Making, marketing and buying art has been key to our region since Long Expedition artist Samuel Seymour painted “View of James Peak” in 1820.
Seymour’s little watercolor is the first known European depiction of Pikes Peak. He was the first professional artist to work in the Pikes Peak region, and unlike most of his successors he wasn’t working on spec. He was paid to go adventuring and paint, and apparently enjoyed his work.
Two hundred years later, the painting is one of 400,000 objects in the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It’s rarely — if ever — exhibited, and when the Pioneers Museum asked to borrow it for a 2006 exhibition celebrating the bicentennial of Zebulon Pike’s expedition to the Rockies, the BMFA refused.
“We’re a fully accredited museum, but the Boston Museum of Fine Arts probably thinks we’re in a soddie somewhere on the prairie,” said then-curator Katie Gardner at the time. Yet it was telling, in that art world cognoscenti have long devalued scenes of Colorado Springs and the artists who created them. But as our city matures and grows, maybe we’ll get some national respect.
Thirty-nine years after Seymour dashed off his little watercolor, Colorado City was founded as a supply center for gold camps in South Park. The first professional artist in the area was apparently 12-year-old Alexis Comparet, who came to Colorado City as a boy and earned money painting murals behind bars.
More than 150 years later, thousands of area residents are in the business of making, selling and exhibiting art. Collectively it’s a big economic sector, but not one that brings vast wealth to its participants.
“You’re not going to get rich running a gallery,” said Reed Fair, who with his spouse Emily owns and operates 45 Degree in Old Colorado City, “but we like it.”
The Fairs have been in the art business in OCC for almost 10 years.
“We started with a little frame shop, representing two or three artists,” Reed recalled. “We wanted a place on Colorado, in the block between 25th and 26th, on the north side of the street, so when this space became available six years ago we took it. It’s been great.”
45 Degree carries paintings, ceramics, handcrafted furniture and sculpture, almost all created by local artists, as well as operating a full-service frame shop.
“We’re both Millennials, so we tend to carry what we think will appeal to people like us,” said Fair. “We have a certain price point, sort of aimed at what we could afford if we were buyers.”
On a recent fall afternoon, the gallery was flooded with light. The gallery dog dozed in a patch of sunshine near the door, and the business seemed welcoming and accessible.
“That’s what we wanted,” said Fair, “A place that wasn’t intimidating, where people would feel comfortable and welcome. I’ve been in snooty galleries, and that’s not us.”
A few doors down is Laura Reilly’s tiny gallery, a 200-square-foot storefront where the veteran Colorado Springs artist creates and sells her bright impressionist mountain landscapes. They’re modestly priced, ranging from $49 to $1,900, and apparently quite popular. Downtown gallerist Blake Wilson, who co-owns the Oriental Rug and Art Bank on North Tejon Street, often displays Reilly’s work, calling it “very likable.”
Reilly relies upon street traffic, social media and her website to drive sales. And while she’s been a working artist in Colorado Springs since 1982, she’s noticed an “exponential increase” in sales since she opened her own gallery in 2014.
“When you consign paintings to a gallery, you don’t necessarily know the artist,” she told CSBJ after she opened. “I love to tell customers the story behind the painting they buy and I find it very rewarding to have that direct connection. Moving here was a fabulous decision — one of the best of my life.”
Longtime Manitou Springs resident Julia Wright has been a working artist in multiple media since 1976. She says that creating art in many forms has been the basis of her life, starting with theater when she built sets and directed others in high school and college. She directed Commonwheel’s Labor Day Arts & Crafts Festival for decades and has always made her living as an artist — and it’s not getting any easier.
“It’s a whole different world now,” she said. “Millennials don’t buy much art, because they’re not in permanent spaces. Collectors from the older generations want to pass on or sell their stuff — they’re not buying new things. It’s much tougher than it used to be.”
Wright has adapted by creating work to fit the space and budget of the market. She makes feather jewelry, ingeniously alters and mounts nature photographs, publishes hiking guides and illustrated playing cards and assiduously works the market.
“I do art festivals — for example the Colorado College Arts & Crafts Fair at the end of November. I’m at Commonwheel, I’m in Etsy and I just participated in the October Pikes Peak Open Studio tour. And I’m in the Manitou Arts Center’s First Amendment Gallery — you can show two works, and you have to change them every month. But things are slow everywhere, so you really have to work hard. I think Millennials prefer things that are the size of postcards.”
Yet Colorado Springs artists have always adapted to changing tastes, new technology and new markets. In 1906, Colorado Springs landscape painter Leslie Skelton used his radiant mountain paintings of Colorado scenery to produce a dozen different color postcards, a venture made possible by advanced printing and reproduction techniques. Skelton had been a successful artist, but his postcards made him a successful businessman. In the next few years, Skelton sold millions of cards and collected a pile of cash. His canvases are scarce and expensive, but his postcards can be had for a couple of bucks apiece on eBay — Millennials take notice!
New galleries have opened since the end of the Great Recession and new artists have emerged. Peak Radar lists 69 galleries in its 2019 guide, including several that have opened in the last few years. Others, such as the Abigail Kreuser gallery, have moved to bigger spaces and expanded the number of artists they represent. A recent show at Kreuser featured the work of 23-year-old Manitou Springs native (and former Colorado Publishing House employee) Riley Bratzler.
Alexis Comparet moved on from bar painting and remained in the Pikes Peak region for much of his life. He became a highly successful artist, and might be pleased to know that, 150 years after his bar murals (which have long since disappeared), one of the city’s most popular and prolific artists has illustrated two prominent downtown bar/restaurants.
You can see Phil Lear’s largescale paintings at Bonny and Read and the Rabbit Hole, as well as at the Mining Exchange Hotel. During the public opening of the Fine Art Center’s 100th anniversary exhibition earlier this month, Lear wasn’t at the show — he was painting, installed in a temporary space along a FAC’s glass-walled south corridor.
“Just working,” he said, giving his full attention to the work at hand.
“There is poetry in everything,” Lear wrote on his website, “and the painter — like the poet, or musician, or sculptor — must bring it to attention, because he sees what others oftentimes do not.”
And for some, that poetry is even more pleasant when accompanied by a martini at the bar.