“Moonrise”, c. 1960s | 22"x30" - Watercolor painting on heavy paper
“Bulls”, 1960 | 29"x29" - Oil painting of board
Mina Conant, who worked in a variety of media – oils, watercolors, pastels, prints, sculpture, ceramics, textile wall hangings and stained glass -- reportedly began making art by age five. She grew up in Denver where she graduated from East High School. While a student there she took art courses with Estelle Stinchfield, who had studied with André Lhote and Otton Friesz in Paris and Percyval Tudor-Hart in London. In 1929 as a project for the American Association of University Women Conant drew a pictorial map of Colorado’s history which Denver Municipal Facts described as being of “genuine esthetic value.”
After high school she pursued a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the University of Denver where she met her future husband, John E. Billmyer, an aspiring architectural student who changed his course of study to become a master potter. For a brief time in the early 1930s they worked together as janitors at Chappell House in exchange for the opportunity to study there with faculty members of the University of Denver School of Art, including Vance Kirkland, John Thompson and Margaret Tee.
In 1933 Billmyer and Conant moved to Cleveland where they married that same year and later had three daughters. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in education (1935) from the Case Western Reserve University School of Education and his Master of Arts degree two years later from the Cleveland Institute of Art. She continued her art studies in Cleveland from which she sent her block-printed textiles to Denver for a solo show at the ChappelI House in 1934. The previous year she won an award from the Cleveland Print Club and in March 1935 her wood engraving, Rite of Spring, was in the Print-A-Month Series of the Print Club of Cleveland, the oldest print club in the United States. Incorporated in 1919, its dual purpose was "to assist the Cleveland Museum of Art to acquire a print collection of high excellence" and "to stimulate interest in prints and print collecting." While in Cleveland Conant did another wood engraving, Pampas Deer. Both are in the permanent collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
In 1946 she and her husband returned to Denver where he became head of the ceramics department at the University of Denver and where she also taught figure drawing and crafts until 1950. Over the years she also taught at the Denver Art Museum, Denver Public High Schools (1950s), and the Children’s Museum in Denver. In 1948 she and her husband became founding members of the 15 Colorado Artists, a group of Denver modernists who seceded from the older and more traditional Denver Artists Guild to form their own advocacy group, pursuing more progressive art styles and laying the groundwork for the city’s modern art scene over the next few decades.
This helped Conant re-establish herself in the Mile High City. In addition to showing with the 15 Colorado Artists she also participated in exhibitions at the Denver Art Museum and its Own-Your-Own Shows, as well as the annual Blossom Festival in Canon City, Colorado, where she received 1st Place in oil painting in 1954. A year earlier the Denver Art Museum offered her woodblock print, Dreaming Cat, as a membership premium. During the 1960s she was included in the 6th Midwest Biennial Exhibition at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. She also had two one-person shows at the Neusteter’s Gallery of Fine Arts in downtown Denver. Her first one in 1964 was the second show at the gallery after that of Taos artist, Emil Bisttram.
Mina Conant is best known for her imaginative paintings of children and animals, as well as fantastical creatures like angels or mermaids painted in a bright and whimsical style with underlying layers of visual puns, allegory, symbolism and spirituality. She felt that “a picture should be a communication—the more you look at a picture the more insights you should get.” She loved animals and preferred to paint symbolic children because, “A child is the human being at the most innocent without all the layers and veneers we get as we grow older.”[i] She was fond of Persian miniatures and the graceful figures depicted by Italian Renaissance artist, Sandro Botticelli.
She incorporated these various elements in her watercolor, Moonrise. The centrally-placed nude female figure crowned with a Corinthian capital alludes to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. The tulip she holds symbolizes both perfect love and rebirth, as it is the first flower to bloom in the Spring. The upright cat, one of Conant’s favorite subjects, wears a fur coat and high-heeled shoes and holds a child’s doll recalling childhood, while the owl, a symbol of wisdom, carries a lantern like the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes looking for an honest man. Her untitled painting of bulls shows the animals at different times of the day suggested by the different background colors and the stars in the sky. The compositional style is a modernist interpretation of the Palaeolithic paintings in the Lascaux caves in the Dordogne region in southwestern France and possibly the petroglyphs in various parts of Colorado and neighboring New Mexico.
