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Former DU art teacher was a ‘dynamic, tremendous’ artist

Former DU art professor Roger Kotoske made the above sculpture, called Great Red Heron. Photo: Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art

When Ed Stein (BFA ’69) walked into Roger Kotoske’s introductory art course, he immediately felt intimidated. 

“I realized fast I wasn’t very good at what I did,” Stein says. “There were all kinds of things that kids knew that I didn’t. In spite of all that, [Kotoske] was an inspiring teacher and the real deal.”

Inspiring, but not babying: “He never remembered my name; he kept calling me Steve. And he was such a force and so intimidating. I tried to tell him but he didn’t care and said no one would remember my name,” Stein laughs.

Though Kotoske was wrong about Stein — he turned out to be a nationally syndicated cartoonist — Stein says Kotoske’s lessons always carried weight with him.

“He taught me what I still practice today — that art is trial and error,” Stein says. “You keep working and working and working until it’s right, and he insisted that.”

Kotoske, an art professor during what many considered the DU School of Art and Art History’s “golden age” and a well-known artist in his own right, died Nov. 19. He was 77.

“He set such a high standard and his lessons — his projects — were deviously difficult,” Stein recalls. “For instance, he would have us put together a composition using this specific color palatte and triangles. We’d have to post it on the board he would go and literally tear it apart.”

Kotoske was passionate about teaching and often was considered a perfectionist.

“Art history demands extra classroom preparation. With the extreme amount of new art forms being brought forth by many of the artists, you simply must stay on your toes and deal with this vast plethora of form ideology constantly,” Kotoske wrote in 1967. “It is not the type of course one teaches off-the-cuff, nor one that a persona with a limited art background could easily tackle.”

Kotoske was outspoken about contemporary art and had a strong influence on his students, says Maynard Tischler, who taught ceramics when Kotoske was at DU.

He was “enthusiastic and popular” and had a close relationship with Vance Kirkland, famed artist and former director of DU’s art school.

The years Kirkland ran the school with a strong roster of instructors were considered the school’s golden age, explains Hugh Grant, director of the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art. Six of Kotoske’s pieces are on display at the museum.

Kirkland spoke admirably of Kotoske and wrote in an evaluation that Kotoske’s courses made students form “a tolerant philosophy for all modern art,” which helped to establish a positive image for the entire school and for future education.

“Since my class is adjacent to Roger’s and our partitions are thin, I hear many of his lectures,” Kirkland wrote. “He is dynamic, forceful, exciting and spontaneous in explaining art concepts and I am constantly amazed at the energy he puts into his classes.”

Yet, Kotoske was often controversial, demanding and challenging.

“He stirred people,” Grant says. “He was able to get them to stretch boundaries and their own limits.”

His own work was a testimony to that. Around 1963, Kotoske began working on three-dimensional warped canvases, which Grant says were likely the very first of their kind.

“Certainly he was one of the most original and inventive artists we have had in Colorado based on these ideals of warping and slashing canvases, the work with wood and adding colored polyester resins,” Grant says. “It was trend setting.”

Kotoske was born Jan. 4, 1933, in South Bend, Ind.

He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from DU in 1955 and 1956 and began instructing at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital before joining DU’s faculty in 1958.

When not in class, Kotoske was constantly reading and spent his afternoons painting, according to University archives. After he spent a year in Europe in the 1960s, Kirkland wrote, Kotoske’s work only matured and enhanced his teaching ability. Kirkland even had a Kotoske sculpture — Great Red Heron — in his backyard, the piece is now in the Kirkland Museum.

Kotoske said in a 1999 interview about his years at DU: “Vance taught us how to work, paint out, throw away and be extremely critical of our own work. It was a good education.”

He left DU in 1968 to chair the visual design department at the University of Illinois in Champaign, Ill. He retired from there in 1997.

“He was an early authority on constructing sculptures using modern materials,” says Dan Jacobs, DU art curator and Myhren Gallery director. “He was very technically proficient and was known for beautifully fabricating things that looked professionally put together.”

A sculpture of Kotoske’s — three red cubes turned on their points — stands in Denver’s Burns Park, at the intersection of Colorado Boulevard and Alameda Avenue.

Additionally, his works were on display at hundreds of galleries and shows around the world.

“He was tremendously dynamic and just extraordinary,” Grant says.

Kotoske is survived by a daughter, Tamar, and five brothers.

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