Making Their Mark | One Hundred Years of Women Artists in Colorado


Anne Van Briggle, untitled landscape [1918], oil, 16 x 20. painting, southwest art.
Anne Van Briggle, untitled landscape [1918], oil, 16 x 20.

By Kathleen Sutton

The exhibition Time and Place: One Hundred Years of Women Artists in Colorado, 1900-2000 is on view at the Center for the Visual Arts in Denver through October 21. It then travels to the Loveland Museum/Gallery from November 11 through January 7 and the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center in Pueblo from January 20 through May 12.

There should be no sex in art,” painter Cecilia Beaux proclaimed in 1916, lamenting the prevailing tendency to label women artists—but not men—by their gender. Women were certainly limited in their opportunities to advance their careers, particularly prior to 1970. Still, many persevered to make their mark on art in Colorado and across the West. A new exhibition, Time and Place: One Hundred Years of Women Artists in Colorado, 1900-2000, provides a long-overdue opportunity to rediscover their artistic achievements.

Jenne Magafan, Deserted Farm House [1941], oil/egg tempera, 19 1/2  x 23 1/2. painting, southwest art.
Jenne Magafan, Deserted Farm House [1941], oil/egg tempera, 19 1/2  x 23 1/2.

Exhibition curator Katha-rine Smith-Warren chose one artist to represent each decade (except the 1940s, which is represented by twin sisters) whose personal story is unusually compelling and whose work, she says, “provides a snapshot of each decade.” Correcting imbalances that have existed in previous exhibits, Time and Place encompasses artists working in several areas of the state and in several media.

Featured artists range from acclaimed photographer Laura Gilpin and successful contemporary ceramist Betty Woodman to the virtually unknown Magafan twins, who raced all over the West in a shabby station wagon painting murals on post-office walls. Some of the artists made history—like abstract painter Beverly Rosen, who became the first tenured woman on the University of Denver art faculty. Some created art still enjoyed daily by downtown Denver workers—like Gladys Caldwell Fisher, whose relief murals adorn the City and County building. And some lived lives worthy of a soap opera, like Anne Gregory Van Briggle Ritter. She helped her bohemian husband establish the award-winning Van Briggle Pottery works in Colorado Springs, lost him to tuberculosis only two years later, and then managed to reinvent herself as a landscape painter despite her sister’s premature death, which left her with two children to raise.


Laura Gilpin, Bryce Canyon [1930], platinum print, 9 1/2 x 7 9/16, courtesy Amon Carter Museum, bequest of Laura Gilpin. painting, southwest art.
Laura Gilpin, Bryce Canyon [1930], platinum print, 9 1/2 x 7 9/16, courtesy Amon Carter Museum, bequest of Laura Gilpin.

Taken together, the 11 artists vividly illustrate the evolving struggle of women artists to forge a career outside the art centers of Europe and New York without significant support from regional art institutions.

The 1900s: Henrietta Bromwell
Unlike her eastern contemporaries’ romanticized landscapes of the West, Bromwell’s realistic oil paintings focus on Denver’s gritty mills and factory smokestacks as well as simple country landscapes, which most Victor-ians would have pronounced uninspiring or even ugly. Though she was selected, along with Charles Partridge Adams, to represent Colorado in the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exhibition (which also featured Cassatt, Monet, and Pissaro), her achievement apparently attracted little local attention. One year later, she complained in a Denver Post article that the city still looked exclusively to Europe for art, though “some good artists have always stopped here, being too poor to get away.”

The 1910s: Anne Gregory Van Briggle Ritter
Inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement and by her liberated partnership with husband Artus Van Briggle, Ritter devoted herself to their innovative experiments with ceramics. After Artus’ death, she lost the Van Briggle Memorial Pottery building and resumed her original career in painting, resisting modernist influences and concentrating on western landscapes marked by the strong, translucent colors characteristic of her earlier ceramics. In 1919 she helped found the Broadmoor Art Academy in Colorado Springs, which in turn helped establish that city as the state’s art center until World War II.


Beverly Rosen, Southwest West [1967-68], acrylic, 60 x 70. paintings, southwet art.
Beverly Rosen, Southwest West [1967-68], acrylic, 60 x 70.

The 1920s: Laura Gilpin
Photographer Laura Gilpin struggled to overcome a triple burden—she was a woman, a westerner, and an artist working in a field neglected by art institutions for most of her life. Ironically, her 1920s photographs—works she couldn’t give away during her lifetime—are now valued at up to $20,000. Gilpin spent her formative years in Colorado while traveling extensively throughout the Southwest. In the mid-1920s she abandoned the sentimental, soft-focus portraits she had been creating in favor of the hard-edged, meticulously composed images of native peoples and pristine landscapes that became her hallmark.

