Louis Cicotello was never content to stay in one place. As an artist, he created work that shifted and changed over time. As a professor and department chair at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, he was highly involved across campus, often helping design sets for TheatreWorks productions. And when he wasn't doing all that, he was hiking, climbing and canyoneering.
"It's really hard to define him simply," says local artist and friend Sean O'Meallie. "He had a deep impact on so many people. Just being around him sharpened my thinking, by being exposed to the way his brain worked."
The 70-year-old Cicotello died in a rappelling accident in the mountains of Utah last March. Now, the Galleries of Contemporary Art (GOCA) at UCCS will celebrate Cicotello's life well-lived with a retrospective, following the late artist's visions from his first funky and skillful Plexiglas creations of the '70s, to the subtle political and social narratives of his later collage and sculpture work.
"Louis had a voracious appetite for culture and for looking at human trajectories," O'Meallie says. He had a knack for picking out patterns in society, but his pieces reflected more bemusement than cynicism. As GOCA curator Daisy McConnell puts it, "There's a lot of Dada in his work," referring to the post-World War I "anti-art" movement in protest against the rigidity of the art and literary worlds.
Still, Cicotello's art, which can recall Robert Rauschenberg's "combines," shows a lot of deep-grained structure. "He had a lot of contradictory influences," says O'Meallie. "He was always hunting down and then introducing diametrically opposed dynamics in his work."
His collage art (which started in earnest around 1988) and his sculptures show these "clashes of opposites," as O'Meallie puts them. For instance, one sculpture blends metal peaks with rusty shovels and rust-colored rock, to draw parallels between the man-made and natural worlds.
The outdoors is part of the "trifecta of themes," along with technology and food, that McConnell says imbues Cicotello's work. It was a huge draw for Cicotello even as a young man, according to his widow, Millie Yawn.
Raised in Pennsylvania, Cicotello attended Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and went on to Yale University for his masters in Fine Arts. After a stay at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts L'Américaine in France, he accepted a teaching position at the University of Missouri, in Kansas City. This is where he met Yawn, who was a student at the time.
When the couple moved to Colorado Springs in 1984, she says, he discovered his passion for hiking, and climbed most of the fourteeners in the state.
"But he was a teacher first," says Yawn. "He really connected with students."
So it's no wonder that UCCS' retrospective hits a particularly warm spot for both the school and for the artists whose lives Cicotello touched. "As news got out that we were doing this show," says McConnell, "student after student got in touch to tell of his impact on their art and lives."
"Everybody appreciated his honesty," says Yawn, adding that when he connected with people, they could sense the sincere interest he had in them on a personal level. "It's hard to just sum up a person in a few words, but he was a true human being, a giver, someone who took the time to give to people."