LYNN R. WOLFE
“City at Night”, ca. 1954 | 20x28 - Watercolor on heavy paper
A versatile artist proficient in painting, sculpture, stained glass and mosaics, Wolfe grew up on his family’s dairy farm near Red Cloud, Nebraska. For much of his early life he was known as Bob until officially adopting the first name of Lynn in 1939. When he was six months old he contracted the “Spanish flu” in the 1918 influenza pandemic that stunted his growth, making him the smallest student in class. To compensate for his small stature, his family engaged a Black boxer to give him boxing lessons so he could always defend himself against any bullies he encountered at school. Before he started grade school in Red Cloud, one of his grandfathers - a Latin scholar - taught him how to read.
His early connection with sculpture occurred when as a youngster he looked for clay in the sandpits near his home to mould figures, including a likeness ofhis older brother. Similarly, his adult interest in archaeology developed from their search for arrowheads brought to the surface after rainstorms on the family farm. As a teenager he read The Temple Warriors in Chichen Itza, Yucatan, by Earl and Ann Morris with illustrations by Jean Charlot. After World War II Charlot taught fresco painting and worked with Lawrence Barrett on several editions of lithographs at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. In 1947 Wolfe served as Charlot’s chauffeur when he came up to lecture at the University of Colorado in Boulder (CU), and in appreciation received one of the artist’s etchings personally inscribed to him.
Following graduation as valedictorian of his high school class, Wolfe enrolled in 1935 as an undergraduate on scholarship at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, earning his B.A. degree in fine art in 1940. He studied art with Frederick Dwight Kirsch (himself a student of fellow Nebraska native Robert Henri at the Art Students League in New York) who served as Chairman of the Art Department and Director of the University Art Galleries – now the Sheldon Museum -- until 1950 when he became director of the Des Moines Art Center. In Nebraska Wolfe painted representational scenes of local buildings such as grain elevators in a landscape setting and small town street scenes with automobiles.
It took Wolfe five years to earn his undergraduate degree because he worked while going to school. In his final year he worked to pay the taxes on the family farm to avoid foreclosure during the Great Depression. While at the University, he prepared fossils and did low relief sculptures of prehistoric animals for the Nebraska State Museum located in Morrill Hall on campus. He also participated in Pleistocene fossil digs in Nebraska and Texas. One of his first jobs after graduation was supervising fossil preparation in Lincoln by twenty-nine workers employed in a Depression-era project sponsored by the federal government.
In 1939 he met his future wife Arlene at a sock hop at the University of Nebraska. His first impression of her was a “stunning blond across the room” with whom he shared an interest in the arts and travel. During World War II when she was living and working in Omaha, he proposed to her from New Guinea where he was stationed in the South Pacific. He said that he would take her to Florida if she married him. He later took her and their family on a number of trips to most of Europe, and to Morocco, Algeria, Turkey, China, Japan and Fiji.
During the last year of the war he taught photo intelligence in Orlando, Florida, while stationed at the local Air Force base. Prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war, he worked in the Engineer Corps doing color, texture and illusion. During the war he spent four years in the military, shipping out as a buck private and later advancing to the rank of captain. His classroom experience in Florida helped transition him at war’s end to the University of Nebraska where he taught art for two semesters to fellow intelligence officers studying there on the G.I. Bill. In the summer of 1946 he also was a visiting artist at the University of Alaska where he taught watercolor.
In 1947 he relocated to CU in Boulder for his Master of Fine Arts degree on the G.I. Bill. As part of his application earning him a graduate fellowship, he included a photograph of his wife and himself in his captain’s uniformHe took painting and sculpture courses with Muriel Sibell Wolle and Frederick Trucksess. Representative of his initial work at CU is Houses (1947), essentially a geometric form study of the houses and the trees punctuating the scene animated by a solitary human figure. For his MFA painting, entitled Western Square Dance (1947-48) he employed a mildly cubistic structure to depict a group of square dancers and accompanying musicians, a departure from the style of his previous Nebraska work. The painting is now in the university’s Norlin Library. At CU he minored in anthropology, studying with Earl Morris known for his earlier connection with Chichen Itza and who, along with A.V. Kidder, pioneered the field of Southwest archaeology in the Four Corners region and elsewhere.
Initially, Wolfe only planned to stay in Boulder for several quarters, long enough to earn his MFA degree. He told his wife his wife that Boulder was “a funny little cow town – I don’t think we’ll be here long.” However, he ended up teaching at CU for thirty-six years, also serving as chairman of the art department.. Soon after his arrival he bought a house – the same one in which he still lives – with the money saved from his four years in the military during the war. He also invested in local real estate, owning apartments on 12th Street which he only rented to CU students who needed reasonably-priced accommodations.
In 1949 Wolfe participated in Max Beckmann’s summer course at CU. It was the first of six such courses lasting until 1960 that brought well-known, contemporary artists Paul Burlin, Jimmy Ernst, Mark Rothko, Richard Diebenkorn and Clyfford Still to the campus to teach advanced and graduate students and to give public lectures. The summer course project was initiated by Alden Frick Megrew, a Harvard graduate who moved with his wife to Boulder in 1947 to become chairman of the CU art department.
