With Resilience, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center wraps up its 75th anniversary year by dishing up a multi-course feast of visual and performing arts.
Oh, the irony: Resilience documents the empty bellies and lost dreams of the Great Depression.
"There's a lot of talk now in our current recession about the similarities between today and the Depression of the 1930s, which is the era in which this institution opened," says Blake Milteer, the FAC's museum director and curator of American art. "I think an interesting paradox in our own history is that during the time of the Depression, this was an extraordinary occurrence in Colorado Springs. And so, clearly, at that time there was a need for culture and undoubtedly a sense that culture, having a home for it here, was going to be a way to help heal this region."
Milteer oversees the feast's visual art course: Introducing America, featuring Dorothea Lange photographs, including her iconic depiction of a migrant worker and her children, plus rare color photos by Russell Lee and Marion Post Wolcott; Ghost of a Dream, Adam Eckstrom and Lauren Was' take on the modern-day pursuit of happiness; and In the Field, lithographs by Thomas Hart Benton and drawings by Boris Deutsch.
Lange, Lee and Wolcott chronicled the Depression's effects for the Farm Security Administration, part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal effort to pull the nation out of poverty. In the decades since, their work has passed from the realm of strictly documentary into that of fine art.
As for Eckstrom and Was, they named their Ghost of a Dream exhibit after a remark they overheard, spoken by someone buying lottery tickets in a New York convenience store. That idea expanded to include discarded scratch and play tickets and romance novel covers to create their sculptures and installations.
"And the suggestion is that perhaps we don't always react creatively and productively in difficult times," says Milteer. "A lot of the time, folks will go to things like lotto tickets. That's a sort of cheap fantasy, but it's the possibility of the ghost of a dream for a way out of this."
Benton's take on hard times was different. He created dynamic paintings and prints focusing on rural life and the working class.
"Artists like Benton promoted a uniquely American art," Milteer says, "not by virtue of his style but by his subject matter."
He also points out that Benton's use of lithography guaranteed that his art — usually $5 per print — was accessible to people who couldn't afford an original painting.
Benton was close to Boardman Robinson, longtime director of the Broadmoor Art Academy, which was folded into the nascent FAC in 1934. One of Benton's students was Eric Bransby, now Colorado Springs' grand old man of painting, whose mural commemorating the anniversary will be unveiled April 20.
In yet another example of the connections throughout Resilience, Benton's art plays a role in the set design for Of Mice and Men, the FAC's production of John Steinbeck's novella (and self-adapted script) about George and Lennie, migrant workers who pursue their dreams of better lives in California.
Scenic designer Christopher Sheley saw Benton's work everywhere while growing up in the Midwest.
"I always equated his work with being very dreamlike; there was a romanticism about this Midwestern, blue-collar life. You could see his painting of someone scything wheat, and it made you want to go there," Sheley says. "At least me, it seemed so idyllic and romanticized. And so it felt like a good fit visually."
Sheley and FAC director of performing arts Scott RC Levy have collaborated for a set that will reinforce the characters' pursuits, with a Benton-inspired backdrop of an alluring promised land. The set includes a "barn" wall with slats spaced widely enough to see outside, but doubling as metaphorical prison bars.
Like Benton, Steinbeck wanted the "masses" to be able to enjoy the arts, to have that transformative experience in a dark theater with others who are having the same thoughts and feelings.
"There are some really wonderful passages in Of Mice and Men, when George is talking about his dream of having his own place," Levy says. "That American Dream still exists; it's the same dream.
"I think we're seeing where we are as a nation and maybe we're coming out of the financial troubles we've had over the past few years — there's definitely a 'new normal.'"