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Happy Birthday, Havu

"Biggie" and "Tupac," by Martha Daniels, ceramic sculpture.

On the frigid night of November first, hundreds of art enthusiasts made their way to the opening of the Four Year Anniversary Show at the William Havu Gallery. The occasion, of course, was a celebration of the gallery's fourth year in business. "We've never had an opening like it," says gallery director Bill Havu. "There were over 400 people who came that night."

The gallery is housed in its own, freestanding building, but it is part of the Grand Cherokee Lofts, which was designed by the award-winning Denver architectural firm of Humphries Poli and also includes a loft building and a row of townhouses. While most of the new buildings in the Golden Triangle are downright awful -- like the Prado, a bombastic and scale-less high rise across the street -- the design of the Grand Cherokee Lofts is intelligent and handsome.

The Havu gallery is a sleek, flat-roofed, neo-modernist building. Located mid-block, it lines up with the new and rehabbed storefronts to the south but pulls back from the sidewalk to the north. The three-part formal arrangement of this stepped setback provides room for an open-air courtyard at the front entrance that's just big enough for a sculpture or two. (Right now there's a Lucy Congdon on display.)

The three masses, each marked by its own unique fenestration pattern outlined in aluminum, are unified by the radial-steel canopy that connects them; the canopy also sets off the double front door. Behind the gallery is a sculpture garden, which is accessed through an inside door.

"To my knowledge, it's the only building constructed from the ground up as a contemporary gallery anywhere in the state," says Havu -- and I can't disagree with him. To put an even sharper point on it, the Havu Gallery is one of only a handful of buildings specifically dedicated to the fine arts -- artist studios, print shops, museums, art centers, etc. -- to have ever risen in Colorado.

A celebration of the fourth birthday of the William Havu Gallery may be somewhat misleading, since Havu himself has been in the art business in Colorado for nearly thirty years. It was 1973 when he opened his first art enterprise: a frame shop and gallery in Aspen, where Havu lived for many years.

Havu, who hails from the Midwest, moved to Aspen in 1968. "I came on a dare," he says. "A friend of mine said, 'Let's go to Aspen.' I said, 'Okay, but where's Aspen?'" He had plans to become a ski bum, and he had all the qualifications: an interest in skiing and no money.

"We lived in an abandoned cabin outside of old Snowmass," he recalls. "It got to be November, and it started getting really cold. When the well froze over, I thought it was time to leave," he says with a laugh.

"Then I did all the stuff people did in Aspen in those days. I was a busboy, a waiter; I worked construction. Soon I got to be a pretty good carpenter and was building saunas for a small Aspen builder." Those skills came in handy when he bought the Aspen Frame Shop for back taxes five years after moving to town.

"The Aspen Frame Shop had been open since the 1940s, and it was the oldest gallery in Aspen," says Havu. "I bought the business, but the former owner kept the original name, so I came up with a new one: The Gallery and Frame Shop of Aspen."

Havu's Aspen gallery showed the work of local Aspenites such as the late Jonathan Wright, a nationally known photographer, and Father Benedict, a sculpting monk from a monastery in Snowmass. Havu also featured limited-edition prints from New York printmaker HMK Fine Art. While running the gallery, he became a sales rep for HMK and traveled throughout the western U.S. and Canada hawking their prints.

Bad ski seasons in '76, '77 and '78 took their toll on Aspen, which was not the enclave of the super-rich that it is now, and Havu was forced to close his gallery in 1979. He moved to Evergreen and continued to work for HMK until they went out of business in the early 1980s. "My last several commission checks bounced," says Havu.

In 1983, he opened his first Denver gallery, which specialized in the sale of prints to the trade. Called Art Group Partners, it was located on the second floor of a Victorian building at 17th and Park avenues. In addition to selling art, the company published fine prints with printmakers Meg Ingraham and Bud Shark. Among the artists whose works were published by Art Group Partners were Sandra Kaplan, Michael Brangoccio and Tony Ortega.

In 1991, Havu shut down his wholesale business and opened the 1/1 Gallery in the 1700 block of Wazee Street in LoDo. As indicated by its unusual name, 1/1 specialized in the sale of monotypes; however, it soon expanded to include paintings, sculptures and even ceramics. At the time, 17th and Wazee was ground zero for the Denver art world. Within a block of 1/1 was the Metro State Center for the Visual Arts, the Sandy Carson Gallery, Hassel-Haeseler, Payton-Rule and Robischon.

Only Metro and Robischon are still on the block, and LoDo is no longer the center for the city's art galleries, largely because of soaring rents. In the late '90s, Havu's rent suddenly quintupled. "I was reeling," he remembers. "I had spent $50,000 converting an old auto-parts store into a beautiful gallery, and now the landlord, Jerry Erlich, was forcing me out," says Havu. "About two or three weeks later, out of the blue and totally by coincidence, Mickey Zeppelin came to me and told me about the Grand Cherokee project he planned to construct -- and you know the rest."

