Painted Ponies

The Central Library surveys the brief, brilliant career of Frank Mechau.

The second quarter of the twentieth century can be described as a golden age for Colorado art. Right after World War I, the Broadmoor Academy opened in Colorado Springs, developing a reputation as a nationally significant art school. But this was not the first aesthetic outpost in the Colorado wilderness; the Front Range town had been attracting artists since the 1870s.

The Broadmoor Academy brought in luminaries from across the country, both as teachers and students, and these immigrants bolstered the scene that was already there. The successor to the Broadmoor Academy was the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, opened in 1936 and still there in its John Gaw Meem masterpiece building.

Meem pulled out all the stops in creating the CSFAC, incorporating custom-made details in furniture, metalwork, synthetic stone, concrete and plaster. To top it off, he had spectacular murals created to decorate the interior and exterior walls. Surely the most elegant of these is "Running Horses," by Frank Mechau, who was on the faculty of the center and completed the piece in 1937. It is unquestionably one of the greatest works of art anywhere in the state.

"Dorik and His Colt," by Frank Mechau, oil on canvas.
"Dorik and His Colt," by Frank Mechau, oil on canvas.
"Forest Fire," oil and tempera on panel.
"Forest Fire," oil and tempera on panel.

The mural was painted on a horizontal frieze that runs above the glass-and-metal curtain wall on the outside of the building, facing the courtyard. It depicts running horses, an appropriately Western theme, but Mechau was a modernist, so he gave the familiar subject a twist or two. The horses were painted in different colors -- ones that aren't completely natural -- and were abstracted, with the figures flattened and most of the anatomical details left off. The animals are lined up in the tight space of the horizontal frieze, but Mechau introduces the illusion of depth by weaving them in and out.

The one other public Mechau mural in the area is in the Western History/Genealogy department of the Denver Public Library's Central location. "Horses at Night," done in 1934, is intimately related to the later "Running Horses," though it's only a fraction of the size.

I've always thought that "Running Horses" and "Horses at Night" were teasers for Mechau's career, because his stuff is so scarce, you rarely see anything else. I've long been interested in the art of our region and have taken in dozens of exhibits on the theme, but with the exception of some small drawings, Mechau has mostly been a no-show. I've almost never seen a piece by him for sale in a gallery -- not that I could afford one if I did.

Now, at long last, the pent-up desire to see more of his work is being satisfied. An in-depth exhibition of Mechau's oeuvre is on display in the Central Library, just a couple of floors above "Horses at Night." On the seventh level, in the Vida Ellison Gallery and adjacent corridors, is the riveting Shooting Star: The Artwork of Frank Mechau (1904-1946). This is the library's major art offering for the summer, and it's a worthy followup to the John Edward Thompson retrospective presented a few months ago. Like that outing, the Mechau extravaganza is part of an ongoing series of well-researched exhibits examining the region's rich art history.

A careful reading of Shooting Star's credit lines explains why Mechau's work is so rarely seen: His descendants have held on to as much as they could. Star includes loans from his widow, Paula, and his children, Vanni Lowdenslager, Dorik Mechau, Duna Stephens and, most notably, Michael Mechau, the keeper of the flame for his father's work and the principal impetus behind the display.

The Denver Public Library, which has an extensive collection of its own, has been showcasing local art for more than a hundred years, and though the Mechau exhibit might seem more appropriate in a venue such as the Denver Art Museum or the Colorado History Museum, the DPL can lay its own legitimate claim. For the past several years, these DPL shows have been coordinated and facilitated by Kay Wisnia, who works in the Western History department. Amazingly, Wisnia has been able to put them together while still completing her duties as a full-time librarian. In the process, not only has she distinguished herself as a complete pro, but she's gained the heartfelt respect of her peers in the art world.

It is difficult to hang a show in the Ellison Gallery, because there's hardly any wall space, with a big opening for the entrance and windows and doors lining the opposite wall. Architect Michael Graves was obviously more concerned with taking advantage of the view of the Civic Center than in providing proper exhibition space. As a result, the corridors are often drafted into service, making it nearly impossible to display works in chronological order. To solve this problem for Shooting Star, Wisnia put Mechau's earliest pieces in the gallery proper, with drawings hung in one corridor and paintings in the other.

Mechau was born in Kansas in 1904, but he moved with his family to Glenwood Springs when he was just a small child. He showed an early interest in art and was also a serious athlete. In 1922 he was awarded a one-year boxing scholarship to the University of Denver, where he studied art history. Around the same time, he also studied at the long-gone Denver Art Academy. In 1924 he attended the Art Institute of Chicago, but its formal, traditional program didn't sit well with him; he dropped out in 1925 and returned to Glenwood.

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