ELIZABETH YANISH SHWAYDER
“Wings of Gold”, 1969 | 14”x11” - bronze
Shwayder taught herself to how to carve wood and then learned how to weld by Denver artists including Wilbert Verhelst and Edgar Britton. Her work has always leaned toward assemblage abstraction contrary to her predecessors. Here we see a maquette of her masterpiece, "Wings of Gold" an abstracted gold bronze sculpture with jagged points and edges that resemble a wingspan. The Kirkland Museum, Denver, CO owns the 6' x 7' full-sized sculpture also a variation was created for the BMH-BJ Synagogue, Denver, CO. The inspiration for this piece was the winged insignia on her son's Navy pilot uniform.
“Art is a creative effort of an individual to bring forth one’s most intimate self.”
Born Elizabeth Yaffe, the second of three children, she is known for her referentially and totally abstract sculptures in bronze, steel, aluminum, wood, lucite and paper. She did art as a child and all through school. After graduation from high school she briefly studied art at Washington University in Saint Louis, but family circumstances did not allow her to continue. In the summer of 1945 she relocated to Denver with her young son, infant daughter and husband, Nathan Yanish (d. 1984) following his discharge from wartime military service. In the Mile High City she realized her long-held dream to become a sculptor.
She initially studied painting in Denver in the late 1940s with Angelo Di Benedetto, a New Jersey-born painter and sculptor who decided to remain in Colorado after service in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. She also studied painting with Denver artist, Frank Vavra, who briefly ran an art school with Di Benedetto in downtown Denver in 1950. Her roster of painting teachers likewise includes Roland Detre, a Hungarian-born artist, who came to Denver for his health after World War II.
In 1956, before taking up sculpture, Shwayder joined Dr. Joel Mosko – also a sculptor - as a charter member of the non-profit Community Art Gallery in Denver’s Cherry Creek neighborhood. Founded by Denver area artists and art lovers and lasting until 1962, the gallery showed its member artists’ work independently from the City’s museum and several commercial galleries. She organized the gallery’s first Art Festival in the summer of 1957 that included indoor and outdoor exhibits, demonstrations and lectures. A decade she continued her organizational art involvement as president of the Denver Chapter of Artists Equity and as a member of the Colorado 15, a group that broke away in 1948 from the established and traditional Denver Artists Guild to pursue more contemporary art options disbanding in 1970. Shwayder participated in the group’s 50th anniversary reunion exhibition 1998 at the Elizabeth Schlosser Gallery in Denver.
While raising her three young children in Denver in the 1950s, Shwayder found a creative outlet as time allowed to do collages, hanging glass pieces and mosaics for small tables. However, she always wanted to be a sculptor because she enjoyed the challenge and physicality of sculpting. Around 1960 Denver sculptor, Francis Bean whose work she admired, recognized and encouraged her talent after seeing a small sculpture she had carved in a bar of soap. She briefly studied with Marion Buchan, head of the sculpture department at the University of Denver, before seeking instruction from Wilbert Verhelst, a graduate of the university and one of the country’s leading exponents of the welded technique in sculpture. He later established and directed the sculpture program at the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University in metropolitan Dallas, Texas. He introduced her to the use of steel, bronze and copper in cut and shaped forms, welded together or enhanced by combination under intense heat. His pursuit of non-objective imagery in his work influenced her, as most of her creative output in the genre has focused on referential and total abstraction.
Her first piece done while studying with Verhelst was accepted into the Denver Art Museum’s “Own Your Own Show” in 1961, a great incentive and a reaffirmation of her desire to be a sculptor. Three years later she showed a striking welded bronze piece, Wings of Gold, in the museum’s 16th Annual Exhibition for Artists in Metropolitan Denver (1964). Preceding the piece with a small maquette, she derived the title from the wings insignia worn by her son, Navy pilot who flew reconnaissance missions during the Vietnam War. Her Wings of Gold provided the model, with some structural modifications and the addition of candle holders, to the large menorah she created in 1967 for the BMH Synagogue in Denver.
