Rediscovering Denver | Coors Western Art Show

Recliner by William Matthews, painting, southwest art.
Recliner by William Matthews

By William Matthews

The annual Coors Western Art Show in Denver runs January 7-23. William Matthews, a Colorado artist whose work can be seen at the show, takes us on a tour of the Mile High City, revealing that the revitalized downtown has a lot to offer art collectors.

Painter William Matthews appreciates the solitary lifestyle that rural Colorado provides. “I like it here because it’s sparse enough for me to hide away in the mountains,” he says of his home and studio amid the pine and aspen of Evergreen. But for Matthews, a little city life is also important. When he’s not painting or visiting New York or Europe, he mingles in the Denver art scene, checking out the galleries near his own on Wazee Street in lower downtown Denver (a district known to locals as LoDo).

“I moved down to LoDo in ’72,” he says. “I had a studio in an old warehouse on 15th Street. At that time the whole area was referred to as skid row.” That’s a far cry from today’s hip mecca of art galleries, shops, restaurants, microbreweries, and New York-style lofts tucked among the

William Matthews, southwest art.
William Matthews

high-rises of Denver’s heart. William Matthews Gallery, in fact, is just down the street from Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies baseball team. Nearby historic buildings such as Union Station, the Oxford Hotel, and the Brown Palace help mix Denver’s Old West charm with its modern-day glass towers.

Good Art

In the 1970s developers leveled much of the area. But the Civil War-era buildings and warehouses of LoDo escaped the wrecking ball, and a wave of restoration began. Today more than 40 galleries line the downtown streets, not to mention the near dozen in Cherry Creek and in a more recently developed area known as the Golden Triangle.

Though Matthews is a realist painter, he enjoys all types of art and often recommends a variety of galleries to visiting friends. “Among the galleries downtown that I enjoy, I’d have to say that Robischon is one of my favorites,” he says. The gallery, housed in a loft space on Wazee, specializes in modern and contemporary works. “They have changing exhibits about once a month, and the work is always interesting and often stimulating.” Ron Judish Gallery next to Matthews’ own space carries cutting-edge contemporary work, while Merrill Gallery has contemporary realist works. “Then there’s David Cook down the block, which has great Native American material,” says Matthews. “I happen to like weavings, and I spend a lot of time down there.”

Three Horses by Deborah Butterfield, Denver Art Museum, southwest art.
Three Horses by Deborah Butterfield, Denver Art Museum

Matthews also recommends visiting the Metro State Center for the Visual Arts on Wazee because it often has interesting changing exhibits. And the Colorado History Museum hosts some good shows, he says, including the annual Artists of America show every autumn.

A short drive from downtown is Cherry Creek, which has always been a popular destination. One hundred years ago the banks of the creek were an oasis for gold-hungry travelers on their way to the Rockies and a haven for trappers and traders. People still come in droves, but the attraction has changed to galleries, shops, and restaurants. Cherry Creek North has more than 20 galleries, including Pismo Contemporary Art Glass, Pismo Contemporary Art Furniture, Show of Hands, and Saks Galleries, which feature contem-porary paintings, sculpture, glass, crafts, and more.

“In Cherry Creek, Saks is one of the old, established galleries,” says Matthews. “Oftentimes they have some little jewel hidden away in there. Also, Elizabeth Schlosser Fine Art carries works by deceased Colorado artists. That gallery always takes chances—many times on things bordering on the avant-garde.” The area is a popular place for outdoor events, such as the Cherry Creek Arts Festival held around July 4 every year. Also of note is the original Tattered Cover Bookstore, which features more than 500,000 titles and displays a monumental bronze by Ken Bunn out front.

Art has also caught on in the Golden Triangle—an area bounded by Colfax Avenue, Speer Boulevard, and South Broadway—where several galleries, the Denver Art Museum, and the U.S. Mint are located. There Matthews is drawn to William Havu Gallery on Cherokee Street, which he says is always daring in its variety, from realism to abstraction. Camera Obscura Gallery on Bannock specializes in photographs by such well-knowns as Paul Strand and Edward Curtis, and Native Ameri-can Trading Company has con-temporary Indian weavings, pottery, baskets, jewelry, and paintings. For a little side trip, the Capitol and the Molly Brown House, which are east of Broadway, are within walking distance.

With such a variety of galleries, you’d think Denver would be overflowing with public collections as well. That’s not really the case,   but the Denver Art Museum and the Museum of Natural History are both nice attractions. “The Denver Art Museum is becoming quite an interesting museum,” Matthews says. “It’s acquiring a better and better collection and is also bringing in some world-class shows. I think it’s growing because people in the community are interested in seeing it grow. Also, the director, Lewis Sharp, came from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and is really top-notch.” Matthews especially enjoys the western art collection normally housed on the seventh floor, which highlights western artists including Frederic Remington, Charles Russell, and many early Taos artists. Because of larger temporary exhibits, the collection has been disassembled, but plans are to have it back in place by late this year.

The museum also has a wonderful collection of Native American work, he says. But on every visit Matthews’ eye lands on a sculpture. “One of my favorite pieces in Denver is a sculpture of three horses by Deborah Butterfield. It’s amazing. She does horses that are made of pieces of scrap metal.” Several of her sculptures are located in the courtyard of the museum.

“One of the high points in Denver—and one of the things painters gravitate to—are the dioramas at the Museum of Natural History. They are some of the best in the world,” Matthews says of the panoramic works that depict animals, including everything from elk and buffalo to seals, wolves, and manitee. “There are floors and floors of them, perhaps 60 or 70 works. They are really legendary to landscape painters. My kids love to draw; we go there and just fill up notebooks.”

Good Eats

Traipsing around town can work up quite an appetite, and Matthews has a few favorite restaurants. “Wahoo’s on Wazee is fast for lunch. It’s full of skateboards—a young crowd. They serve quick meals like fish tacos.” The Sushi Den on South Pearl Street is another favorite. For dinner, Il Fornino, a new Italian restaurant on Wazee, is elegant. Matthews is especially fond of seafood, and he says Jax at 17th and Wazee streets and Tommy Tsunami on Market Street have both ambience and great catches from the sea (or Rocky Mountain lakes).

Maybe you’re looking for something a little more vintage Coloradoan. Matthews suggests the Buckhorn Exchange Restaurant. Established in 1893, it’s the oldest restaurant in Colorado. “In fact,” says Matthews, “it has the oldest liquor license in Denver—the Number One liquor license.” The restaurant specializes in exotic game, from elk and quail to the Colorado standard—buffalo. You just can’t leave Colorado without trying that.

Featured in January 1999