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Fine Art Center's Awesome Art Auction ups the ante

Here's a tale of two cities. One is a small city of 100,000 souls, blessed with lovely historic neighborhoods, sensible politics, spacious parks and a lively arts scene. The other is a sprawling, shapeless suburb of 300,000 folks, growing as rapidly as cancer cells divide, riven by traffic-choked boulevards lined with big-box retailers, transient as a homeless encampment, and unified only by antediluvian politics. These cities have less in common than, say, Moscow and New York, but they do share one thing: the name Colorado Springs.

That odd division, which has characterized our town for at least fifteen years, accounts for many of the anomalies in our local arts scene. With a metro area of half a million, we're about Denver's size. But where's our new library, our art museum, our publicly funded zoo, our glittering center for the performing arts, our dozen contemporary art galleries? Here's the short answer: we're not Denver. The moderate politics of the Colorado Springs' city core is overwhelmed by the conservative suburbs, so the arts will never command the degree of public support that, absent the annexations of the last few decades, they might otherwise enjoy.

Still, it'd be nice if we had a few really first-rate galleries, so that you could not only see, but even buy, the best contemporary art of the region. The Bridge Gallery (sole survivor of the Depot Arts District), the Business of Arts Center, and one or two others do what they can, but still ...

Happily, for the next couple of weeks our noble old Fine Arts Center has transformed itself into a contemporary arts superstore. Every year at this time, the FAC courts every serious regional artist and invites them to contribute a work or two to its annual silent art auction exhibition, this year given the chipper title, Awesome Art Auction: Bid, Boogie and Buy! It's a tribute to both the FAC and the arts community that the response has been overwhelming; over 60 works from 59 artists have been contributed. And not only that, the artworks are, for the most part, significant pieces, fully representative of the artists' best works. And, of course, it's all for sale.

Here's how it works. There are bid cards posted next to each piece, establishing the minimum bid and minimum raise. Just write your name on the card, with your bid, and start praying no one else notices your treasure. On April 14, the silent auction will culminate with a grand soiree, titled "Party Arty," when the highest bidders win.

Judging from the names on the bid cards, a lot of art insiders and solid citizens see this as an attractive way to buy. Uber-collector Rich Lehrer has his name on an accomplished piece by Laurel Swab, while real estate mogul Buck Blessing, G publisher Scott Fischer, and art anarchist Tom McElroy were all active in the early bidding.

So let's grab a pencil, and spend an hour or so in the FAC's west gallery doing a little fantasy bidding.

Who's the region's best artist? That's an endlessly entertaining argument, like VH1's list of the 100 best rock songs, not a question that has an answer. Clearly, though, there are a dozen artists who contend for the title. Just as clearly, Chuck Forsman would be close to the top of that list.

For over a decade, Forsman has brilliantly rendered the mutilated landscapes of the American West. For this show, he's contributed a painting titled "Homes on the Range." It's an ordered, realistic representation of a new suburb, springing up on the edge of a Front Range city. You see the big sky, the sweeping prairies, a fragment of a billboard, the edge of the road, the shadow of a car and the strange geometry of nascent suburbia. Forsman says of his work, "I live in a magnificent and troubled environment, and it seems natural to me to paint the pain along with the beauty." It's a brilliant painting and, with a minimum bid of three grand, not cheap.

One of Jean Gumpper's spectacular large-scale woodcuts, titled "Summer's End," is also on display. Like most of her work, "Summer's End" is quietly evocative of the natural world; of fallen leaves, of change and transformation. There hasn't been a printmaker in Colorado since George Elbert Burr who combines Gumpper's technical facility and artistic vision. "Summer's End" carries a suggested opening bid of $300; if you can carry it home for twice that, you'll have made a major score.

Pat Musick's "Solstice," enamel on copper, summons the mystery of time and place in New Mexico and Ireland. Like all of Pat's work, it's accomplished, original and unmistakably hers. And it's another piece with a modest minimum bid; with luck, you might snag it for a few hundred dollars.

Charlie Knoeckel and Carol Dass are among our city's most gifted photographers, and each has contributed a fine piece. Charlie's dye coupler photograph, "Night Storm 2, Eastern Colorado Plains" is a masterful image, beautifully printed, while Carol's seated nude, "Tuck & Roll" (a black-and-white, infrared hand-tinted silver gelatin print) is carefully controlled, subtle and satisfying.

Don and Maxine Green have each contributed small sculptures. Titled "Sarum," Don's piece is an elegant construction of steel, glass, marble and hardwood, while Maxine's "Tatanga" is a free-standing, two-sided bas-relief of two buffalo. The Greens, husband and wife, have enriched our community with their art for many years, and either piece would be a delight to own.

I liked Christy Callahan's "Lunar Eclipse," with a suggested opening bid of $275. Unfortunately, so do a couple of our local magnates; don't think that I want to get in the middle of that particular bidding war! UCCS professor Julia Hoerner's digital image "Kiyoko's 1000 Cranes" is rich, delightful and maybe even affordable.

Sean O'Meallie's contribution is a simple, cheerful and quietly joyous work of art. It's nothing more than a small wooden wagon, filled with wooden blocks, quirkily shaped, whimsically painted. It's the long-forgotten favorite toy of earliest childhood. I loved it and, judging from the number of bids, so did a lot of other people.

Bill Geary, who studied glassmaking in Sweden as well as here in his native land, has a wonderful vase on display. Titled "Sunset," it's a classically simple form, perfectly executed in soft, glowing peach.

Conclusions? Auction environments can be challenging, especially silent auctions. You need to gamble a bit, and be prepared to buy three or four pieces, or none. If you can afford it, go for the Forsman. If you can't, go for whatever you like. And what am I going to bid on? Well, since I can only afford a pittance, maybe I should just go to Cripple Creek and try to persuade the quarter slots to bankroll me. What, after all, could be more beautiful than three diamonds on the ten times machine with three coins bet? Now that's real art...

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