Colorado Springs always seems to be hiding its treasures. For example, how many people outside the art community know that one of the greatest living muralists and practitioners of fresco painting lives right here in the shadow of Pikes Peak? In the tradition of the Italian Renaissance, the great Mexican muralists, and local social realist greats Boardman Robinson, Thomas Hart Benton and Jean Charlot, Eric Bransby has carried on the long tradition of monumental historic mural painting.
Historical mural painters are faced with very specific challenges. They have to be iconic storytellers, impeccable draftsmen and designers, expert painting technicians, and stylistic populists.
Even the quickest glance at Bransby's "Murals of the Pikes Peak Region" on permanent display at the Pioneers Museum reveals his mastery of all elements of the mural: the complexity and originality of design in the panels; the perfect concision of visual storytelling; his masterful use of color and composition; and a personal, yet popular, fluid style.
The Independent recently spoke with Bransby on a scaffolding in the dome of Cossit Hall on the Colorado College campus where he is in the process of restoring the mural he painted in the rotunda during studies at the Fine Arts Center in the 1940s.
Indy: How did you get started painting murals?
Eric Bransby: I began studying mural painting with Thomas Hart Benton in Kansas City at the Art Institute prior to World War II. There was a lot of mural-making going on at that time nationally. I did my first mural on the WPA right at the end of my schooling. Then, after my military service, I came out to Colorado Springs to study under Boardman Robinson, who was a nationally known figure teaching at the Broadmoor Art Academy Fine Arts Center. When Robinson became ill, Jean Charlot became his replacement. And Charlot had worked with the great Mexican muralists, Diego Rivera, Jose Orozco and David Siqueiros.
Indy: The Fine Art Center at that time was one of the most prominent places to study art.
EB: Yes, the students there were from all over the country. And Boardman Robinson brought people here because he was a nationally known figure. I started to do frescoes here right after the war, and periodically did fresco murals around town including one at the FAC that's since been destroyed, and a couple at St. Francis hospital.
Indy: What appealed to you about the medium?
EB: It's ideally suited to wall painting because you're working in wet plaster. And plaster has always been the ideal medium for wall surfaces in architecture since Greek and Roman days. And I've continued over the years to work on and off in fresco medium ever since. I probably have 27 or 28 murals scattered around throughout the Midwest and Rocky Mountain area.
Indy: You're one of the only masters of fresco technique in the country.
EB: There are probably about five old-timers in the country who know the process, and there are a number of young people who are learning about it.
Indy: What was it like in Colorado Springs during the time of the Broadmoor Art Academy in the 1940s?
EB: Let me first of all say that there was more professional art activity here during that period than there ever had been or was in Denver or Boulder. The school was relatively small -- probably between 300 and 400 people. Boardman Robinson, besides being a great muralist, was a great figure draftsman, and that's why I came here -- because I wanted to study his skills in figure drawing. There was a lot of coming and going here of professional artists because we had one of the three top-ranking printmakers in the country, Lawrence Barrett. And so lots of artists would send their lithography stones out from New York, and some people would come and do their work here for him to print. And before the war, Colorado Springs had been a real factory of mural-making.
Indy: Was there a defining moment that ended that era, and why do you think the artists from the Broadmoor School were all but forgotten?
EB: Several things happened. One was that the aesthetic climate changed. All the way from the end of WWII, abstract expressionism was coming up. But the people here were still thinking in terms of Czanne and social realism. By the early '50s you could not exhibit representational work in a major show. There was also the fact that architecture had become very severe, devoid of ornament, and the walls were disappearing and being replaced by glass. Architects weren't interested in the painted line.
Indy: So what did you do?
EB: Around 1950 I went on to Yale. America had become very interested in the Bauhaus movement, and Bauhaus people were beginning to take over the direction of art departments at colleges and universities. So that was right at the point when I went to work with a Bauhaus man, Josef Albers, who was one of the original founders of the German Bauhaus.
Indy: How many murals do you have in Colorado Springs?
EB: I have the murals that are at the airport that are in acrylic. Then I have the pieces above the front doors at the Fine Arts Center, which are repaintings of Boardman Robinson's murals with some of my own style and color thrown in since all I had to work with were some black-and-white photos the size of postage stamps. Then there's the murals at the Pioneers Museum that Sushe Felix helped me with. And a few others here and there.
The striking colors and textures are reminiscent of Southern Colorado and New Mexico. Lovely work.