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Depression era left Colorado a wealth of fine art

Mary Voelz Chandler
Rocky Mountain News
Vail, CO Colorado
Matt McClain/Rocky Mountain NewsOne of two bighorn sheep sculpted by Gladys Caldwell Fisher sits outside Denver's Byron R. White U.S. Courthouse.
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The New Deal’s mega-economic stimulus plan spawned an alphabet soup of agencies that put men and women back to work nationwide.

Among them were scores of painters and sculptors whose works were made for the enjoyment and education of the American people as much as to put food on the table and supplies in the studio.

Although this outpouring of murals, sculptures and easel paintings is commonly referred to as WPA art – a nod to the powerful Works Progress Administration, a major funder – the food chain that commissioned projects also included the Public Works of Art Project, the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture and the Treasury Relief Art Project.

Courthouses, post offices, libraries, schools and other public buildings were targeted for work by artists selected to address themes that reflected an area’s history, economy or social setting.

‘Not just a handout’

“Government-funded art wasn’t just a handout of money,” says Alisa Zahller, assistant curator of fine and decorative art at the Colorado Historical Society. “It was about people believing again in the American dream. There was this sense that if you worked hard, you’d be rewarded.”

Zahller, who has been studying the work of area muralist Allen Tupper True for an exhibition later this year, also is trying to track what happened to New Deal-funded art in Colorado for various federal agencies. The historical society, in that era called the Colorado State Museum, helped supervise some programs.

“It met a financial need, but there also was a social need. The art established an influence on the American people in terms of learning about their state or region,” she said. “There was an impact on public works and building, but it also advanced new technologies and new designs.”

Numerous works funded by New Deal-era agencies have been lost over the years to demolition and neglect. But many survive, including three standouts in the metro area funded through Treasury Department programs:

* Gladys Caldwell Fisher’s Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, located at the Byron White U.S. Court of Appeals, 10th Circuit/U.S. Post Office, 1823 Stout St.

Fisher, who died in 1952, was based in Denver but known nationally for her work. Educated in New York and Paris, and married to Denver architect Alan Fisher, she specialized in images of animals.

Among the most prominent of her New Deal-era artworks, the giant Indiana limestone sheep stand watch at the 18th Street entry to Denver’s classical revival courthouse and post office.

* Kenneth Evett’s mural Building the New Road in the Golden Post Office, 619 12th St.

Born in Loveland in 1913, Evett studied with masters such as Thomas Hart Benton and Boardman Robinson during the exuberant late-1930s art scene in Colorado Springs. There, the Broadmoor Art Academy, later the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, proved a focal point for innovation.

Evett’s late-1930s mural in Golden carries a message of hope, as a family travels out of a dark, mountainous background into a clearing and a bright new future.

Evett, who died in 2005, created New Deal murals in several states, was a longtime professor of art at Cornell University and exhibited widely.

* Ethel Magafan’s mural Horse Corral in the South Broadway Post Office, 225 S. Broadway, Denver.

Ethel Magafan and her twin sister and fellow artist Jenne Magafan were born in Illinois in 1916 and came to Colorado Springs with their family a few years later.

Like Evett, Ethel Magafan studied with top Colorado artists, including Frank Mechau, and completed New Deal-funded art projects that included post office murals in Arkansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

Denver’s 1942 Horse Corral carries a Western theme and is populated by figures rendered in a soft yet stylized manner.

Over the years, Magafan’s work moved into a more abstract style. She exhibited widely and died in 1993.

Mary Voelz Chandler is the Rocky’s art and architecture critic.


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