The 1930s: Gladys Caldwell Fisher
With their clean, powerful lines, Fisher’s massive stone sculptures suggest a closer kinship with Henry Moore’s abstract work than the traditional wildlife bronzes prevalent in her home state. Following her father’s bankruptcy during her first year in art school, her influential Denver friends helped establish her career. Some became her private patrons; others served as local judges for the New Deal public art competitions to which she applied. She received four commissions from government programs during the 1930s. With a $98 monthly stipend from the Treasury Art Relief Project, for example, she sculpted the massive mountain sheep guarding the entrance to Denver’s Appellate Court building.


Gladys Caldwell Fisher, Malayan Collar Bear [1947], Belgian black marble, 13 x 28 x 10. painting, southwest art.
Gladys Caldwell Fisher, Malayan Collar Bear [1947], Belgian black marble, 13 x 28 x 10.

The 1940s: Ethel and Jenne Magafan
Though lacking Fisher’s society connections, the identical Magafan twins also capitalized on opportunities offered by New Deal art programs. The program known as “The Section” commissioned murals with local history themes in post offices across the country. Its competitions were open to all, regardless of age or gender, thus opening doors that otherwise almost certainly would have remained closed to the young daughters of blue-collar immigrants. Though Ethel’s first masterful mural study was rejected by local Kansans, she and Jenne later received numerous commissions in Texas, Oklahoma, Utah, Arkansas, Nebraska, and Colo-rado. The post-New Deal 1940s marked the first significant divergence in the twins’ subjects and styles. After they began working out of separate studios in a New York artists’ colony, Jenne abandoned her studies of desolate farm and ranch houses for large-scale portraits of women, darker in both palette and tone. Ethel’s painting became more ab-stract and favored pastels.

The 1950s: Eve Drewelowe
Like the Magafans, Drewelowe was originally influenced by the figurative, realistic style of American Scene painting. However, in the 1940s, by her own account, she was “reborn”—personally and artistically—following her doctor’s successful treatment of nagging health problems and his orders to abandon her duties as a dean’s wife. Her new paintings combined discordant colors and pulsating images. Like Gilpin, Drewelowe won serious recognition only very late in her career; during her lifetime her fame never extended far beyond her Boulder home.

The 1960s: Beverly Rosen
With four children under 10, painter and sculptor Beverly Rosen decided in the late 1950s to pursue an arts degree. During her years as a student and, later, a faculty member at the University of Denver, her work evolved from competent pastels to large, Pop Art-influenced paintings vibrant with brilliant reds, blues, and oranges. Her western roots are evident in her striking geometric patterns, drawn from both Denver’s emerging high-rise skyline and Native American pottery and weavings. A high point of her career was her inclusion in the 73rd Western Annual exhibition; she was one of only seven women among the 115 regional artists chosen.

The 1970s: Eppie Archuleta
Like many of her family members before her, Eppie Archuleta learned to weave as a child. In the 1970s, she finished raising her own eight children and started weaving full time. She benefited from both her mother’s experience as a professional weaver and a subsidized program designed to establish new markets for weavers. Highlights of the decade included her first local and state awards and a grant-funded teaching position. While continuing her traditional weaving, she incorporated potent symbols from Cathol-icism and American history in nontraditional pictorial weavings. Her Bicentennial Weaving dramatically superimposes a stylized bald eagle and banner lettering on rough, earthy handspun wool. By the 1980s, the art world had begun to discover the 300-year tradition of Hispanic weaving, leading to national recognition for Archuleta’s virtuoso techniques and innovative designs.

The 1980s: Betty Woodman
When in the 1980s Betty Woodman held a final sale of her functional—though sometimes quixotic—pottery, she had made a conscious decision to abandon production pottery. She then devoted herself to developing oversize vessels, installations, and wall pieces that featured bold, eccentric shapes and attracted the attention of eastern galleries and museums newly interested in “fine craft.” Eventually she gave up her Boulder home and studio to divide her time between Manhattan and Italy. With significant support from New York gallery owner Max Protetch, her career has flourished.

The 1990s: Virginia Folkestad
Originally a weaver, Folkestad reinvented herself as a sculptor and installation artist in the mid-1980s. Her installations juxtapose natural materials and manmade objects she crafts herself. “I’m trying to reinvent the physical world,” she explains, to explore “the tension between ourselves and nature.” In Distant Conversations, five narrow, roofed and screened pine structures share identical exteriors, but their interiors differ dramatically “and are very rich within,” she says. “I look at them as a mesh of meanings: they could be structures we actually inhabit; they could be metaphors for us as humans.”

Photos courtesy the Center for the Visual Arts at the Metropolitan State College of Denver, CO.

Featured in October 2000