German modernist painter Beckmann, labeled one of his country’s “Degenerate” artists by the Hitler regime, left Germany in 1937 and after World War II settled in the United States where he taught at Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri. Wolfe recalled that Beckmann’s wife, Quippi, knew English and translated for her husband in his classes at CU. The artist’s modernist style and palette are reflected in Wolfe’s mountain landscape with its multi-planal intersections of mountain shapesinfluenced by the Boulder Flatirons formation behind the city. The placement of conical trees in the foreground creates movement, guiding the viewer’s eye to the upper reaches of the painting.
In 1950 Sibell Wolle recruited Wolfe for student teaching of sculpture and drawing. His first class of seventy students largely consisted of G.I.s. In order to gain a good insight into the compositions of his classes over the years he requested from his students on the first day of class a one-page story of their individual lives and what their grandfathers did for a living. He recalled that “students had the same hopes and aspirations as I did. We got along; it was easy to work with them.” His former students include Hyperrealist sculptor, John De Andrea. Although retired from teaching at CU for more than thirty years, some of Wolfe’s former students drop by to show him their work and seek his critique.
He developed his facility in sculpture, painting, drawing and stained glass because as a professional teacher he felt the need to know how to work in different media – except for prints -- in order to advise his students. To this end, in 1951 he studied in the Paris atelier of Russian modernist sculptor, Ossip Zadkine, who worked in bronze, stone and wood. Wolfe’s propensity for a variety of different media during his career recalls Zadkine’s view: “My materials often dictate my change of aims, and I choose to work in a different material much as a man may suddenly feel an appetite for a change of diet.” On a faculty fellowship from the CU Council on Research and Creative Work Wolfe studied mosaics and glass tile work on location at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice and in Mexico.
He used both realist and abstract styles, with the latter becoming increasingly predominate in the early 1950s. In this connection he once said, “When I start work on a painting on a clean surface I don’t know how it will turn out.” He painted a number of referential abstract landscapes and still lifes in watercolor, some of which such as Pink and Orange Mountain Abstract have strong black outlines reminiscent of the lead tracery used to create his stained glass windows. Other compositions like Orange and Red Geometric Abstract employ a roughly defined checkerboard with some quadrants containing readily identifiable objects and a number of others populated with various geometric shapes, as reflected in the title of the piece. He initially painted in oil, but more than half a century ago switched to acrylics on account of the long-term health effects of breathing the vapors of oil-based paints.
Like his paintings, his modernist sculptures treat a variety of subject matter with different materials and techniques. Girl Combing her Hair (1958) combines coiled clay and plastic, while Moon Angel (1966) was cast in bronze using a styrofoam model. For the First National Bank of Boulder he created a stained glass and aluminum slide screen, while for the Boulder Mercantile Bank & Trust he fired vitreous enamel on a series of iron rod forms with a welding torch, giving sparkling color to a fish sculpture. Similarly, A Star Danced uses welded iron rods to create the monochromatic, fanciful figure of a centaur. Commissioned by the head of the CU English Department as a memorial for his deceased wife, the piece was later stolen from it original place over the fireplace in Reynolds Hall on the university campus. At age ninety-seven Wolfe sculpted Call of the Wild, a bronze wolf in the lost wax process, for the Art on the Street Collection in Lafayette, Colorado. Now in his late nineties he still paints and sculpts, daily beckoned by his Boulder studio.
For several decades beginning in the 1950s he designed stained glass windows and mosaics for churches and chapels throughout Colorado of various religious denominations, including the T. ChaseMcPherson Memorial Chapel, Fort Lewis College, Durango; Norgren Chapel and the Presbyterian Hospital Chapter, both in Denver; Westminster Presbyterian Church, Westminster; First Congregational Church, Boulder; and St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church, Boulder. For the Danforth Memorial Chapel at Colorado State University in Fort Collins he sculpted copper doors of two life-size angels with halos of semi-precious Colorado stones.
He also designed the Robert L. Stearns Award initiated in 1953 when its namesake resigned after serving fourteen years as the sixth president of CU, the first Colorado native to hold the position. The award, a bronze medal with the top of spruce tree and hanging cones, recognizes members of the faculty and staff for extraordinary achievement or service in teaching, service to the university, work with students, research, or off-campus service.
Apart from his own career as an artist and a teacher, Wolfe consistently has been actively involved in the betterment of his community and in fostering the fine arts. He was one of the founders and executive board members of the Boulder Open Space Project. It was inspired by his wife, Arlene, who had been impressed by the green spaces she saw during their trip to Paris in 1951. Now known as PLAN-Boulder County, the program has preserved more than 90,000 acres of open space from real estate development. Based on his involvement with Plan Boulder, Wolfe has donated $614,000.00 to create after his death the Wolfe Garden Walk at CU.
It will consist of a landscaped path with his bronze sculpture of a wolf winding through the university campus. He also has been Curator of Collections at the CU Fine Art Department and served on the Board of Directors of Historic Boulder, the Boulder Chautauqua, Colorado Wyoming Association of Museums, and the Boulder Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
Solo shows: University of Colorado Fine Arts Gallery (various); Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center (1974); the Gallery and the Regis College Main Hall Gallery, both in Denver; Milly Beavers Fine Art Gallery, Boulder.
Group shows: 2nd Hallmark International Exhibition, Wildenstein Galleries, New York (1952); National Drawing and Small Sculpture, Muncie, Indiana (1958); Museum of Contemporary Craft, New York (1959); Allied Arts Association (with Edgar Britton and Don Bruce)-Marco Polo Galleries and the International Gallery of Contemporary Art, both in Denver; Denver Art Museum (1972).
Collections: University of Colorado at Boulder; Fremont Center for the Arts, Canon City, CO.