Painting the Town Red

"It was a hell of a decision to make," says director Paul Hughes. "This is my life. The gallery is my identity." But even so, Hughes is closing Inkfish Gallery, his life for over twenty years, at the end of the month.

Back in 1975, Hughes was the regional manager for Knoll International--then, as now, one of the world's most respected makers of textiles, furniture and decorative items. But when a mid-Seventies downturn in the design business led Knoll to close its Denver office, the company gave Hughes two options: continue to run the office out of his home, or move with the company out of Denver. Instead, of course, Hughes decided to leave Knoll and open a gallery named Inkfish. "The word comes from a poem by Carl Sandburg entitled 'They All Want to Play Hamlet.' It refers to Shakespeare as the inkfish and our logo--a pen tip--carried on the theme," Hughes remembers.

Hughes was supported in his decision by several artists, who urged him to open the gallery and pledged to give him their work. The first to sign on was the late Harry Bertoia, an internationally known kinetic sculptor who'd met Hughes through Knoll (the artist designed a line of chairs for the company and also sold his sculptures through Knoll). Bertoia was soon joined by two local artists: Fort Collins-based painter David Yust and Denver painter Sandra Kaplan.

With Hughes as director and his wife, Nan, as business manager, Inkfish opened its doors in a Cheesman Park mansion but lasted there only a year. "The city bought the mansion and threw us out," Hughes says. Today that building is the Capitol Hill Community Center.

In 1976 Hughes moved the gallery to a Victorian storefront at the corner of 18th and Market streets, in the neighborhood that would later be known as LoDo. "In those days we would present ten shows a year, and the gallery became the place to be, with important shows by important artists like Chuck Parson and Robert Behrens," Hughes recalls. "Several shows were sellouts at the openings. The Michael Duffy show was amazing--he brought in 35 paintings and we wound up selling 40. In the case of the Lee Simpson show, we were forced to turn away an important corporate client--Petro-Lewis--because the show sold out. They were angry with us for years, really angry."

Ten years later, when the building that housed the gallery was slated for demolition, Inkfish moved again. For several months at the end of 1987 through the beginning of 1988, Hughes presented exhibits in a lobby-front shop in the just-finished 1999 Broadway building. But this glass, steel and marble skyscraper was only a temporary location while Hughes awaited the completion of the marvelous soaring space at 949 Broadway, where the gallery moved in 1988.

As the focal point of a glittering new gallery row, Inkfish was again the place to be. And its exhibits were must-sees that featured the work of international artists like George Rickey, Red Grooms and the late Herbert Bayer, as well as an eclectic assortment of local luminaries that included Mark Lunning, Joe Snyder and Amy Metier. "The internationals paid for the locals," Hughes says, "because the famous artists brought notoriety to the gallery and because their work sold readily. George Rickey is the most responsible for keeping us going--we've shown him for nineteen years, and he's the best seller we've ever had."

While on Broadway's gallery row, Inkfish began to expand its market by selling more than strictly contemporary art, supplementing the latest thing with the older work of modern artists. Hughes became a local pioneer in this rediscovery of old modern art, part of an international trend in the gallery business of the 1980s. And he struck gold with the likes of nonagenarian Roland Detre and the late Vance Kirkland, both modernist painters who had been key figures in the development of modern art in Denver since the 1940s.

But although Inkfish enjoyed the occasional artistic feast, the famines were more common. By the summer of 1996, Inkfish was the sole survivor in its Broadway block, and an impending rent increase forced Hughes to seek out a fifth and final location for his gallery. The current space, farther down Broadway at Bayaud, is hosting one last show. When that comes down, Inkfish will close permanently.

For the grand finale, Hughes has chosen to go out in a blaze of glory--or is that Marecak red?--with the stunningly beautiful and historically important Edward Marecak exhibit.

Edward Marecak was born on a farm near Cleveland in 1919; his parents, Michael and Matilda, were recent arrivals from Slovakia. They inspired their child with the traditions of their Old World homeland, images of which the younger Marecak used artistically for the rest of his life. And Marecak showed his talent early on when, while still a high-school student, he won a National Youth Administration competition with watercolors of Ohio barns.