“If we want a vibrant arts and culture community here, we have got to attract artists,” said Pikes Peak Arts Council Executive Director Nora Hardin in a recent CSBJ profile. “We have got to make this place a haven for artists.”
Easy to say, but hard to accomplish. Just as plants need light and water, entrepreneurs need to find or create markets in order to make a living. Artists are no exception. Absent buyers for their products or services, they’ll go elsewhere or find other ways to make a living.
A century ago, visual artists in the Pikes Peak Region wrestled with the same dilemmas. A surprising number were successful, cannily exploiting local, regional and even national markets to translate art into dollars.
None achieved success through talent alone. Ingenious self-promotion, hard work, vision, and the ability to identify and exploit niche markets characterized local professional artists in the years between 1820 and 1940.
The first professional artist in the Pikes Peak Region was Samuel Seymour, whose watercolor sketch “View of James Peak in the Rain” was created in 1820. Seymour, 23, was the official artist of the Stephen Long Expedition, which was charged by President James Madison with finding the sources of the Platte, Arkansas and Red rivers. Expedition botanist Edwin James made the first recorded ascent of the great peak that loomed above their camp along Fountain Creek, which Major Long then named after him. (The name didn’t stick, though — the Army Topographical Corps renamed it Pikes Peak in 1840.)
Seymour had scored a trifecta — he was the first artist in the region, the first to get paid for his art, and the first to get paid for an image of Pikes Peak.
And while subsequent artists may not have been aware of Seymour’s work, many realized long before gold was discovered in Cripple Creek that Pikes Peak was a gold mine. Photographers such as William Hook, Horace Poley, and Harry Standley created tens of thousands of images of the mountain between 1860 and 1940, which they packaged and sold in many different formats.
All of them peddled images of a rugged and beautiful land — and if the image being peddled didn’t quite convey the message, a little hype never hurt.
In the mid-1870s, itinerant photographer Byron Gurnsey peddled photo cards to visitors to the region. One such card, an unprepossessing view of a barren rocky mountainside, is grandly titled “The Abyss of Desolation, Summit of Pike’s Peak – Northern Side.”
Of all the views of Pikes Peak, the money shot has been the traditional view of the mountain as framed by the Garden of the Gods.
Renowned painters such as Thomas Moran and George Caleb Bingham painted fanciful renditions of the scene in the 1870s, and many artists followed in their wake.
Moran may not have been the first artist in Colorado Springs, but he managed to cash in as few have since. After selling two enormous western landscapes to Congress in 1872 and 1874 for $10,000 each, he sold a third in 1880 for an undisclosed price to Dr. William Bell of Manitou Springs. “Mountain of the Holy Cross,” which ingeniously combines 19th Century pictorial conventions with the religious overtones of western expansion, hung for many years in a special alcove in Bell’s mansion, Briarhurst.
Few local artists have been able to market individual paintings with such success. For most, making a living required some form of mass production. It might be impossible to sell a single work of art for $500, but if you could sell a hundred for $10, you were in business.
In the mid-1890s, Maude and Clarence Leach launched a business selling their watercolors, etchings and hand-printed greeting cards. They featured scenes along the Front Range, with particular attention to Manitou and Pikes Peak. While somewhat saccharine, their work must have found a ready market, judging from the amount that turns up in local auction sales, antique stores and galleries.
In 1893, 12-year-old Harry Standley dropped out of school in Cripple Creek and took up photography. He was equally passionate about mountaineering, and is recognized as the first person to climb and photograph all of Colorado’s fourteeners. In 1921, he opened a studio where he sold framed, hand-tinted photographs to tourists and residents alike. Such images were popular and inexpensive vacation souvenirs. He hired “colorists,” usually women, to tint the photographs, using watercolors, pastels and oils. During the next three decades, Standley sold tens of thousands of photos, almost all of Colorado mountain scenes. Many still exist — a recent search on eBay turned up almost a dozen.
Artus van Briggle came to Colorado Springs in 1899 to recover from tuberculosis. He died in 1904, but not before he and his spouse, Ann Gregory, had created pottery designs that would sustain their eponymous company for more than a century. Van Briggle’s innovative creations featured matte glazes and local clays, and won international acclaim. Plaster molds enabled artisans at the pottery to recreate popular designs indefinitely. While collectors tend to turn up their noses at post-1920 Van Briggle pots, characterizing them as mass-produced kitsch, the pottery provided decent incomes to generations of workers and managers — not a bad legacy for any artist.
As the city grew and prospered, opportunities for serious artists also increased. Charles Craig, William Bancroft, Leslie Skelton and John McClymont maintained studios in Colorado Springs, selling to a mostly local clientele. Their customers included prosperous residents of the North End and the Broadmoor, who commissioned family portraits and bought decorative Western-themed paintings for their homes.
By the 1920s, Colorado Springs offered opportunities for nationally known artists, who came to teach at the Broadmoor Art Academy, so named because Spencer Penrose had given his Dale Street house for the art school and wanted to promote his new hotel. Santa Fe artist Randall Davey was one of them, even though he insisted on the then-exorbitant salary of $800 a month. According to Marshall Sprague’s “Newport in the Rockies,” a history of Colorado Springs: “Spec questioned such a wage for merely being able to paint until Davey told him that he was also a first-class polo player and needed a high stipend to maintain his ponies if he were also to promote Broadmoor polo.” Davey was subsequently commissioned by Penrose to paint murals in the Will Rogers Shrine and the Carriage House Museum.
While the Depression of the 1930s dried up many sources of income for local artists, the newly established Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center offered teaching jobs, inexpensive studio space, and access to a robust arts community. Headed by famed muralist Boardman Robinson, the FAC was the city’s first (and perhaps the most successful) incubator space. At least a dozen artists associated with the FAC participated in government-funded Works Progress Administration arts projects — in effect becoming successful government contractors.
Are there lessons to be learned from the doughty artist/entrepreneurs of the past?
Samuel Seymour ventured into the wilderness with the Long Expedition in 1820. Harry Standley taught himself photography, apprenticed with a couple of commercial photographers, and struck out on his own. Randall Davey understood that a polo-playing painter was worth more to Spencer Penrose than a mere artist. Ann Gregory built a company that lasted for a century after her husband died at 35. All of them welcomed risk, uncertainty, hard work and the rewards of pursuing their own path.
So how can Colorado Springs build an arts community? The same way one builds a business community — with a supportive community, an open, optimistic entrepreneurial culture, and a sense of fun. And for artists considering relocation, remember this:
There will always be a market for images of Pikes Peak.