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The Great Gatsbys of Yawn Valley 

UCCS's renewed commitment to Heller Estate opens the history books on one of Colorado Springs' most colorful couples

According to legend, the only requirement for membership in Larry and Dot Hellers mythical Yawn Valley Yacht Club was you can't stand steady employment.

So what if there wasn't a drop of water within miles of the Hellers well-sequestered property, nestled in the valley beneath Eagle Rock, just north of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs campus? That was beside the point.

The joke was their tongue-in-cheek way of saying that imagination is what matters most if youre going to live the life of your dreams. And the Hellers were too busy living out their fantasies to be bothered with those who weren't.

When they married in 1936, Colorado Springs was a place where many had come to live out their fantasies. While the gold rush had all but died out, the mining money that had created Colorado Springs had also brought about a cultural golden age and made it one of the most important art colonies west of New York City.

When the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center opened that same year, the galleries were christened with works by Picasso, Matisse, van Gogh, Cezanne and Renoir. In the FAC theater that now hosts repertory musicals and film festivals, audiences saw the legendary Martha Graham perform her famous Lamentation.

While these artists are now fodder for coffee-table books and postcards, the works and performances on display were quite ahead of their time for a Western town of 30,000 in 1936.

Well-established artists like Birger Sandzen, Randall Davey, Robert F. Reid and Boardman Robinson came to Colorado Springs throughout the 20s, 30s and 40s to work and teach, drawn to the area by arts patrons like Elizabeth Sage Hare, Francis Drexel Smith, Alice Bemis Taylor and Julie Penrose. (Penrose donated her residence at 30 W. Dale Street for an art school, The Broadmoor Academy. It was later torn down and replaced by the Fine Arts Center.)

Inevitably, more artists were drawn to study, work and live here. Though many of their names are now forgotten outside collectors circles, artists like Archie Musick, Tabor Utley, Doris Lee, Lew Tilley, Eric and Mary Ann Bransby, and Edgar Britton came to Colorado Springs and became a part of the movement of western social realism that included a great deal of mural painting for President Roosevelts Works Progress Administration.

Like so many of these artists, Larry Heller was drawn to Colorado Springs by the charismatic artist Boardman Robinson -- and, by a multitude of romantic ideas about the West.

The high life of Larry Heller

The Heller Estate in Yawn Valley (now officially called the Heller Center for the Humanities since it was donated to the University of Colorado in 1999) was bought by Heller and another young artist named Laurence Field in 1934. Almost 70 years later, it is a spectacularly well preserved window into Colorado Springs art history.

A gifted draftsman and painter hailing from a well-to-do family in Pennsylvania, Heller liked to race MGs, go on foxhunts and play golf. He rolled into town like fugitive Jay Gatsby trying to escape the Great Depression.

"He came from a very good Philadelphia family -- I'm talking top-line," said Lew Tilley, a fellow artist and friend who later worked frequently with Heller at the Alexander Film Company. "In his early days he was master of the hounds. He was as high as you can be on the Philadelphia social ladder."

Heller's background would have easily given him entre into local high society. But he was too much in love with play-acting the sporting life and his ideas of the Wild West to want to rejoin a stuffy elite, affecting Eastern manners. Heller's move to the then-unpopulated northern outskirts of Colorado Springs was a not-so-subtle statement of defiance against the more staid bourgeois society surrounding the Broadmoor Academy and, later, the Fine Arts Center.

Tracy Felix, an artist and avid collector of Colorado Springs art from the early half of the 20th century noted: "Larry was not a socialite. He wouldn't go to the big openings at the FAC all the time and participate. He really disliked society in that sense. He knew a lot of those people, but he didn't like those kinds of parties. He liked his friends and he loved other artists and was very generous about giving out information and encouragement. But he wasn't a big social person in that sense."

Such soft defiance wasn't without its contradictions. Heller still kept a barn full of horses and a kennel of hounds for weekend "coyote hunts" and held large weekend parties where he, Dot and their friends would race their MGs.

In his memoir Musick Medley: Intimate Portraits of a Rocky Mountain Art Colony, artist Archie Musick remembered Heller in the same Hollywood fashion that many others did:

"He alternated between playing the English gentleman riding to hounds in full red-coated regalia, a Spanish Caballero, doing whatever Spanish landed gentry do with their horses and their leisure, or an American sportsman racing foreign cars."

The perfect match

Fond of seeing himself as a renegade bon vivant, Heller must have been beside himself when he met the equally spirited Dorothy "Dot" Kemp at the Fine Arts Center in 1934.

Not only had Dot played basketball in college in the 1920s (almost unheard of for a woman at that time), but she was also the first woman to join the Colorado Springs Police Department. Her zest for adventure and pioneering proto-feminist chutzpah were epitomized by a Denver Post article from 1935 recounting a sting operation she willingly participated in to help a friend.

"She turned policewoman to aid her friend, Mrs. Oylbell Ady, and liked the work so well she thinks she will continue it," the blurb accompanying her photo reads. "She is Miss Dorothy Kemp, a Colorado Springs social service worker, who aided police in their search for extortionists who sought $25,000 from Mrs. Ady in return for the safe return of Joseph W. Ady Jr., her husband. Once Miss Kemp posed in Mrs. Ady's clothing in an effort to entrap the extortionists ..."

Dorothy Heller would go on to work with the CSPD for 30 years, making headlines for her police work and for raising awareness about seldom talked about social issues like alcoholism among women, neglected children, teen pregnancy and venereal disease. She wasn't afraid to point out the fact that many child molestations were perpetrated by family members rather than by strangers, as was commonly feared at the time. Seldom pointing the finger at criminals, she made every attempt to empathetically understand the social circumstances that affected her cases.

When they married on June 26, 1936, the Hellers began to build their Yawn Valley home. According to legend, the notorious architect Frank Lloyd Wright called it the most interesting building in Colorado Springs.

House of Heller

It's easy to imagine what the Hellers' home and the property on which it sits were like in the 1930s because it hasn't changed much.

Still well-hidden from the nearest paved road over a mile away and crouched beneath the monumental Eagle Rock, a visitor immediately feels miles away from the city, winding down into Yawn Valley on the washboard dirt-road. It's doubtful that even most longtime Springs residents have seen the small complex of eclectically designed adobe houses and studios that only appear once you've made it a good way down the quarter-mile stretch of access road.

Most immediately visible from the distance is the guesthouse and greenhouse where the recently appointed caretakers Perrin Cunningham (coordinator-in-residence) and Rex Welshon (associate dean of letters, arts and sciences at UCCS) are staying with their family while the main house undergoes a number of renovations.

Just below the guest house to the southeast is a more contemporary, square building with large glass doors that Heller built as an art gallery and showroom for his prized MGs.

To the south and west of the gallery, just past a life-size bronze sculpture of his horse Pancho and tucked behind a number of old ponderosa pines sits the main house and, just below it, another odd building of studio spaces and a small garage. Not exactly in the Santa Fe style, but definitely Southwestern with various odd additions, the house echoes his romantic ideas of the Southwest.

Entering through the sliding glass door on the south porch, it becomes quickly apparent that the legends of Larry and Dot Heller's eccentricities apply equally to the home they built and the art that fills it.

Part of the reason Heller is so scarcely known as an artist is that he was incredibly fond of his own artworks and liked to have them all around him. Since he was never financially obliged to sell his works, he kept most of them.

With very few exceptions, every wall of the Heller house is filled with his paintings. His small bronze sculptures of natives, dogs, conquistadors, horses and dancers cover most of the available table space. Heller also crafted the Byzantine-looking light fixtures, chandeliers, wrought-iron railings and wall sconces. Slide trays and film canisters clutter the living room. And the couple's ever-changing decorative taste is evident in every room.

"Larry was someone who just loved life, and you can see it when you go out to his house," said Tracy Felix, who became close friends with Dot Heller in her later years after her husband died. "He loved to design architecture, whether it was good or bad. He did furniture; he painted, loved music, loved photography, and loved film. And he did all of this. He was a huge Renaissance man."

Gerry Riggs, curator at the UCCS Gallery of Contemporary Art, who was instrumental in the university's acquisition of the Heller property when Dot Heller died in 1999, said: "Larry Heller was the most dynamic artist. He didn't pay attention to what anyone else did. He just went his own direction."

Living a fantasy

Aside from Heller's wide-ranging creative interests, the most striking feature of his art is its dissimilarity in style and theme from the work of his contemporaries.

While most of the teachers and students at the Broadmoor Academy and Fine Arts Center were engaged in landscape painting and the social-realist styles and themes of the time, Heller was busy painting theatrical fantasy scenes full of the romantic ideals he tried to embody.

"As opposed to doing work that was social commentary," said Tracy Felix, "he was more interested in the fantasy of what the West was -- just like old Westerns were. Larry's style is very Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish as far as color and staging, but N.C. Wyeth and Rockwell are his biggest influences," said Felix.

Two of Heller's most stunning paintings are also his most monumental. "The Horse Opera," still the centerpiece of the living room, has all the trademark Heller elements: a romantic theme (a stagecoach robbery), Hollywood staging and style, and a gorgeous young woman stepping down from the stagecoach as she draws all the focus.

In his other large painting, "Tales of Hoffman," Heller took his one and only stab at a more symbolically introspective subject matter in a manner reminiscent of the surrealist Rene Magritte. The work features a man holding an alien head, a jester glaring mockingly out in front of a topless woman, and a whole melange of strange characters from Offenbach's operatic masterwork about the trials of love. The Heller elements are all still there: idealized women, heavy theatricality including dramatic red curtains and a glistening romantic style.

Much of this stylized look can be attributed to Larry's experience as a propaganda poster artist for the Army Air Corps during World War II (a large collection of his posters is housed at the Air Force Academy) and his love of movies. After the war, he worked as a freelance set designer, actor and jack-of-all-trades for the Alexander Film Company in Colorado Springs.

"He worked as an actor and stunt man. He would use trip wires and trip a horse while riding it," said Lew Tilley, who worked with Heller at Alexander. "He was just marvelous to do anything you wanted to do with an automobile. He was an excellent driver. And he was an excellent mechanic as well."

Up until its demise in the late '60s, Alexander was the largest film production house between the coasts, at one time employing nearly 650 people. Heller was frequently called upon as an everyman character actor for commercials, short films and bit parts.

"A lot of Larry's work looks like Hollywood," said Tracy Felix. "It looks like it was influenced by the filmmaking at Alexander Film Company. Everybody's very attractive; it's a staged set."

Heller's experiences in filmmaking found their way as naturally into his paintings as they did into his life and home. And despite what was sometimes perceived as frivolousness, he held the firm respect of his contemporaries, particularly as a technician.

On the only occasion that renowned local muralist and fresco specialist Eric Bransby went to Heller's house in the 1950s, he was taken with the artist's abilities. "Though he was a generation ahead of me, I spent an evening at his house once in the 1950s," said Bransby, "and I was very impressed with his technical skills. I think he's underestimated as an artist."

Such perceptions, favorable or otherwise, were all but lost on Heller. He had the luxury, freedom and distance from the art world that allowed him a rare self-satisfaction.

Artist Maxine Green, a longtime neighbor of the Hellers, astutely noted the quality that the Heller Estate still exudes: "[The Hellers] lived like Hollywood people even though they were obscure."

A spirit and legacy intact

Before he died in 1983, Heller had only one major exhibition -- a full retrospective in 1977 at the UCCS gallery, just over the hill from his home. The show was well received and gave most of the Colorado Springs community their first glimpse of his largely private imagination.

It's fitting, then, that Dot Heller left the couple's property to UCCS before she died in 1999 so that her husband's quirky and wide-ranging artwork could remain almost in its entirety in the equally quirky and strangely constructed home where the couple lived their fantasy life.

Always astute, Dot Heller knew that donating her property to the state-owned school would not only keep her husband's spirit and legacy intact, but that it would prevent the City of Colorado Springs from running an east-west highway through Yawn Valley.

"Dorothy didn't want the place to be used for anything other than art-oriented activities," said Tracy Felix. "She really wanted to see a foundry continue there. And she wasn't opposed to the university building another building on the property as long as it was used for more art. There's a lot of use for that property."

Fortunately for residents and visitors to Colorado Springs, UCCS's new chancellor, Pam Schockley, along with caretakers Perrin Cunningham and Rex Jim Welshon, have set their sights on making the Heller Estate available as a visiting artist's and scholar's retreat, a location for university meetings and seminars and a working studio for students and visitors.

A large portion of the land has been secured by donations from Classic Homes and purchased by Trails, Open Space and Parks (TOPS) tax funds.

Like many others, Tracy Felix hopes that UCCS's renewed commitment to the Heller Center for the Humanities will not only bring more attention to Larry's art, but will also contribute to raising Colorado Springs' awareness of its rich art history.

If nothing else, the university's efforts to restore the estate will let fly the ghosts of Dot and Larry Heller, the Great Gatsbys of Yawn Valley.

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