How many artists have called Colorado Springs home since our city was founded 150 years ago? Many thousands. How many left a legacy of some kind? Thousands. And of them all, which were the best?
That’s a matter of opinion. My list excludes famous artists who just passed through town, such as Thomas Moran and George Caleb Bingham. The latter visited Colorado Springs in the summer 1872, painted a lovely view of Pikes Peak and never came back. More interesting are those who lived and worked here for decades, and left an enduring legacy. I’ve tried to judge artists as we judge politicians — you may hate Donald Trump or Joe Biden, but both are towering figures in American politics.
That said, here are four of the best. Next week; four more, including an architect and a photographer.
Harvey Otis Young
Born in Vermont, Young was another footloose guy who lived in California, France and elsewhere before settling in Manitou Springs in the late 1870s. He made a fortune in the California goldfields, blew it, tried his luck in Colorado (it wasn’t good!) and eventually became a full-time artist. His work evolved from pedestrian Western landscapes to deeply original renderings of Front Range scenes that still seem fresh and original. Extraordinarily popular with the turn-of-the-century moneyed elite of Colorado Springs, he sold hundreds of paintings locally. Many remain here, whether in museum collections or passed on to the descendants of Young’s friends and customers.
Mechau had a brief and extraordinary life, and remains an important and even controversial artist to this day. He grew up in Glenwood Springs, studied at the University of Denver and at the Art Institute of Chicago, moved to Paris for three years and returned to Colorado in 1932. In 1935, he was invited to join the teaching staff at The Broadmoor Art Academy (later the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center) in Colorado Springs. During the next few years, Mechau won five more competitions for WPA murals and created Wild Horses, a 60-foot-long fresco that still adorns an exterior wall of the patio at the CSFAC.
A 1936 mural, titled Dangers of the Mail, depicts Native Americans attacking a stagecoach, murdering white men and scalping nude white women. It’s beautiful, graphic and deeply disturbing. Viewers in the 1930s complained about the nude women, but government officials ignored them and left the mural in place. Mechau shrugged off the complaints, saying, “No Artist ever wished to be considered an ethnologist. My intention was to create an imaginative reconstruction of a massacre.” Nearly 60 years later, when the building housed the Environmental Protection Agency, a group of employees asked for the mural to be removed because its inherent racism created a toxic work environment. After a long process, the mural strayed on the wall, hidden by a curtain. It can be viewed by appointment.
Mechau also created two vast murals for the Colorado Springs Post Office that were installed in 1937 and apparently removed in the early 1960s. One, The Corral, can be seen in Denver’s judicial complex, while the other, Indian Attack, is not on public view. Happily, the Denver Public Library still houses Horses at Night.After the painting was restored and rehung 20 years ago, DPL’s then-curator of Western art, Bonnie Hardwick, noted the significance of the painting, saying, “In Mechau’s body of work, the painting is an important piece because of its size and because it’s one of his first major horse paintings. Actually, because he died so young, everything is an important piece.”
Mechau died of a heart attack in 1946 at the age of 42.
Jenne and Ethel Magafan
Born in 1916, these twin sisters grew up in Colorado Springs, and were hired by Frank Mechau at the Fine Arts 1936 to assist on his federally-funded mural projects. They were quick studies, to say the least — two years later, they were awarded four national government commissions to paint murals in post offices located in Colorado, Arkansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma. Their careers blossomed during the 1940s as both became successful artists. Jenne died of a cerebral hemorrhage at 36, but Ethel soldiered on. Her work is in museums including MoMA, the Sangre de Cristo, the Denver Art Museum and the CSFAC.