Visual Arts

Colorado Modern Master Bill Vielehr Passes Away

Bill Vielehr, a Colorado modern master, died suddenly on Saturday, October 11. Vielehr was born in Chicago in 1945 but grew up in Boulder, and he launched his art career here in Colorado. He studied fine art at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where he earned a BFA in 1969, taking on some special graduate studies in sculpture that same year, also at CSU. He began to exhibit his work in the early 1970s -- not just in Colorado but across the country.

Vielehr, who at the time of his death was represented by Walker Fine Art in Denver, gained national recognition over the decades for his signature monumental abstract sculptures and his bas-relief sculptures, all of which were done in cast metals -- mostly aluminum or bronze, but in some cases he used both types in the same piece.

See also: Review of the Arvada Center's Unbound Installations

Though early on Vielehr was interested in abstracting the human form, for decades he had created non-objective pieces based on standing cylindrical forms reminiscent of hollowed-out tree-trunks or ruined columns. These works, which usually soar above the viewers' heads, have a totemic and spiritual quality. The related bas-relief works, which are essentially flat and not curved like his free-standing pieces, share this sense of spirituality. Whichever form he chose, the finished results are typically polished as opposed to patinated, allowing the beautiful natural colors of the metals to shine through.

Vielehr reveled in heavily detailed surfaces, which he achieved through his embrace of the ancient lost-wax method -- in which a wax master is created that is then cast in a mold into which molten metal is subsequently poured, causing the wax original to vaporize until it's "lost" and replaced by the metal. This method allowed Vielehr to cover his pieces -- which are simple in overall shape -- in dense patterns of lumps and hollows along, with more subtle expressions including shallow marks and tight creases.

According to the extensive explanatory statements Vielehr made over the years, these active surfaces represented his version of 3-D "drawings." In order to create his larger works, Vielehr welded separate castings together or installed them side by side.

In the intervening four-plus decades since he first launched his artistic practice, Vielehr was awarded a number of commissions for art in public in places far-flung from his Boulder home base, with a number of works installed on the West Coast, including major pieces on permanent display in California, Washington and Oregon. His work also found an audience in New Mexico and, of course, here in Colorado.

Many of his in-state works are inside, such as his wall panels in Coolbaugh Hall at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden and his cast-metal door panels created for the Ralph L. Carr Judicial Center off the the Civic Center in downtown Denver. Others are on-view outdoors and easier to check out -- such as "Reflective Urban Quilt," a-two part installation on the lawn of Fire Station #1 at 9801 16th Avenue in Aurora. Two Vielehr works -- "Tactile Visual Continuum" and "Metal Response" -- are currently on display as part of Unbound: Sculpture in the Field now at the Arvada Center.

I had only met Vielehr a handful of times over the past twenty years, but he made a lasting impression with his ready smile and his infectious good humor. So it's appropriate in these sad times that his friends and family would decide to celebrate him in the spirit in which he lived by holding a party and not a funeral to remember Vielehr. This memorial will be held at Viehler's Boulder workshop on Saturday, October 18. The family has requested that any donations be made to the Boulder International Film Festival; Vielehr was deeply committed to the festival, and he created award sculptures for the group that were presented over many years.

And now it's time for some local institution to mount a proper retrospective of Bill Vielehr's accomplishments -- too bad none had already thought of doing that, so he could have enjoyed it with the rest of us.