It wasn't so long ago that stories about the arts community in Colorado Springs had but a single theme: Woe is us! There seemed to be few collectors, no galleries and practically no artists.
Resident artists were as lonely and friendless as the moose that spent a winter in Monument Valley Park a few years ago. The local arts establishment, particularly the Fine Arts Center, never showed locally created works of art, unless the makers were long dead. And what's worse, it wasn't always this way -- back in the day, be it 1930 or 1950, Colorado Springs was recognized for its flourishing, nationally known group of resident artists.
After spending much of the '80s and '90s first feeding the military industrial complex and then fueling developer-driven philistinism, about 10 years ago, things began to change in the local arts world. David Turner took over at the Fine Arts Center and began to feature local contemporary artists. At the UCCS Gallery of Contemporary Art, Gerry Riggs never wavered in his support of local art. Manitou Springs' Business of Art Center ebbed and flowed, but remained true to its mission of encouraging and supporting locals. The Downtown Arts District was born and almost disappeared, but revived. The changes -- some large, some small and incremental -- may not have transformed Colorado Springs into Santa Fe North, but they've been significant.
Indeed, many artists have not been passive spectators, waiting around for things to get better. Some have been insistently entrepreneurial, helping to create local markets for art, while others have been effective advocates. And many are teachers, inspiring generations of students while creating art that honors and illuminates our community.
The following pages contain profiles of four local artists who, through their dedication to the community and the sustained quality of their work, symbolize revival. It wasn't easy to choose the Fab Four; space permitting, we could have featured the fabulous 24. And that's a measure of how far we've come -- 25 years ago, we couldn't have written this story. Of course, 25 years ago this paper didn't exist, and Sean O'Meallie, one of the Fab Four, was about to get fired as a server at the Broadmoor -- for the fourth time ...
Sitting at Sean O'Meallie's dining room table in his modest near-downtown home, you know that you're in an artist's house. O'Meallie's own wildly inventive, small-scaled wooden sculptures are everywhere, as are works by his friends and peers. A Jean Gumpper woodcut hangs above the sideboard, a couple of feet from one of Louis collages. The house is warm, cluttered, interesting -- a gallery/museum without the fussy aridity that so often accompanies Art.
O'Meallie is one of our most successful local artists. He still teaches a class or two at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, but his art, once a sideline, is now his profession. Officially, he's a "Lecturer in Visual Art," and has been since 1996 -- although, as he admits with a bemused smile, he doesn't have a degree of any kind.
It has been, as Jerry Garcia might have said, a long, strange trip for O'Meallie. Born in New Orleans to supportive, nonconformist parents, "I wasn't a mainstream, churchgoing kind of kid." New Orleans, where so many different cultural styles comfortably coexist, shaped and nurtured him. He says that much of what informs his art, "a playfulness, a sense of revelry," comes from his New Orleans childhood.
O'Meallie first came to Colorado Springs in the early '70s, and drifted from job to job. Following a stint at the Broadmoor, he worked in a furniture factory, then at Michael Garman's figurine factory (where O'Meallie was fired for secretly signing his name to one his creations). A job at Current led to his first career, that of toymaker/designer. O'Meallie says that his artistic vocabulary comes from his understanding of how toys communicate, and of the multiple constituencies that a toymaker has to engage -- manufacturers, merchants, buyers/parents, and, ultimately, the child owner. A toy's communication has to be immediate, nonverbal and intimate.
O'Meallie had been creating his quirky, whimsical sculptures for years before he finally consented to exhibit them at the now-defunct Roby-Mill Gallery in 1994. He was encouraged; a few pieces sold, and he kept on making art, exhibiting it and -- somewhat to his surprise -- selling it. In his gentle, reflective way, he notes that being a professional artist "isn't a readily supported business model ... it's off-target if you're a profiteer." And although O'Meallie is now deeply rooted in Colorado Springs, he's slightly cynical about the community.
