Academics and Research / Current Issue

State of the Art

The Nagel Art Studios officially opened their doors to DU’s painting and drawing departments in October. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Students and faculty at DU’s School of Art and Art History are experiencing an artistic renaissance that has nothing to do with the 15th century, France or the Mona Lisa.

Thanks to generous donations from longtime DU supporters Ralph and Trish Nagel and Trygve and Victoria Myhren and a fortuitously timed construction project, the art school is experiencing a rebirth.

This fall, the painting and drawing departments moved to a new 12,500-square-foot structure between the Shwayder Art Building and the Ritchie Center for Sports and Wellness, opening up an entire floor in Shwayder for DU’s pioneering program in electronic media arts design (eMAD). A renewed emphasis on partnering with Denver’s growing number of art institutions — the Denver Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and the Vance Kirkland and Clyfford Still museums, to name a few — is fueling the synergy between town and gown.

It’s a rare confluence of energies that leaves the School of Art and History poised to become a major force in the Colorado art scene.

“By 1950, there were something like 400 undergraduate students in the art school,” says Chancellor Robert Coombe. “It’s always been an important part of us, particularly with the advent of the Myhren Gallery and the relationships with the Denver Art Museum and the other visual-arts-related entities within the city. We’ve recognized for quite some time that it’s a part of the University for which there are lots of opportunities, both for our students and for the institution to play a more leading role in the development of the arts in the city.”

One of those opportunities was realized Oct. 19, when the Nagel Art Studios officially opened their doors to DU’s painting and drawing departments (classes there began in fall quarter). Built along with the University of Denver Soccer Stadium and the Pat Bowlen Training Center for DU’s athletic teams, the copper-plated structure has been in the works since 2008. A dramatic space featuring a large, open studio area, high ceilings, concrete floors, moveable walls and plenty of natural light, it’s a far cry from the department’s dated old digs in Shwayder.

“The painting studio is extraordinary. It’s really gorgeous,” says art lecturer and drawing instructor Susan Meyer. “There are cement floors and these soaring ceilings — it really looks like a studio. It’s fabulous. The students who had taken courses with me in Shwayder — their eyes just light up.”

The larger space means students can keep their work up over time and not have to put it away at the end of each class, says painting Associate Professor Deborah Howard. There’s more room for student critiques and student exhibits. The moveable walls give budding artists the freedom to create their own mini-studios or make bigger spaces in which to collaborate or share their work with others. And a student lounge — a first for the department — will, she hopes, foster a new sense of community among DU art students.

“They can have lunch there, the art club can have a bulletin board there about what they’re doing, people can hang out — to me, the place is about community,” she says. “The whole building is going to flow together really well, then they’ll have this lounge with couches and chairs and tables and they’ll be able to eat together. It’s a small thing, but it’s major.”


Electronic revolution

Back in Shwayder, meanwhile, another transformation is taking place. The eMAD program is turning the third floor — which used to house painting and drawing — into a digital playground for faculty and students who create art with pixels and computers instead of paintbrush and canvas. The result is everything from video games and wearable art to interactive installations and innovative multimedia exhibits.

Encouraged by Ralph Nagel, eMAD faculty are taking high-powered computers from behind closed doors and into a giant shared studio space where they can fuel new collaborative projects.

“The thought is that it should be a dynamic, free-flowing space. It would be exciting if it didn’t have to have doors,” says video game designer and eMAD Associate Professor Rafael Fajardo. “It’s about being able to encourage spontaneous collaborations. Somebody could walk through the space and say, ‘Hey, that’s cool — what are you doing?’ and something else happens because of it. It should afford the opportunities for crazy serendipities and unexpected partnerships, and I look forward to seeing that happen.”

Thanks to $140,000 in new electronic equipment, the larger space also will allow students to better plan site-specific installations, he says. Fajardo’s fellow eMAD Associate Professor Timothy Weaver recently had a piece on display in the Denver Art Museum’s Embrace! exhibit that immersed viewers in an audio-visual environment that subtly changed based on their movement. For students to plan similar projects would have been difficult in eMAD’s previous, smaller space.

“Tim has been working in that process for quite a while, and in order for him to explore it he’s had to have a stand-alone studio off campus. That kind of space isn’t really accessible for the students to be able to explore,” Fajardo says. “By having this wonderful extra room, we’re going to have an open space where students can engage with the space itself and not have to tear something down after the class period is done. That way they can grow work in the space in ways that haven’t really been practical for us.”


Artistic connections

Weaver’s Embrace! exhibit is just the tip of the paintbrush when it comes to DU’s interactions with Denver’s larger visual arts culture. For years students from the art history and museum studies side of things have been interning and finding employment in museums around the city — a recent multivenue, high-profile exhibit of Western art by DU alum Allen Tupper True (attd. 1899–1900) was curated by DU art history alumni at all three of its locations: Peter Hassrick (MA ’69) at the Denver Art Museum, Alisa Zahller (MA ’97) at the Colorado History Museum and Julie Anderies (MA ’06) at the Denver Public Library.

DU sculpture Professor Lawrence Argent is the man behind some of the city’s most visible public art, including the big blue bear that peers into the Colorado Convention Center and the giant blades of grass that run down the median of Englewood’s main drag. And since 2003 Denver has been home to the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art, a critically praised space that celebrates the modernist legacy of the longtime DU art professor.

“If you think about what’s happening down at the Denver Art Museum, with the addition a couple of years ago of the Hamilton Building, the opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art, the groundbreaking for the Clyfford Still Museum … in spite of the economy, the art scene in the city of Denver is booming, just booming,” Coombe says. “The idea is that the addition of a university art school as a major player in the development of the visual arts culture in the city can be a major factor driving it forward. That should be us.”

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