Pikes Peak or Bust

Pity Colorado Springs if you must. Today it's known primarily for its right-wing politics. But as recently as the early 1950s, the city was famous mostly for its art--a lot of which was left-wing. Hard to believe? Perhaps. But it's a message that Manitou Springs painter Tracy Felix wants to relay to anyone who'll listen.

Felix is best known in Denver for his simplified contemporary landscape paintings depicting the Front Range. But he's also an at-large art historian, curator and exhibition designer--talents he puts to full use in a trio of current shows that make Colorado Springs a worthwhile destination for a change.

Downtown, Felix has helped reinstall the Colorado Springs Pioneer Museum's permanent collection of Artus and Anne Van Briggle's art pottery. In the city's old north end, at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, he played a role in a five-years-in-the-making tribute to Depression-era muralist and illustrator Boardman Robinson. And up at the campus of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Felix co-curated a second Robinson retrospective, this one juxtaposing the work of Robinson with that of his colleagues and students.

The Pioneers Museum is housed in the elegant old El Paso County Courthouse on South Tejon Street, a pink stone Italian palazzo on steroids crowned with a huge bell tower. Spared the wrecking ball in the 1970s when its bland replacement was built across the street, the courthouse became the CSPM's new home. Over the years, the museum staff has restored the opulent building, converting courtrooms to exhibition space without destroying the interior's splendid details.

In a small side gallery that must have been a clerk's office, a series of glass showcases are filled with more than 100 examples of Van Briggle art pottery. In 1899 Artus Van Briggle and his wife, Anne, came to Colorado Springs, attracted both by the clay rush that had made Colorado an attractive place for potters and by the cool, dry air--a godsend for Artus, who suffered from tuberculosis. The Van Briggles established a commercial pottery and went on to earn worldwide acclaim, winning a gold medal at the Paris Salon of 1903. Artus died in 1904, and Anne essentially gave up on the pottery business (which still exists, by the way) when it was sold at a sheriff's auction in 1913.

Felix recently revamped the glass showcases and stocked them with Van Briggle selections from the museum's enormous collection. He chose the oldest and finest pieces, which well illustrate the many stylistic influences the Van Briggles embraced, from art nouveau and arts and crafts to Chinese and American Indian works. Using his painter's eye for color, Felix also made his selections with the idea of featuring gorgeous glazes. He found plenty of those in a group of pieces originally assembled by a local private collector, Lois Crouch, who first became aware of the pottery in the museums of Paris in the 1960s. Fifteen years ago Crouch donated her magnificent assortment to the CSPM, and it became the core of the museum's Van Briggle collection. The CSPM has since acquired many more articles, including a stunning turquoise-colored fireplace.

Just a short car ride from the old courthouse is the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, a 1936 modernist masterpiece by New Mexico architect John Gaw Meem. In the 1930s the idea of having exhibitions, concerts, plays and art instruction in a one-stop art center was a brand-new idea, and the Fine Arts Center quickly replaced its predecessor, the prestigious Broadmoor Academy, as the city's art hub. Renowned muralist Boardman Robinson, the Broadmoor's director since 1931, moved over to become director of the CSFAC's newly created art school and remained a force in Colorado Springs until he was disgracefully fired shortly before he died in 1952. His dismissal was a direct result of that decade's Red Scare, which literally brought down the whole art school. This last tragic aspect in the life of the artist is all but ignored in the otherwise spectacular Robinson show that now occupies three large galleries and the center's lobby.

Boardman Robinson: American Muralist and Illustrator, 1876-1952 is the product of a committee that has been working since 1991. The honorary chairman was Robinson's granddaughter, Johanne Robinson Coiner, who shared anecdotes along with her collection. Also taking part were a number of Robinson's students, including significant Colorado artists such as Lew Tilley, Eric Bransby, Mary Ann Bransby and Laurence B. Field, as well as local art collectors and enthusiasts such as Nelson Rieger, Pat Musick and, of course, Felix.

According to Cathy Wright, chief curator of the CSFAC's Taylor Museum, the committee was largely responsible for the center's acquisition of what she calls one of Robinson's greatest works, the ten-mural series "History of Commerce," created for Pittsburgh's Kaufmann's department store in 1929. The committee entrusted specific decisions about the Robinson show to Henry Adams, the highly regarded regionalist authority, who was brought in especially for the event.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia