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UCCS uses historic home as fertile ground for artistic thinking 

The Cut

click to enlarge GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell

As I walk from the gravel parking area to the front door of the Heller Center for the Arts & Humanities main building, countless grasshoppers jump like soda bubbles from the lawn. Rhonda Goodman-Gaghan says she's never seen so many as she has this summer. She's the curator here, and I've caught her planning for the upcoming school year. At the moment, she's taken a short break from preparing for an exhibit set to open in two days' time.

The Heller Center was the home of Larry and his wife Dorothy from its construction in 1935 through Dorothy's passing in 1999. Its original name was the Yawn Valley Yacht Club, chosen to reflect the property's conspicuous lack of mediocre views and open water. Larry did much of the design himself, in fact — which, Goodman-Gaghan notes, is part of why the original garage and studio space were torn down in 2005 as part of extensive renovations throughout the property.

"When they brought in architects to look at [the two buildings], they realized that Larry Heller may have been a fine artist and a fine sculptor, but he was no architect," she says. "There was no foundation. There was nothing really to hold up these walls. The fact that it didn't collapse on Dot was really quite astounding."

It would have been an ignoble way for the Springs' first female police officer to go. Indeed, back in 1934, Dorothy joined the CSPD and became a social investigator, addressing cases involving domestic violence and at-risk children — issues we take for granted today, says Goodman-Gaghan, but subjects that were tiptoed around at the time.

Larry was an avid painter and sculptor, heavily inspired by the Southwestern landscapes around him and Old West mythology. His style is theatrical and romanticized, refined by a stint designing propaganda posters during World War II.

Before Dorothy died, she willed the property to UCCS for use as an educational space.

"She stipulated a number of departments she wanted affiliated with the center," Goodman-Gaghan says. "She wanted art history, philosophy, literature, history, humanities, political science, sociology... she wanted this to be a place where ideas can flourish."

To that end, the gallery building at the Heller Center has just opened its first exhibit of the season. Titled Through the War and Above the Clouds, the exhibit will show a selection of Heller's own works, displayed with borrowed pieces from the Pueblo Weisbrod Aircraft Museum. The exhibit will be up through Sept. 11, viewable by appointment only.

"[Museums like that] focus on the aircraft, because that's the big attraction, but they have a very vast art collection," notes Goodman-Gaghan. "We're combining their works with some of Heller's World War II propaganda posters. ... The theme of that is looking at aviation art through the lens of art history as opposed to looking at them as social documents."

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