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Old school redux 

Catching up with artist Floyd Tunson

click to enlarge Floyd Tunson in his Manitou Springs studio - NOEL BLACK
  • Noel Black
  • Floyd Tunson in his Manitou Springs studio

Full disclosure: I've known Floyd Tunson since I was 12 years old. But anyone who skied at the now-defunct Broadmoor Ski Area in the mid-1980s knew Floyd Tunson.

There just weren't that many black men with shoulder-length dreadlocks carving perfect lines across the ice-caked slopes of Cheyenne Mountain. And if you skied there with any regularity, eventually you shared a chairlift with this affable high school art teacher and artist who didn't seem to have the slightest compunction about being a racial anomaly in the very white heights of Colorado Springs' most affluent enclave.

Perhaps this ease with himself in inhospitable surroundings can at least partly explain why Tunson, 30 years later, still lives and makes art here in the Pikes Peak region.

Known for his Rauschenberg-like "synchro-mesh" sculptures and his gargantuan canvases filled with everything from pop-inspired iconography to young black men and sweeping abstractions, Tunson is the rare artist who balances political and aesthetic concerns without getting bogged down by labels. Recently retired from his teaching post at Palmer High School, Tunson has now turned his full attention to his artwork. With his first post-teaching solo show at the Sandy Carson Gallery in Denver now under his belt, Tunson sat down with the Independent in his cavernous Manitou home studio to talk about life, art and work.

Indy: You started teaching at Palmer in 1972?

Floyd Tunson: 1971.

Indy: What was it like being a black person in Colorado Springs in that time right after the civil rights movement had really exploded?

FT: I hated Colorado Springs. I deplored this place. As a matter of fact, my first year here, everybody thought I still lived in Denver because every Friday when I went to school, my suitcase was already packed and in the car. Eventually, going to Denver every weekend got to be silly too, and I figured out that I wasn't going to rely on Colorado Springs for anything. I was going to live here and understand that there's nothing here for me. It was tough. But coming out of Denver [where Tunson was born and raised] and making the comparison from Denver to Colorado Springs in those days, it was still a big jump. It was really conservative, redneck -- just bad.

Indy: How has it been making the transition from being a teacher to making art full time? Your publicist said that, after teaching for 25 years, you just "intellectually collapsed."

FT: I don't think I intellectually collapsed, but it was a big transition shaking that, rejuvenating and really getting back to what I've really been trying to do all my life. I thought the transition would be real smooth -- that I'd come out of teaching and just continue to do art. I mean, I never stopped doing art even when I was teaching. But it just doesn't work that way. I was like a ship without a rudder for that first year.

click to enlarge Old School Remix, one of Tunsons multimedia pieces.
  • Old School Remix, one of Tunsons multimedia pieces.

Once I got back into doing what I wanted to do on my own time, it didn't take long to shake the teaching. And I don't miss it, not at all. I can say that truthfully now: This is the life! I love my schedule. It's my schedule. No problem.

Indy: Most of this new work that you showed at Sandy Carson's gallery in Denver is abstract with the exception of "Old School Remix." It's an interesting painting. It's got this riff on Matisse and then these black characters from Tin Tin comics ...

FT: Yeah, I'm thinking about racism in the art world. I'm thinking about being marginalized as a black artist. And basically that's what that piece is all about.

Indy: That begs the question of how you've managed to stay so connected to the art world at large while remaining here in Manitou and Colorado Springs.

FT: Well, this is where I work. It's an easy place to work. I've told everybody: "If you can't get any work done here, you're probably not going to be able to work anywhere because there's no distractions."

So I kind of feel that this where I can get work done, but I don't see it as the center of the art universe. I know it's not. I know it's way out on the periphery. But I'm a voracious reader and I'm hungry for everything that's going on in art. I travel a lot. I go to New York. I go see shows. I'll go to Houston to see a Rauschenberg retrospective. I'll go to Seattle to see a Chuck Close show. I'll follow all my idols -- Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. They all had a big influence on me because I was in high school when those guys were big. And that opened my eyes up to a lot of possibilities. Before that, I had a pretty classical and traditional art background. Wherever you gotta go to stay on top of it, because you can get lost here.

Indy: What's your relationship to the art community here in Manitou and Colorado Springs?

FT: I'm not that gregarious anymore. I'm pretty private and isolated and I love being here [in my studio/home]. And I love people not knowing I'm here. It's fine with me. I'm not looking for anything from the community. I don't rely on them for my inspiration or support. I give it, though. When I was younger I always wished we had a more vital art community. But it's not happening, and I don't see it happening real soon.

Indy: But there are great artists here, they just don't seem to come together. Nobody seems bothered enough by it to do anything about it.

FT: That kind of goes back to the community -- they're not bothered by anything. They've got lousy mass transportation and nobody's bitching. The city doesn't give crap back. And when you think of the population we have now, we should be getting more. I don't think enough people with positive intent have moved here yet. And maybe they're here but there's no way to galvanize them.

Indy: So why didn't you ever move to New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles?

FT: If I was younger, that's something I would want to do. But I never made the move and I'm glad I didn't. And at the same time, if I moved there now I'd have to go out to Queens or Brooklyn, and who wants to do that? The disadvantage of being here in Manitou is that nobody's coming to your studio to look at any art. If you want people to come look at your art, you've gotta be in New York. But quality of life for me ... I don't have the money to move to New York. The life here is easy for me.

  • Catching up with artist Floyd Tunson

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