ago when a handful of Colorado artists left the realm of the real behind to go in a more abstract, modern direction.

Numbering 10 DU art instructors — including Vance Kirkland (BA ’25) and William Sanderson (BA ’26) — in its ranks, a collective calling itself simply 15 Colorado Artists split from the Denver Artists Guild in 1948 to follow its modernist muse.

“We are not trying to break up the guild,” Kirkland told The Denver Post in November 1948. “We are simply interested in progressive ideas in art and the guild isn’t.”

In December 1948, the two groups held side-by-side exhibitions at the Denver Art Museum and people came from all over the city to see the schism, which had been written about extensively in the newspapers.

Art lovers can see just what all the fuss was about in 15 Colorado Artists: Breaking With Tradition, an exhibit running through July 31 at the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art in Denver. The show features more than 100 pieces from the artists who were once at the forefront of modern art in the state.

“It’s hard for us today to put ourselves back in 1948 and really imagine these pieces being as controversial as they were,” says Maya Wright, membership and events manager at the Kirkland Museum. “People wrote scandalous things in the paper about the work [of the] 15, but to us they don’t actually look so cutting edge because now we’re in an era where art can be really, really crazy.”

The work on display ranges from purely abstract works by Kirkland, John Billmyer and Eo Kirchner to representational, if nonrealistic, pieces by artists such as Paul K. Smith and Mina Conant (BFA ’49), whose whimsical paintings of characters drawn from the worlds of fairy tales and childhood are among the show’s most compelling. Conant and Billmyer met as art students at DU in the 1930s and later came back to teach at the University. Other DU art faculty who were part of the original 15 were Marion Buchan, Kirchner, Duard Marshall, Louise Emerson Ronnebeck, J. Richard Sorby and Frank Vavra.

“Ten of the 15 worked at DU and were friends and worked together that way, so some people see DU as part of that energy that helped create the guild,” says Wright, who is working on a masters degree in art history with a concentration in museum studies from DU. “Some of these artists are important parts of our permanent collection and, in the context of Kirkland and Denver, at least fairly well-known names. Others were very hard to find out about. The curators and other members of the staff and volunteers did a lot of research to try to come up with anything that we could say about them and pieces we could borrow.”

The exhibit spotlights paintings and sculpture, including work by Angelo di Benedetto, one of the masterminds behind the modern sculptures in Burns Park in northeast Denver.

The show also includes a mini-tribute to John Thompson, the painter credited with bringing modern art to Colorado in 1914, and a collection of newspaper articles from the late 1940s that detail the rise of the 15 and Denver’s differing views on modern art. A February 1948 editorial by Lee Casey in the Rocky Mountain News opines that “within a few years an original Picasso or Cezanne will be valued mainly for the frame.”

“In Western art, Western literature and bourbon,” Casey wrote, “I’ll take mine straight.”

The 15 Colorado Artists collective (membership was by invitation only) lasted until the 1970s and ended up with far more than 15 artists in its ranks. But the Kirkland exhibit deals only with the original 15 and the impact they had on modern art in Colorado.

“It was a magical, seminal moment in Colorado art and emblematic that modern art was becoming widespread in America,” curators Hugh Grant and Deb Wadsworth write in the exhibit catalog. “… Just as Regionalism became a truly American art form, modern art by regional artists in different parts of our country created truly American art forms. … This pivotal moment in the history of Colorado art strengthened and is integral to the development and expansion of American art.”

15 Colorado Artists: Breaking With Tradition will be on display at the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, 1311 Pearl St., Denver, through July 31. Museum hours are 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Admission is $7, $6 for seniors and teachers and $4 for students. Children under 13 not allowed. For more information, call 303-832-8576 or visit www.kirklandmuseum.org.

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One Comment

  1. Peter Bryan says:

    What a great story. It brought back a flood of memories. I remember as if it were 1960 when I first came to the School of Fine Arts, and studied under Vance Kirkland and John Billmyer. William Sanderson was my mentor and guide into the world of art. I thank you so much for the article and the return to my youth. I am hoping to return to the States next year (it will be my 50th anniversary of my graduation from DU). My wife and I have retired to Quito, Ecuador. I will make a point of visiting the Kirkland Museum and DU, of course. Again, “thanks for the memories!”

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