FRANK JOSEPH VAVRA
“Pikes Peak, Garden of Gods”, ca. 1930 | 20”x20” - oil painting on board
Frank Vavra’s brightly colored painting of the Garden of the Gods near Colorado Springs shows the artist’s awareness of modernist trends in Europe in which colors are exaggerated for purpose of effect. The striking geologic formations are accentuated by the choice of the brilliant red. The snow-capped Pikes Peak and blue foothills are seen through the framing device of the vertical rock formations.
“Topsy Turvy”, Date Unknown | 30”x21” - oil painting on board
What is unusual in Frank Vavra’s rodeo painting is the perspective. The viewer is in the position of the bronco rider who sees the posts before him with the stands full of people in the distance. The rider is all-consumed by the horse beneath his saddle, as he hangs onto his hat for a Topsy Turvy ride.
The son of Czech immigrants, his father moved the family when he was about eight years old to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where he did cabinetry work for the passenger coaches of the Union Pacific Railroad. Vavra’s early interest in art received encouragement from a Miss McCormick, the fifth grade teacher in the Cheyenne public schools in which he was enrolled. The impressions of the city’s vigorous and somewhat boisterous pioneer atmosphere in which he spent his childhood and adolescence later served as material for his paintings as a professional artist.
After graduating high school and working various jobs, he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917. Serving in France during World War I, he fought in the Battle of the Marne and was gassed in the Argonne Forest in the summer of 1918. While recuperating in a French hospital in Vichy before returning to the United States, he met Pillan, a pupil of Claude Monet. Vavra’s year-long contact with Pillan contributed to his development as an artist and confirmed his resolved to make the formal study of art his priority. Once back in Cheyenne, he worked as a window decorator before moving to Denver in 1923 to pursue a fine arts career.
From 1924 to 1926 he studied at the Denver Art Academy with John E. Thompson and Robert A. Graham, as well as with John Watson Rennell and Henry Carter of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Formerly located in Brinton Terrace on 18th Street in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, the Denver Art Academy was headed by George William Eggers, former director of the Art Institute of Chicago and director of the Denver Art Museum (1921-1926). Among Vavra’s classmates was Donald J. Bear, later director of the Denver Art Museum, regional advisor for the Federal Art Project and in 1940 founding director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California. At the Denver Art Academy Vavra met his future wife, Kathleen Huffman, a fashion artist at the Denver Dry Goods Company and an accomplished watercolorist. Their daughter, Diana, became a teacher and master printmaker, studying in California with George Miyasaki and Richard Diebenkorn.
In 1928 Vavra became a founding member of the Denver Artists Guild, along with fifty-one other local professional artists working in different media and pursuing a variety of styles. They furthered the organization’s premise of making art accessible to the public, and not an elite pursuit, by using the radio early on to present programs about the arts. Apart from their own work, a number of Guild members – including Vavra -- taught the next generation of artists at colleges, universities and art schools in Denver and elsewhere in Colorado. During the 1920s and 1930s he painted impressionistic landscapes of Colorado and New Mexico, such as Winter, Near My House in Insmont and Colorado and Pikes Peak, Garden of the Gods.
Having established himself in Denver in the 1920s, he was able to fulfill his desire to live in closer contact with nature, allowing him to readily paint its changing moods. Some six months before the Stock Market Crash in 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression, he purchased for eight hundred dollars the general store and post office in Insmont, Colorado, near Bailey west of Denver. Joined by his family the following year, he remodeled the buildings into an artistic home/studio that became his personal gallery and an art object in its own right, annually attracting curious visitors. In addition to painting, he produced beautiful hand-carved furniture with animal motifs.