"It's a little crazy to look for Colorado Springs to be a fully supportive art market," he said. He sells a dozen or so pieces locally every year, but by now most of his sales are in New Orleans (where, at a recent show, he sold 20 pieces), Cambridge, Mass., and even Salida, Colo.
O'Meallie's support for his fellow artists, and for the arts community, has been constant and steady for many years. He never misses a show, an opening or an opportunity to help. He has supportive words for even the least-talented among us: "[Supporting your fellow artists] is the right thing to do; it's important and it's reciprocal ... [in today's world] a lot of the playground is controlled by bullies -- I've had to come up with another way of survival."
O'Meallie views his peers as sources of inspiration, as teachers and as friends -- not as competitors.
Sean O'Meallie's sculptures, often reviewed in this newspaper, are lighthearted and joyous. So what are they, besides beautiful objects? How do they and their maker fit in the gloomy corridors of art history? O'Meallie, articulate and original, thinks he knows. "[Art is] an anthropological record of who we are at a given time," he said, "and it's not always what we think we are. Some of it is terrible and ugly, but it's not always heavy or deep."
"It's an introductory class, so most of 'em have never been in a museum or an art gallery," Carol Dass explains. "I take 'em to the Fine Arts Center, to openings, to studios. ... One of the students came up to me and said, 'You know, since I've been in this class, everywhere I look I see a picture.' " Dass throws up her arms and smiles broadly: "Hallellujah! You live for that!"
We're seated at the round oak table in Dass' 1960s brick home, on a quiet street in Pleasant Valley. If her longtime friend Sean O'Meallie's house is an artist's residence, Dass' is a collector's. Every inch of wall space is covered with art, mostly framed photographs. There's a wall of hand-colored photographs from the '20s and '30s, including a few of Harry Standley's Colorado images. Then there are some of photographer Myron Wood's iconic images (Dass was Wood's assistant for many years), as well as a room full of turn-of-the-century tonal images, and a piece or two (or three, or 10) by all of her friends/peers, and hundreds more that resist classification, but just happened to catch Dass' eye sometime over the last 20 or 30 years. And somewhere in the midst of all this are Carol's own photographs -- as clear, strong, direct and meditative as their creator.
Dass and her husband Steve came to Colorado Springs in 1983, college kids just out of Northwest Missouri State University. Dass had spent childhood summers in Rocky Mountain National Park, wandering the meadows with a Kodak Instamatic, taking close-ups of wildflowers.
"I had an unhappy childhood, as I guess most children do," she said. "My great-uncle had a photo shop, and he gave me my first camera. I liked making photographs; it was private and personal, something I could go off by myself and do." Carol and Steve wanted to be in Colorado -- Denver was too big, Fort Collins was nice, but the jobs were in Colorado Springs. And so here they came in their 1966 Volkswagen bug, and here they've stayed.
Carol's first job was at Michael Garman's, where she worked in the basement with a dozen other production assistants, hand-painting the freshly molded figures. "I think I made about $2.50 an hour; it was the most boring, repetitive work you can imagine. One day I couldn't stop yawning, and the supervisor told me to stop. I was bringing everybody down."
She remembers the day that O'Meallie got canned. "No one was supposed to know about all the elves in the basement, doing the work." She pauses. "But don't say anything bad about Michael [Garman], OK? I might need a job again!" Dass also worked at Current, where she labored for seven years, before going to work for Ron and Julie Burnham at Frameworks Gallery. Working there, meeting other artists, she began to think that she could show her own work. And in 1994 she did, exhibiting her photographs in the same Roby-Mill show that introduced O'Meallie's work to the world.
Unknown in 1994, Dass is now widely considered to be one of the Pikes Peak region's most accomplished photographers. Her images are often unsparing and terrible. This is how she described her 2002 show at the Manitou Center for Photography:
"'The Flowing of Honey' is a term used to describe diabetes mellitus," she wrote. "These photographs were made over a three-year period. I inherited diabetes from my father, and he from his. These images are about our disease."
In the show was a shot of Dass' father, asleep on a rumpled bed, the room flooded with late-afternoon light. The covers are thrown back; diabetes has taken both of his legs. His face, even in sleep, is contorted with remembered pain. And there was a final photograph of her father, a memorial, his face softly profiled, calm and expressionless in death.