When embarking on her career as a professional sculptor in the early 1960s she worked both in wood – mahogany, ebony and walnut – and in copper, bronze and welded metal in variety of shapes, sizes and textures suggested by the materials she used. She produced pieces such as Indian Bird, Ebony Woman, Desolation and Cactus inspired by nature, as well as more abstract ones such as Copper Rectangularity and Sculptured Bronze Free Form whose titles she only assigned after they were finished. Soon, however, she emphasized referential and total abstraction in her welded and cast metal sculptures. She used the lost wax process for some of them, a technique she learned while studying with sculptor Edgar Britton in Colorado Springs. Reviewers in the Denver press noted that the image of her at work in a welder’s helmet wielding an acetylene torch seemed rather incongruous with her elegance and diminutive size as the mother of three children.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s she began doing abstract lucite and plastic constructions such as Smoky Glow and Out of Square composed of two sheets with images of interlocking rectangles and vertically-placed rods drawn from some of her earlier metal sculptures. In the mid-1980s she began doing sculpted compositions combining cast paper in various colors with rocks and feathers.
Besides her large body of secular work, Shwayder designed and/or produced a smaller, but equally important number of sculptures for houses of worship in Colorado. In 1968 she carved the heavy walnut doors leading to the chapel of the new BMH Synagogue on South Monaco Parkway in Denver. The doors feature Old Testament symbols of the Torah, the serpent from the Garden of Eden, the Star of David, palm leaves and a crown. She also designed the bronze Eternal Light (symbolizing the burning bush from Exodus) hanging over the sacred ark. In the early 1970s for Congregation Har Ha-Shem in Boulder, Colorado, she employed the Tree of Life motif for the design of the ark doors carved under her direction by Al Aspenwall, plus a decorative flower stand and the tables for the Law. The Tree of Life also appeared in her small, circular standing bronze donated by the family of Abe J. Gold to the Beth Israel Synagogue in Greeley, Colorado. Another Tree of Life sculpture she donated to the Faith Bible Chapel in Arvada, Colorado, in honor of her brother Harry, an early member of the congregation.
In the early 1970s she did a sculpture in memory of Dr. Bertram B. Jaffa (Manager of Health and Charities for the City and County of Denver in the 1920s) for the remodeled Denver General Hospital - now Denver Health - building completed in 1949 that bore his name. She also sculpted a piece for Beth Israel Hospital in Denver. In 1972 her wood sculpture was erected in front of the Grand County Water and Sanitation District No. 1 in Winter Park, Colorado.
Besides creating her own work, she shared her insights into the sculpture medium with schools and service groups in Colorado and in other states. She gave demonstrations of her work to visitors at Family Day at the Denver Art Museum, and in 1969 she discussed her methods and materials with students and the general public in connection with an exhibition of her work at the College Center (now part of the University of Northern Colorado) in Greeley. Outside the state she gave sculpture demonstrations at the Cheyenne Artists Guild in Wyoming in 1972 and to students at the Imperial Grade School in Imperial, Nebraska, where she briefly was artist in residence in 1977. She said that the student’s reaction was gratifying, feeling “the exposure to this form of art is very important for kids at this age.” Similarly, she served as a resource artist for the Denver Public Schools (DPS) in the 1970s. Once a week students were bused to her home studio where, after demonstrating her work, she gave them toothpicks and styrofoam which they used to sculpt. Even though DPS did not pay her, she loved the involvement with students and donated two of her wood sculptures to the organization.
Although she participated in a number of one-person shows and group exhibitions at museums and other institutions in Colorado and elsewhere in and her work was well received, she remembers that she did not have an easy time of it. In the mid-1970s she recalled: “When I first began, of course, it was a long, hard struggle. I haven’t always been able to just go into the studio and create.” Nonetheless she felt that her art work was a “real life saver at times, because I never did go in for cards and things like that.” She likewise considered her family’s support to be a major factor in her success. “I believe that a creative person gains strength from a loving family. I’ve never had to consider making a choice between my family and my career. I’ve found fulfillment and satisfaction in both.”
