HUGH EDWARD WELLER
“South Park”, ca. 1930 | 24”x30” - oil on canvas
Hugh Weller painted a farm scene in South Park, Colorado in a personal style that combines elements of Cubism and Modernism. The angular forms of the farmland, foothills, and trees are arranged in a balanced formal setting that contrasts with the representational, or traditional forms of the barn and silo. The colors of gold, dark green, pale blue and brown are chosen for dramatic effect.
Born in a farming community incorporated in 1892 some 20 miles north of Greeley, Weller’s father held several important positions in the small town on the eastern plains of Colorado. After the turn of the nineteenth century he was one of the incorporators of the Eaton Building & Loan Association, one of six of the town’s trustees, and cashier at the First National Bank in Eaton. After his father’s death in 1915, Weller relocated to Denver to pursue an art career, initially painting scenery for the Elitch Gardens Theater and the Denham Theater. In 1919 he left Denver to study with George Bellows at the Art Institute of Chicago and for two years thereafter at the British Academy in Rome.
Returning to Denver in the early 1920s, he taught at the Denver Academy of Fine & Applied Arts. Founded in 1920 by John C. Cory, a New York newspaper cartoonist who came to Denver for health reasons and became a Rocky Mountain News cartoonist, the Academy functioned until 1924 at Brinton Terrace. Termed Denver’s ‘Greenwich Village,” the Terrace was located between Broadway and Lincoln on East 18th Avenue. Weller’s fellow faculty members included recognized artists John E. Thompson and Robert A. Graham (teacher of painting and drawing), David Spivak (painting) and Margaret Tee (interior design).
Dating from his Academy affiliation or shortly thereafter is an impressionistic painting of a lily pond. It could be a vignette either from City Park in Denver or from the Sunken Gardens with its large reflecting pool formerly located in front of West High School along Speer Boulevard. Part of Mayor Speer’s City Beautiful design for Denver, a polio scare in the 1930s resulted in the dismantling of the Sunken Gardens.
While teaching at the Academy Weller married Maude H. Allen in Denver in December 1922. Two years later when the Academy became the Chappell School of Art and relocated to Chappell House (the first home of the Denver Art Museum) he moved on to pursue a successful commercial advertising career. He designed menu covers for the Mayfair Restaurant at the Brown Palace Hotel, letterhead for the Century Lager Beer Company, and a local ad campaign for the Morris Plan Bank in Denver designed to assist the middle class in getting loans that often were difficult to obtain at traditional banks.
With the onset of the Great Depression in the early 1930s and the attendant economic dislocation affecting artists, their galleries and collectors, Weller was one of more than two dozen Colorado artists who received commissions in 1933-34 under the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the first of several federal government public art projects during that era. In 1934 he rented a vacant store in South Denver where he painted a large three-part mural depicting Marco Polo’s journey to China for the library at East High School in Denver where it can still be seen.
Weller is reported to have a done a mural at the old location of the Emily Griffith Opportunity School at 1250 Welton Street in downtown Denver. He also prepared a mural design, Territorial Americans – Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico, submitted to one of the New Deal-era competitions for a mural in a post office or other public building; but it is not known if he was successful in winning and executing a commission. He continued to do his easel paintings and monoprints in the family apartment at 16th and Clarkson which he liked for its wonderful light and its proximity to downtown Denver.
When the Great Depression wound down, he resumed his commercial art career. He obtained lucrative accounts for a repackaging campaign with the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company in Pueblo, Colorado, involving everything from letterhead to box car logos. He also designed bottle labels for the Duffy’s Delicious Drinks Company in Denver that distributed its products to a number of other states in the West. His wife proved indispensable as his agent meeting and dealing with clients. His successful commercial art career did not negatively impact his fine art oeuvre, but it relieved him of the pressure to exhibit and sell his work and to contend with the vagaries of the art market
The lime tree design on the labels he created for Duffy’s Lime Rickey drink in the late 1930s reflects his fascination with the broad-leaf tropical vegetation seen in the paintings he did based on his sojourn in New Orleans. He had a natural affinity for the Big Easy on account of his love of jazz. He knew a number of jazz musicians whose company he is said to have enjoyed more than most of his fellow artists because he admired their talent for creative improvisation.
In his Colorado-themed paintings from the early 1940s Weller further developed the stylization first explored in his tropically-inspired canvases. His mural for the Capitol Annex Building in Denver in 1941 employs a cubistic grid of intersecting planes on which he imposed angular forms of trees and buildings along with the more representational figures of a workman, lunchbox in hand, going off to work with his wife and children situated in the foreground. Although reminiscent of the subject matter treated in the various New Deal federal art programs, Weller did not heroize the human figures. He employed the same structure from his mural in two paintings (circa 1942) respectively titled Evergreens (Denver Public Library Western Art Collection) and South Park. They both depict South Park, a broad, flat and sparsely populated valley in Park County southwest of Denver along Highway 285.
By the mid-1940s Weller transformed his angular forms into a cubistic arrangement of color shapes as seen in Kachinas (Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, Denver). A referential abstract composition, it presents Hopi Indian men impersonating in ceremonial dances the supernatural beings – a link between gods and mortals -- who visit the Hopi villages Arizona villages, helping their residents with everyday activities.
While retaining a predominantly green, brown and red/orange/yellow palette, Weller’s artwork by the late 1940s became totally abstract employing organic and geometric shapes. Two decades later he experimented with brightly colored landscapes as form studies, such as Fields and Clouds (Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art). Although more representational in style than Kachinas and his earlier pure abstractions, the landscapes use a combination of natural angular and circular shapes to energize the overall composition.
Regardless of style, his work remained quiet and subdued, not overly concerned with the strife and turmoil surrounding the Great Depression or the later advent of Abstract Expressionism. As noted by the reviewer in the Rocky Mountain News in 1941, Weller’s work is “soberly considered and in the contemplative vein.” He himself said, “My aims in painting are plasticity without distortion; restrained speed of movement.”
Solo Exhibitions: Pacific Gallery, Tarzana, California (1958).
Group Exhibitions: Denver Art Museum (1931, 1932); Biltmore Gallery, Los Angeles (date unknown).
Collections: Western History Art Collection, Denver Public Library; Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, Denver.