Denver printmaker Diana Vavra Strong died on July 24 after a nearly twenty-year battle with cancer. Vavra Strong was most active as an artist in the 1960s and '70s, so until recently, her work was known mostly to a handful of old-timers. Last year, Kirkland Museum director Hugh Grant mounted Vavra Triptych, featuring Vavra Strong's work along with that of her parents ("Three-Way," July 20, 2006).
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Interestingly enough, Grant stumbled across her efforts while looking for information about her father, Frank Vavra, one of the most important Colorado painters from the first half of the twentieth century. In talking with Vavra Strong, Grant discovered that her mother, Kathleen Huffman Vavra, was also an artist who had created watercolors and worked as a commercial illustrator.
It was more or less natural, then, for Vavra Strong to follow in their footsteps, and in the late '50s, she did, attending the California College of Arts and Crafts, where she studied with Richard Diebenkorn, the most influential modernist in the West, and received her BFA on a scholarship. She then went on to earn an MFA at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where she later taught printmaking.
As could be expected, given her association with Diebenkorn, Vavra Strong's style was abstract-expressionist, and her compositions featured jagged lines and organic shapes, as seen in "Point Reyes National Seashore" (pictured), an embossed etching from 1969. She also embraced unusual methods. For example, she liked to emboss paper, which allowed her to introduce formal elements into her prints without actually using ink. She also liked to employ turpentine washes to soften the lines in her works on paper.
Last summer, when she attended the opening of the show at the Kirkland Museum, she was obviously frail. But despite her failing health, when I spoke with her, I found her to be animated and obviously pleased with the exhibit. As I left the Kirkland, I thought about how great it was that museum director Grant had given her this honor before it was too late for her to enjoy it.