"Mining Scene", 1935 | 16”x20” - oil on canvas

Frank Gates’ version of a mining town relies on color and tilted angles to present the hope, tumult, exertion, and energy present in a mining town. The elements are all there:  two miners, a track for ore cars, a mule pulling a heavy load, the mine cavern, pulleys, and a house --- all juxtaposed on the canvas with the unchanging mountains in the background.


A Colorado modernist artist and theater set designer, he grew up in Edgewater, Colorado, near the Manhattan Beach Theater and the winter quarters of the Denver Post’s Sells-Floto Circus which he frequented as a youngster. These two places introduced him early on to the theater. Additionally, his father toured the United States in a wire walking act with the Barnum and Bailey Circus.  Gates began his association with the theater in 1919 when just out of high school. He initially worked with scenic artist, Jack Stein, at the old Tabor Theater in the Tabor Grand Opera House (demolished in 1964) in downtown Denver. Soon after that, he became an assistant scenic artist to George Bradford Ashworth, a famous New York stage set designer, who during the summer designed sets for the Elitch Gardens Theater in northwest Denver.  Gates later produced the sets there until 1928.

He was offered a scholarship to Colorado A & M College (now Colorado State University) in Fort Collins but declined because of his growing commitment to the theater. He followed his tenure at Elitch’s with positions at the Denham Theater in Denver and the Palm Theater in Pueblo. Upon returning to Denver, he became a free-lance artist for studios producing scenery for stage shows at the city’s Tabor, Denver, Paramount, Alladin, Rivoli, Broadway, Orpheum and Empress Theaters. 

He moved to California, perfecting his craft at the Pasadena Playhouse, a training school for young actors and actresses pursuing stardom in the movies. Later associated with the Technicolor Corporation, he helped to produce the film used in early color movies such as Becky Sharp (1935) and the Garden of Allah (1936) starring Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer. He also worked in New York with Robert Edmond “Bobby” Jones, regarded as the dean of American theatrical set designers. 

When Jones became artistic director of the Central City Opera House in 1932 – restored thanks to the efforts of Anne Evans and Ida Kruse McFarlane – he invited Gates to join him to paint the sets for the inaugural production of Camille starring Lillian Gish. Laura Gilpin, Colorado native, and renowned platinum print photographer documented the production. By the following season, Gates had opened a studio in the old Loop Market in downtown Denver, experimenting with design and color to create stage sets for the annual summer operas in Central City, working on every production until his retirement some years later. Becoming a resident of the town in the 1930s, he was in charge of the homes owned by the Opera Association hosting the invited performers during the summer months. He also served as the in-residence curator of the Central City Opera House.

In addition to his career as a scenic theater artist, he developed a parallel one in the fine arts. Largely self-taught, he began doing sketches backstage at the Elitch Gardens Theater after World War I. With Brad Ainsworth, who had studied at the Art Students League in New York, with George Bellows and Kenneth Hayes Miller, Gates traveled in a Model T Ford to Taos, embarking on a sketching and painting trip throughout the state. His talent earned him a commission from the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP, 1933-34), the first federally-funded art project during the Great Depression, to paint a group of murals for the main entrance of North High School in Denver where they can still be seen today. During World War II he volunteered his artistic and mechanical skills to the Army Air Corps, serving as an aerial bombing instructor.

Beginning in the 1930s, he started exhibiting his work, primarily watercolors, in the Denver Art Museum annuals, as well as in Kansas City, Philadelphia, New York, and Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris. His titles of Coal Crusher, Blow Torch and Welding reflect his connection during the Great Depression with American Social Realism and the Urban American Scene influenced by the New York Ashcan School of the early twentieth century. Stylistically, the composition of a number of his images, such as Mining Town and Mining Scene, incorporate cubistic elements of French modernism. In his scenes from the Colorado mining towns of Central City, Nevadaville and Black Hawk he employed tilted angles and geometric shapes, differentiating his work at the time from that of his fellow artists painting the state’s nineteenth-century mining towns. 

In a review from the 1930s in the Denver Post, “Chappell House Offers Several One-Man Shows,” Donald J. Bear, Curator of Paintings at the Denver Art Museum, discussed the work in Gates’ solo show at the museum:   

Among the new one-man affairs is a particularly original group of watercolors by Frank Gates of Denver. Multi-colored, naïve fantasies based on the stacked up buildings of Central City, dusky street scenes caught from odd angles or perspective, and vivid but ingenious arrangements of the intricacies of mining machinery, viaducts, mills and orange-vermillion water wheels propelled by cerulean blue flames, which are twisted like spun glass, constitute altogether one of the most individual renderings of familiar subjects which we have not seen for some time. These pictures are not easel pictures in any sense of the word but linger between scenic designs for the stage and possible murals.

Gates had a sentimental attachment to Central City and the surrounding locales. As a young man, he sketched in and around those environs.  His father had met and married his mother while she was employed in a hotel in Blackhawk. Gates knew Central City from childhood because an uncle by marriage owned the general store in nearby Nevadaville and also managed a local saloon and served as the town’s postmaster. He regarded his mature creative output as having a dual purpose – as a delight for the eye and as historical documents. In connection with the latter, he and his wife collected memorabilia such as carousel horses and weathervanes. Given his long-standing relationship with the area, he and his wife Agnes are buried together in Bald Mountain Cemetery in Nevadaville.

Solo Exhibitions: Chappell House-Denver Art Museum (1932); Colorado Women’s College, Denver (1977); Byers-Evan House Museum, Denver (2013).

Group Exhibitions: Denver Art Museum (1930, 1932-35, 1937-39, 1943, 1948).

Collections: Denver Public Library Western Art Collection; Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, Denver.