For more than a generation in Colorado Shwayder created an impressive number of sculptures in a variety of media. In speaking about her work in different styles she said:
Art, whether non-objective, realistic, or abstract, is an expression of the artist, his personal creative effort in bringing forth his most intimate thoughts and feelings. I try to bring forth fresh ideas, a challenge to myself with the medium in which I am working, but with the hope of its being esthetically pleasant to the viewer. I have strived for many years to achieve my purpose, to attain this goal.
Along with her career as a professional sculptor, Shwayder also compiled an extensive record of community service in Denver and beyond the state. As president of the Greater Denver Council on the Arts and Humanities (1973-75) she chaired the Visual Arts Committee for the Colorado Centennial/Bicentennial Commission. Similarly, she co-chaired the Visual Arts Division, “Spree 75,” a Celebration of the Arts coordinated by the Greater Denver Council on the Arts and Humanities. She also was a trustee of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (1973-75); president of the Beth Israel Hospital Auxiliary (1985-87); and president of the Asian Art Association of the Denver Art Museum (early 1990s) founded in 1981 to enhance the museum’s efforts to collect, preserve and exhibit Asian art.
In 1982 she started Coats for Colorado with a large drop off space at Beth Israel Hospital donated for four years by her brother, Harry, the hospital administrator. The coat drive has become an annual community effort providing warm winter coats at no cost to Coloradoans of all ages. In 1983 she organized the New York Cares Coats Drive covered in Time Magazine in December of that year for which she received the Golden Mitten Award for the New York Cares Coat Drive and the Freedom Foundation Award at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. In 1991 she organized a campaign that shipped 17,000 pounds of books to US troops fighting in the Gulf War, and five years later she launched a similar campaign to collect new and used books for American troops stationed in Bosnia in the mid-1990s during the Bosnian War following the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1992. Her extensive community service over the years has been recognized with the Minori Yasui Award Denver for Volunteerism (Denver, 1990); Mile Hi Sertoma Club – Service to Mankind (Denver, 1994); and the Gleitsman Foundation Award – For People Who Make a Difference (Los Angeles, 1994). In 2012 she received the Stellar Woman Award, given annually in Denver to three women for their accomplishments and contributions to the community.
Solo Exhibitions: Beaux Arts Gallery, Denver (1962, with Betty Tobias); Contemporaries Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico (1963); Colorado Women’s College, Denver (1963, 1973); 7th Red Door Gallery, Pueblo, Colorado (1964); Rubenstein-Serkez Gallery, Denver (1964, with Dorothea Dunlop; 1965); Southern Colorado State College, Pueblo (1966); Neusteter’s Gallery, Denver (1968); College Center, Greeley, Colorado (1969); L.B. Baumerder Gallery, Denver (1971; 1981, retrospective); Littledale Gallery, Littleton, Colorado (1972, with Irene Littledale); Woodstock Gallery, London, England (1973); The Denver (1973); Randi’s Gallery, Denver (1974, with T.F. Poduska); “Third Annual Honor Exhibition,” Houston Fine Arts Center, Colorado Women’s College, Denver (1975); Brass Cheque Gallery, Denver (1977, with T.F. Poduska); Edgar Britton Gallery, Denver (1979); Denver Public Library (2005); “The Creative Gene: A Family Affair,” Offerings Gallery, Katonah, New York (2016, with her two daughters and granddaughter).