He was one of some two dozen Colorado artists designated to participate in the Public Works of Art Program (PWAP, 1933-34), the first federally-sponsored program for artists during the Great Depression. In the 1930s, too, he occasionally taught art in his native state where he painted the Tetons in 1935. During the decade he embraced regionalism advocated by the federal art program and employed by many American artists to create reassuring images in a relatively conservative and traditionalist style. The style “appealed to popular American sensibilities, while strictly opposing the perceived domination of French art.” An example of Vavra’s regionalist subject matter is Topsy Turvy c. 1935 depicting a bronco rider at a local rodeo, possibly the annual Cheyenne Frontier Days in Wyoming
The family moved back to Denver in 1942 because their young son, Joey, needed special medical care. From 1944 to 1949 Vavra worked as an Instructor of Drawing and Painting and Commercial Illustration in the College of Fine and Applied Arts at the University of Denver. In 1948 he joined the 15 Colorado Artists when they seceded from the Denver Artists Guild, which for two decades had served as the official organization of most of Denver’s artists. Those constituting the “15” were dissatisfied with the Guild’s underlying conservatism and were interested in the progressive ideas emerging on the national art scene after World War II. The Denver Art Museum recognized the “15” with an inaugural exhibition in December 1948.
In 1949 he and fellow artist Angelo di Benedetto of Central City teamed up to form their own professional art school at 924 Broadway in downtown Denver. It only lasted a year before ceasing operations. Vavra later opened a private art studio in his Denver home on South Emerson Street. He also painted murals at Skinner, Middle, North and West High Schools in Denver. His work is also found in the Colorado and Wyoming State Capitols. As a professional artist he served on the Board of Trustees of the Denver Art Museum in the 1950s. With a number of Denver and Boulder artists – Anne Jones, Lynn Wolfe, Edgar Britton and Mina Conant – Vavra judged artwork submitted by Colorado junior and senior high school students for the ninth and tenth annual Scholastic Art Awards held at the May Company in downtown Denver in 1954 and 1955.
In 1960 he and his wife moved back full time to Insmont, where they spent five years before nerve damage resulting from his World War I injury necessitated convalescence in a Denver nursing home where he died in 1967. In the last years of his life he worked for the Olinger Decorating Company in Denver, an arrangement allowing him to devote some time to his own painting. Colorado Poet Laureate Thomas Hornsby Ferril delivered the eulogy at his funeral. The year after Vavra’s death the sales representatives of the Fisher Governor Company presented his painting, The Peak of Progress, to Mrs. Jasper H. Fisher in commemoration of the company’s eightieth anniversary.
Solo Exhibitions: Carnegie Public Library, Cheyenne, Wyoming (1927); Milwaukee Art Institute, Wisconsin (1931, with Alfred Bancroft); Denver Art Museum (1945); Cheyenne National Arts Club, (1954); “Vavra Triptych,” (with his wife, Kathleen, and daughter, Diana), Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, Denver (2006)
Group Exhibitions: “Annual Exhibitions,” Denver Art Museum (1925-1958); Denver Businessmen’s Art Club (1926); “Midwest Artists,” Kansas City Art Institute (1929-30, 1937, 1935, 1939); “Sixteenth Annual Exhibition by Professional Members,” Broadmoor Art Academy, Colorado Springs (1931); “Public Works of Art Project,” Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (1934); “Second National Exhibition of American Art,” Municipal Art Committee, New York City (1937); University of Denver (1944); “Artists West of the Mississippi,” Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center (1945); California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, California (1947-48); Cedar City Annual Art Exhibits, Utah (1948-50, 1954, 1957, 1959); Gilpin County Art Association, Central City, Colorado (1949-50, 1952, 1958, 1960, 1964); “Midwest Exhibition,” Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska (1952, 1956, 1958, 1960); “Missouri Valley Exhibit,” Mulvane Art Museum, Topeka, Kansas (1957); “Discovering & Interpreting the West: 19th, 20th & 21st Century Landscapes,” Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, Arvada, Colorado (2014).
Museums: Denver Art Museum; Denver Public Library Western Art Collection; Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, Denver.