The selected artists in Four Year Anniversary Show reflect Havu's eclectic taste. The exhibit includes paintings, sculptures and prints in a variety of contemporary representational and abstract styles, and Havu has effectively installed it. The work of each artist is gathered together in its own section, with the sole exception being the ceramic sculptures by Denver's Martha Daniels, which are distributed around the first floor.

A major Daniels, "Red Nike," is positioned right inside the front door. Finished in red, the expressionist sculpture is classic Daniels: It's an abstract version of Nike, a winged-female figure from Greek mythology. Other Daniels sculptures also reflect her interest in classical antiquity, but there are two brand-new pieces that refer not to the age-old Nike, but to the present-day, street-culture, "Just Do It" version. These pieces, "Biggie" and "Tupac," are monumental portrait busts of the slain rap stars, and they are simply fabulous.

In the first of five rooms on the ground floor is a group of expressionist landscapes, in oil on canvas, by Nebraska artist Stephen Dinsmore. The settings for these brushy abstracted scenes are southwestern Nebraska and northeastern Colorado. Although the Dinsmores are fairly conservative, they are only nominally traditional and actually trace their origins back to both nineteenth-century impressionism and figural abstraction of the late twentieth century.

In the next room are some weird representational paintings by Iowa artist Michael Brangoccio. In the acrylic-on-canvas "Ambitious," for example, traditionally rendered bears, seen from behind, fill the foreground alongside a bunch of giant pumpkins -- but what's with that cartoon airplane in the background? Brangoccio, who was born and raised in Denver, is the only artist in the show who's been with Havu since the Art Group Partners days; all of the others have come on board since the opening of the Havu Gallery, in 1998.

In the space around the information desk, Havu has installed a selection of Sushe Felix's latest neo-transcendentalist abstractions -- and they're great. The Manitou Springs-based artist has long been interested in the early modern art of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, and her work represents an update of that tradition. "The Optimist," an acrylic with mixed media on canvas, is signature Felix. (Felix shares her interest in the region's art history with her husband, Tracy Felix, who is also a contemporary painter represented by Havu but is not in this show.)

Back up front, in the window gallery -- where "Biggie" and "Tupac" are on display -- Havu has placed a small group of beautiful abstract-expressionist paintings in oil on canvas by Boulder artist Amy Metier. These pieces are so fresh, they reek of oil paint. They seem to have representational subjects, maybe still-life scenes, underneath their surfaces. Metier's technique is loose and painterly, and she has an instinctual, marvelous sense for color and an automatist approach to line and form that is always right on the mark.

The work of the remaining artists in Four Year Anniversary -- Denver's Lynn Heitler, Arvada's Emilio Lobato, Golden's Bethany Kriegsman and Jean Gumpper, from Chipita Park -- is seen in somewhat abbreviated presentations; however, additional pieces by all four may be viewed upon request.

In the space under the loft, Havu has paired Heitler with Lobato, whose work was seen last month in an enormous solo show here. The Heitlers include some real standouts, such as the four small square monotypes with chine colle hanging on the front of the sliding racks. And a couple of the Lobatos, "Abánico (fan)" and "Tiempo Prestado (on borrowed time)" are gorgeous. They're wonderful constructivist compositions made from recycled book covers, a new and promising material that Lobato's been using lately. The tiny postage-stamp-sized monoprints are intriguingly intricate.

Kriegsman's calligraphic abstracts in mixed media on paper recall classic abstract expressionism from the mid-twentieth century. Gumpper's forte is the simplification of the Western landscape in meticulous and fanatically detailed woodcuts that look like paintings.

When the Havu Gallery opened in the fall of 1998, the Golden Triangle, though close to downtown, was pretty iffy as a potential site for a retail gallery -- or, to be frank, for any kind of open-to-the-public business. A good deal of the area was devoted to surface parking and another hunk to light industrial, with a smattering of low-end residential rentals filling in the rest.

It's hard to believe it's already been four years since Havu made the bold move of opening a gallery there. Even harder to believe is how much the Golden Triangle itself has been transformed through gentrification during that time, making Havu an urban pioneer of sorts, as well as a player in the big change.


One unwelcome change on the horizon for the Golden Triangle is the building of a new city jail on the site of the Rocky Mountain News building. The idea, being pushed by Mayor Wellington Webb, is so idiotic it seems like a joke. Then again, Webb's ideas about urban design downtown aren't just funny -- they're ridiculous. Here's hoping the laughable notion never comes to fruition.