Dass is comfortably aware of death, and comfortable with the naked human body, her own included. In the current faculty show at the UCCS Gallery of Contemporary Art, there's a full-sized cutout of Dass in the nude, with a clown's head, comically accessorized with a plate of cupcakes. Few of us, as we enter a non-aerobicized middle age, would have the temerity or honesty to thus expose ourselves in all our saggy splendor.
Dass began teaching at UCCS in 2001. She's now a full-time instructor, and loves it. "I feel that this is my contribution," she said. "I try to inspire [my students] to explore their own personal creativity."
Has she thought of trying for a larger stage, of marketing her work nationally?
"I've remained localized," she said. "I'm not very good at self-promotion, but yeah, everybody wants someone to buy their work. When you're an art major, they don't tell you that maybe one in 200 million people can make a living as a successful artist."
"Just turn into the alley; you can't miss it," says Don Green, providing a visitor directions to his studio. "There's a big black steel half-sphere lying beside the door -- it's kind of a shed with a tin roof and a stainless steel door. You'll find it." He was right, and in a few minutes the amiable, reclusive Green opened the door to his studio.
It's not exactly what you'd think of as an artist's studio -- more like a welding business or a speed shop from the 1950s. No airy skylights, no banks of north-facing windows, just a cluttered, claustrophobic space of MIG welders, oxyacetylene torches, grinders, steel tables and steel shelves, with row after row of coffee cans full of stuff that might come in handy, stuff Green has accumulated since beginning work half a century ago.
You've seen Green's work. His creations include the Indian Warrior and the Bison on the road to the airport, the airy "Celebration" next to the offices of the Pikes Peak Association of Realtors, and the animal benches at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.
Born 72 years ago in Nebraska, Green moved here with his family in 1940. His father was a farmer, forced off the land by the Depression. "I saw my dad walking down the street, trying to sell things for 10 cents on the dollar, just to feed us. I never forgot that," Green said. "I decided that I'd never be in that position." The Green family settled here -- Mom, Dad and six kids. They became modestly prosperous. And of the six kids, five still live here.
There wasn't enough money for college, but Green managed to get a football scholarship to Utah State, as a 5-foot-10-inch-tall, 175-pound guard. "I got beat up pretty bad; in fact, I have to have knee surgery next week -- all those 250-pounders -- so I transferred to C.U." He graduated and took a job in 1956 at the then-new East Junior High. He was hired by the legendary superintendent Roy Wasson. "What a little tyrant," said Green. "It was like walking into Napoleon's office!" Green worked and taught in District 11 for 30 years, retiring in 1985 as supervisor of art.
Rising easily from a battered metal stool, Green points out a couple of works in progress. A graceful, branching structure of welded stainless steel sits on a table, next to a neat stack of glass rectangles. Eventually, Don will incorporate the glass into the steel structure "It's supposed to be treelike; at least, I think it is."
So how did he become a sculptor? "I was always more interested in 3-D materials. When I was a kid, I'd try to walk around a painting to see what the other side looked like."
Colorado Springs was a small town, so it wasn't until 1978 that Green got a major public commission to sculpt the rearing stallion between Centennial Hall and the Pikes Peak Center. Other commissions followed -- so many that Don has no idea how many of his works grace Colorado Springs, or all of Colorado. But there won't be any more. Green's not interested in dealing with the tiresome paperwork that public commissions require nowadays. "Workman's comp, and you've gotta get an engineer to approve the plans," he said. "I'll stick to the little stuff for a while."
Green's modest. He doesn't play up that he served on the Fine Arts Center Board for years, or on the Colorado Council for Arts and Humanities. Talking about his work, he's matter-of-fact, understated. His masterpiece, the soaring "Eos," a symphony in glass and steel, recently installed on the UCCS campus, was just a simple engineering problem. "We had to make the bases too small to climb, and put the glass high enough so it wouldn't get broken." Why stainless steel and glass? "They last; they don't wear out."
