Wellspring of Regional Artists 

50 most influential show their wares at BAC

Making art is, I suppose, an inherently irrational activity, so one could expect that the art scene itself would be mildly irrational. How else can you account for the fact that Artesia, the current exhibition at the Business of Art Center, will only be up for a scant five weeks? It's an endlessly interesting show that ought to be seen by anyone who has the slightest interest in the state of the arts in the Pikes Peak region.

Its premise is simple. BAC director Rodney Wood, Fine Arts Center director David Turner, and UCCS Gallery of Contemporary Art Director Gerry Riggs got together and compiled a list of the best, most significant, most interesting, most influential artists presently working in the Pikes Peak region, and invited each of them to submit a single work to the exhibition. Forty-nine responded, thereby creating the show.

Curated, in effect, by the artists themselves, it's a fascinating snapshot of the state of the visual and plastic arts in our neck of the woods, ca. 2000. Like faded photographs of costume parties at the Cheyenne Mountain Country Club at the turn of the last century, this exhibition embodies and documents the spirit of its time. And what a time it must be, given the show's quality, diversity, and exuberance!

If you've followed the arts in Colorado Springs for the last decade or so, you'll recognize many of the exhibitors. Some are frequently exhibited (Sean O'Meallie, Tracy and Sushi Felix, Louis Cicotello, Dawn Wilde), while others are rarely seen locally (Lin Fife, Thomas Blackshear, Verna Versa). Few are full-time professional artists; many teach, some have arts-related small businesses and still others work nine-to-five like the rest of us.

A few years ago, it would have been possible for a dedicated collector, working with a modest budget, to acquire representative works by every competent artist in the region. No more. There are simply too many good artists out there, and their works are appropriately priced. Moreover, there's such a diversity of styles, techniques, materials and philosophies that it's hard to imagine a collector sufficiently flexible (or sufficiently demented) to like every artist in the show.

That said, there's not a single haphazard, poorly executed or inadequately conceived piece in the exhibition. Nevertheless, some artists chose to be represented by their best work, and some did not so choose.

Steve Morath's "Colorado Country" is one of the best pieces I've seen by this prolific painter. It's an idyllic panorama of the vanished Colorado of our dreams, the mythic country that existed as recently as 20 years ago. Morath shows a couple embracing on a grassy field, which falls away la Bierstadt's "Storm in the Rockies" to an impossibly beautiful mountain range. Icons of the West are carefully depicted in the foreground and middleground; a pickup truck, a basket of flowers, grazing cattle, a spent shotgun shell, an empty beer bottle. No suburbs, no highways, no RVs, no ski areas, no McMansions in the woods.

Mary Helsaple has contributed one of her careful rainforest landscapes. "Another Point of View," beautifully composed and visually demanding, suspends the viewer high in the canopy of a South American rainforest. It takes a while to figure out what you're looking at, but gradually your eyes adjust to Helsaple's strange and breathtaking perspective. A sloth wraps itself around a tree limb; far below, a bird glides through the middle canopy; and at the base of the tree, tiny figures look back at you through binoculars.

Thomas Blackshear is a professional artist, and a hugely successful one, who makes his home in Colorado Springs. There are, no doubt, tens of thousands of artists who imagine that they could make the big bucks by painting commercially desirable Native American/Southwest paintings. Many Americans are drawn to such paintings, just as millions of teenage girls like airy pop music. In such a crowded genre, those who succeed have to be good. Take a look at Blackshear's extraordinary piece if you don't believe me; and the next time you listen to Britney Spears or 'N Sync, put aside your snobby geezer prejudices and realize that they're very, very good indeed.

Pat Musick's "Coyote Cartography" is, like the artist herself, modest, intelligent, and complex. Having fully mastered a difficult medium (enamel on steel), Musick's work is light and fluid, as well as deeply serious.

For sheer visual delight, it'd be hard to beat Gypsy Ames' extraordinary costume "In Neptune's Realm." Ames, who since 1978 has designed costumes for over 200 stage productions, created this piece to honor "the beauty and fragility of our oceans." If a costume can be classically elegant, restrained and altogether over-the-top at the same time, this shimmering fantasy of faux pearls and deep blue silk charmeuse is that and more. Who, I wonder, could wear it at the Oscars? Maybe Jenna Elfman, or Lucy Liu, or Nicole Kidman. ... No, I think you'd need the young Elizabeth Taylor.

Jean Gumpper and Jeanne Steiner, two of our very best, have contributed strong, accomplished works. Steiner's untitled weaving, created especially for the show, features subtly repeating geometries and a somber, yet vibrant, palette of blues and indigo. Gumpper's "Path -- Cub Lake," a large-scale color woodcut, has an edgy sharpness to it that departs from her usual complex harmonies. Gumpper's work, so reminiscent of 19th century Japanese woodblock prints, seems to be moving toward the spare abstraction of an earlier time. Look at "Path" and compare it to the great Tokugawa masterpiece, Ogata Korin's ca. 1695 "Irises."

Each artist in the show was asked to supply the usual artist's statement, as well as a few thoughts on the pros and cons of being an artist in the Pikes Peak region. Almost without exception, they complained about our conservativism, about the difficulty of selling their work locally, about the stressful aspects of growth and about the undeserved popularity of Taos and Santa Fe as places to buy art. And just as unanimously, they praised the light, the supportive community of fellow artists and the beauty of our surroundings.

"The clarity of the sky, brilliant colors and light, visual and environmental splendor, the artistic community which is like an inspiring family." -- Gypsy Ames

"Colorado Springs is an ugly city in a beautiful setting." -- Elaine Bean

"Little interest in the arts in general so artist is free to do as he/she pleases." -- Don Green

"... fun but not too hip; a congenial place not only to work but to raise family, raise tomatoes, and generally pursue the Good Life." -- Steve Morath

"I don't believe it is possible that a truly creative atmosphere can exist here. Why am I still here? Because it is beautiful, easy, there are friends and my small but adored family is the most important thing alongside work." -- Dawn Wilde

"Though there is profound reward in doing art, there is also glorious fulfillment in the sharing of it with the recipient viewer. That's why, for me, putting love into the work is the basis for and the essence of art." -- C.H. Rockey

You have precisely three weeks and two days left to go see this show. Don't make excuses -- just go.


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