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Rarefied air

Stepping into the Springs' artistic past means standing on the shoulders of giants

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No one would be surprised to hear that a place as physically beautiful as Colorado Springs draws a lot of artists. But few people realize that the ones here now have inherited a distinguished art history.

Jim Sawatzki is among those few. In fact, the local historian and filmmaker is working on a PBS documentary named Historic Artists of the Pikes Peak Region. (View segments on YouTube by searching "Palmer Divide Productions.")

"I'm just trying to explain how there's been a vibrant art cultural community here in the Pikes Peak region," he says, "and it pretty much centers around Colorado Springs."

Native American artists had lived in this region for generations, but for the city itself, it started with founder Gen. William J. Palmer and his plans to found a refined, cultured place, says Sawatzki. While nearby Colorado City (now Old Colorado City) was a typical mining support community, with its healthy share of saloons and prostitutes, Palmer forbid both in his own colony.

"In Little London," Sawatzki says, "there was always a sense of art and culture from its beginning."

A visual outpost

Julie Penrose was one of the first major patrons of the arts: She donated her and her husband Spencer's house to become the Broadmoor Art Academy in 1919.

The school attracted art students and instructors from around the world, adding one more reason for people to visit the area, aside from tuberculosis convalescence and outdoor pursuits. And Sawatzki argues that the crowds who came to Colorado Springs were uniquely devoted. While Santa Fe and Taos attracted lots of people, those New Mexico towns had the benefit of the Santa Fe Railroad to take tourists through the area. Colorado Springs' railways, meanwhile, were devoted to mining.

The Academy was highly celebrated in the years leading up to the Great Depression, and it thrived even during the lean times with the help of one man. Boardman Robinson came to Colorado in 1929 to become the first art instructor at the Fountain Valley School, and moved into teaching at and directing the Broadmoor Art Academy a few years later. Robinson maintained the director position when the Academy became the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center in 1936.

Originally from Nova Scotia, Robinson was a political cartoonist, painter and illustrator. He had studied under the sculptor Auguste Rodin in Paris and traveled with journalist John Reed to cover World War I in eastern Europe as an illustrator.

An outspoken and commanding figure, Robinson believed in socialism — not an easy sell among Colorado Springs' conservative wealthy — in both politics and art. Despite considerable fame back east, as an artist with Harper's Weekly and the New York Tribune, he aimed to take the "precious" out of art and make it an "honest trade."

Robinson's own work reflects this philosophy. Says local artist and historian Pat Musick: "He was maybe the first to use the style of quick, broad brushstrokes in political cartoons, as opposed to really detailed drawings."

He was also known for his popular regionalism painting style, one that relied on "simplified cartoon-like renderings," as described by Denver art critic Michael Paglia in the book Colorado Abstract. Robinson's monumental History of Commerce mural series, made for Kaufmann's department store, exhibits this style. (A few of those murals are on display today at Colorado College's Palmer Hall.)

Both professionally and personally, Robinson was a magnet, and the Springs was a regionalism "outpost" during his time here. His drawing skill attracted both students and instructors including Jean Charlot, an avant-garde artist who worked with the Mexican muralists including Diego Rivera. Robinson's influence also turns up in the works of many of his students, including Lew Tilley and Charles R. Bunnell.

Musick's father, Archie, was a student and close friend of Robinson — Musick says she grew up with a self-portrait of Robinson, who went by "Mike" with friends. He painted murals for "Mike" when Robinson served as regional director of all the art programs in the Western states under President Franklin Roosevelt's Public Works of Art Project. Today, they still adorn the walls of the Manitou Springs Post Office and the City Auditorium.

Changing times

World War II marked the beginning of decline for the major arts assembly in the Springs. Pat Musick says the war "scattered the core of the diehards" and other artists, including her father. She adds that when Robinson retired in 1947, no one could fill his shoes, something that greatly weakened the city's concentrated artistic core.

Sawatzki attributes the change in part to the new military presence in the Springs.

"General Palmer would be appalled that Camp Carson was built down there," he says of what's now known as Fort Carson. "He wasn't a military person, not really. Of course, he was a decorated general in the Civil War, but he was a Quaker."

The city still had its artists, of course. Abstraction and abstract expressionism were in vogue, and in the '50s and '60s, the Springs was home to Bunnell, Mary Chenoweth and Edgar Britton. In the '70s, sculptor Starr Kempf set up his home and studio here. But by then, an influx of evangelical organizations was shifting the social climate even further from the arts.

In retrospect, Musick is hesitant to call the Springs an arts town.

"There was a strong art community centered around the Broadmoor Art Academy/Fine Arts Center," she writes in a follow-up e-mail, "but there were plenty of people in town whose lives didn't have much to do with the arts."

Still, you could argue that when the Academy became the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, it provided a long-term investment in the future of local arts. Under the direction of Julie Penrose, Elizabeth Sage Hare (who brought Robinson to the state) and Alice Bemis Taylor, the enterprise broadened its reach by absorbing the school but adding an art museum (to house the Taylor collection) and a theater. At the time, Sawatzki says, that multifaceted approach was unique in the country.

"Colorado's place in American art ranks high among the 50 states," Hugh Grant, executive director of the Kirkland Museum in Denver, writes in Colorado Abstract, "not only because of the important artists who made this state their home, but also because of the famous artists who visited and worked here over the last 188 years."

And knowing what role Colorado Springs has played, the city has plenty to be proud of.

edie@csindy.com

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