Married to Maxine for close to 50 years, Don has three grown kids. "I warned all of 'em about being in the arts," and, he says proudly, "they're all in the arts." And what about Don? Slowing down? No. "It's been fun, and it still is. The art keeps cramming itself into your head." Outside the studio, Don points to a 10-foot-high hollow steel pillar "I got it from [artist] Mary Helsaple when she was getting rid of a lot of stuff. I think I can make a real monumental piece out of it."
As this visitor leaves, Green is still looking at his steel pillar, waiting to see what's on the other side.
Jean Gumpper leans intently over the table at a downtown coffee shop, making sure that her lunch companion gets what she's saying.
"It was a tenured position! I was a tenured professor, and I left it to come here in 1995." And what did that feel like? "Like jumping off a cliff!"
Gumpper leans back, smiles broadly and shakes her head. She doesn't look like someone who would jump off a cliff. Calm, serious, warm, restrained, Gumpper might be your favorite teacher, or the neighborhood mom to whose house all the kids gravitate.
A visiting associate professor at Colorado College, and the mother of a teenager, Gumpper is both a mom and a teacher -- and she's also a nationally renowned printmaker. Her large-scale reduction woodcuts have been exhibited across the country and have been reviewed in dozens of publications.
Why come to the Pikes Peak region? "It was OK in Minnesota [she taught at Concordia College], and I suppose that I would have just stayed there, but eventually the change was for me, and for my family." So they moved to Chipita Park and Gumpper took a job as executive director of the Business of Art Center in Manitou Springs, which she combined with a part-time gig as an instructor at Denver University.
It was a busy, harried time. "I think I made maybe one print in the entire year." She left the BAC after a year, but continued to teach. But in 1998, her world changed. She received an artist-in-residence grant that allowed her to spend several weeks in a historic cabin in Rocky Mountain National Park. "I really had not been alone for many years," she said. "I'd been a wife, a mother, a teacher, an administrator, a community volunteer. This was one of the rare times in my life that I was alone ... there was a sense of slowing down."
Inventive, creative and curious as a child -- "we wrote stories, sang songs, built environments for our pets" -- as a young adult, Gumpper was "interested in everything." At the University of Michigan she started with Asian Studies, then pre-med, and finally settled on printmaking. It wasn't until after graduation that she made woodcuts, just to have some familiarity with the medium. She'd found her mtier. "I liked the physicality of it ... and the element of transformation and chance that you can't control."
Gumpper's woodcuts are printed from a plywood sheet, from which the areas meant to be un-inked have been cut away. Multiple colors are printed in several runs, with additional areas cut away for each run. This layering of color produces striking, often unpredictable effects. It's a process that demands superb technical skill.
In Rocky Mountain National Park, she turned away from big vistas -- the mountains, the forest, the changing sky -- to the small and intimate. She looked at edges, at a quiet sheet of water next to a brook, at marsh grasses, at puddles after the rain. "[I liked] the unpredictability and disorder of nature -- the idea of paying attention to something smaller, more contemplative," she said.
Since her days as an Asian Studies major, she'd been fascinated by the spare landscapes of the great Japanese printmakers. Her art changed. She began to see herself working in a tradition, one whose formal constraints had to be honored. "I was working in a tradition, one where I felt I had a lot of freedom." She'd been offered a one-person show at the Fine Arts Center, and in a furious burst of creativity made 10 new pieces for it.
Gumpper had found her medium, her style and her voice. Her new work was light-filled, and emotional. The exhibition was widely praised and was followed by dozens more. Successful by any measure, how does she feel about Colorado Springs?
"It's a challenge," she says diplomatically. "I have very mixed feelings. In a lot of ways it's been quite supportive, but it's very difficult to show contemporary art here because there just aren't the galleries."
But she's not going anywhere. She loves her work, her son loves his school, they're happy. Told that her work is prominently displayed in the homes of two of the artists herein featured, she reddens with pleasure. "Sean and Carol, right?" She smiles. "They're both so wonderful."