At the time of her fiftieth birthday in 1960, she had a life-threatening bout with pneumonia and received the Last Rites. She vowed to celebrate her recovery by painting 1,000 new pictures, adding to her signature a small butterfly with a number worked into its wing markings symbolizing the Resurrection. The butterfly also had an autobiographical component as a “symbol of joy and freedom that somehow manages to survive.” She said, “Artists are something like butterflies—painting the ideas that we enjoy, creating pictures only to be looked at, almost in spite of ourselves.” By age eighty-three she finished 850 paintings.
Along with her work in oil and watercolor and the print medium, she received mural commissions for the Boettcher School (Denver, 1956), and worked with the volunteers at Colorado General Hospital for input on the designs of her mosaics, tapestries, and paintings for the Pediatrics Outpatients Clinic (1963-5). A life-long Episcopalian, she also created mosaic panels and murals for the St. Francis Children’s Chapel at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Denver (1956, 1993), Calvary Temple Church, and Stations of the Cross for St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and for St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church in Brighton, Colorado.
In 1977 Conant had a run-in with the Rev. James O. Mote, pastor at the time of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in South Denver of which she had been a member for thirty years. Protesting the congregation’s secession at his persuasion from the National Episcopal Church on account of its decision to ordain women, she and her daughter removed her 14 Stations of the Cross from the church. Eventually, they became the property of the Colorado Episcopal Diocese and later were given to Johanna Billmyer who donated them to St. Elizabeth’s Brighton, Colorado.
In addition to her art career pursued while raising three daughters, she and her husband were active in the Colorado chapter of Artists Equity Association of which she was president from 1964 to 1966. In the late 1950s she also served as vice president of the Community Art Gallery in Denver’s Cherry Creek neighborhood. Protesting against things she disliked as a woman of conscience, she joined picketers at the University of Denver in “Woodstock West” during the Vietnam War, took cookies with her daughter Johanna to protesters at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant near Denver, and campaigned against billboards in the Denver Metro area which she considered an “aesthetic blight.”
After she and her husband relocated to Tucson following his retirement from the University of Denver in 1977, she continued her social activism in her new home, posting flyers in the 1990s throughout Tucson protesting Arizona’s polluted air and water. On the occasion of her donation of paintings to the St. Francis Children’s Chapel at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Denver in 1993 in memory of Helen, Arndt, a long-time patroness of Denver artists, Conant explained in a Denver Post interview why she did not have a gallery in her later years: “It’s so much blood, sweat and tears getting stuff back and forth to a gallery…I don’t want to fool with it. I just want to paint. I would like to have one big bang-up show though.” She unfortunately did not live to see it before her death six years later in Tucson.
Exhibitions: Solo: Denver Art Museum-Chappell House, Denver (1934); The Gallery, Denver (1960, with her husband, John Billmyer); Neusteters Gallery of Fine Arts, Denver (1964, 1969); Colorado Bank, Sterling, Colorado (1967).
Group: Denver Art Museum (1953, 1955, 1958-59, 1963); Annual Blossom Festival, Canyon City, Colorado (1954); Living Arts Center, Denver (1959); 6th Midwest Biennial Exhibition, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska (1960); “Eight Painters & Sculptors at the University of Denver 1930-1985,” Victoria H. Myhren Gallery-University of Denver (2010); “15 Colorado Artists--Breaking with Tradition,” Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, Denver (2011).
Collections: Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio; Charles Marvin Fairchild Gallery-Georgetown University, Washington, DC; Rockford Art Museum, Illinois; Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, Denver, Colorado.