Group Exhibitions: “First Anniversary Exhibit,” Community Art Gallery, Denver (1957); “Denver Metropolitan Annual Exhibition,” Denver Art Museum (1961-1972); Own-Your-Own Annual Exhibition,” Denver Art Museum (1961-1971); “1st Annual Air Force Academy Fine Arts Exhibit,” U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs (1962); “Mall Art Gallery,” U.S. National Bank, Denver (1962); “Artists Equity Association Exhibition,” International House, Denver (1962, 1963); “Third Rocky Mountain Regional Conference Exhibit,” Jewish Community Center, Denver (1962); “15th Annual,” “19th Annual,” and 21st Annual,” Gilpin County Arts Association, Central City, Colorado (1962, 1966, 1968); Contemporaries Gallery, Santa Fe (1962); “Juried Arts National Exhibition,” Tyler Museum of Art, Tyler, Texas (1963); Rubenstein-Serkez Gallery, Denver (1963); “Blossom Festival,” Fine Arts Center, Canon City, Colorado (1963, 1967, 1970); “Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Invitational Exhibition,” Colorado Women’s College, Denver (1963); International House, Denver (1963); “Fifty-Third Annual Art Association Exhibition,” Art Association of Newport, Rhode Island (1964); “Midwest Biennial Exhibition,” Joslyn Museum of Art, Omaha, Nebraska (1964, 1968); “Juried National Exhibition,” Ball State University Teachers College, Muncie, Indiana (1964); “Annual Exhibition of Southwest American Art,” Oklahoma Museum of Art, Oklahoma City (1964-65, 1968); “Invitational Exhibition,” Salt Lake City Center, Utah (1964); “Annual Invitational Exhibition,” Southern Colorado State College, Pueblo (1964-67); “American Association of University Women Annual Exhibition,” Southern Colorado State College, Pueblo (1964, 1967, 1969, 1970-71); “1st North American Sculpture Exhibit,” Foothills Art Center, Golden, Colorado (1964); “Annual Exhibition of Colorado Artists,” Neusteters Gallery, Denver (1964, 1966, 1967, 1969); Lutheran Church of Hope, Broomfield, Colorado (1964); “International Art Mart,” Temple Emanuel, Denver (1964); ”Collectors Choice V,” Denver Art Museum (1965); “Seventy-First Western Annual Exhibition,” Denver Art Museum (1965); ‘”Fourth Annual Invitational Art Exhibition,” Southern Colorado State College, Pueblo (1965); “Second Invitational Biennial of Paintings and Sculpture,” Salt Lake City Art Center, Utah (1965); “Southwestern Fiesta Biennial,” New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe (1966); “Art in Metal Invitational Exhibition, Revere Copper Company,” May D&F Gallery, Denver (1968); “Passover Exhibition,” Jewish Community Center, Denver (1968); “Festival of the Arts,” Denver Convention Center (1969); “First National Space Art Show,” Brown Palace Hotel, Denver (1969); ”North American Sculpture Exhibition,” Foothills Art Center, Golden, Colorado (1970); “Biennial Exhibition,” Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Salt Lake (1971);”Allied Sculptors of Colorado,” Colorado State Bank, Loretto Heights College, Denver, and Littledale Gallery, Littleton (1972); “Rocky Mountain Liturgical Arts,” University Park Methodist Church, Denver (1971); “Internazionale ‘Ai Frati’,” Lucca, Italy (1973); “Fifth Annual Channel Six Art Auction,” (Denver 1973); “Special Group Exhibition,” Randi’s Art Gallery, Denver (1975); Beaumont Art Gallery, Lorretto Heights College, Denver (1977); “Liturgy and Land,” Rocky Mountain Liturgical Association-Saint John’s Cathedral, Denver (1979); “Tenth Anniversary Artists of the Rockies Exhibition,” Sangre de Cristo Arts and Conference Center, Pueblo, Colorado (1983); “Outstanding Regional Artists,” Oak Brush Gallery, Glenwood Springs, Colorado (1983); “Fifteen Colorado Artists; Fifty Year Reunion,1948/1998,” Elizabeth Schlosser Gallery, Denver (1998); “Kirkland Collection: 100+ Years of Colorado Art,” Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, Arvada, CO (2010); Fort Collins Museum of Contemporary Art (2010); “Colorado Abstract,” Z Art Department, Denver, CO (2010).
Collections: Martin Marietta Corporation, Denver, Colorado; Beth Israel Synagogue, Greeley, Colorado; BMH Synagogue, Denver; Congregation Har Ha-Shem, Boulder, Colorado; Denver Public Library Western Art Collection; Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, Denver, Colorado.