Shop Talk: Artist Profiles: Nan McKinnell

Nan McKinnell’s fantastic red glaze

One of Colorado’s master ceramists, Nan Bangs McKinnell, died in early August.  She was born in Stanton, Nebraska in 1913, and received a bachelor’s degree in music and education from the Teacher’s College in Wayne, Nebraska. While studying for her M.F.A. degree in ceramics at the University of Washington, she met her husband, Jim.

Using Jim’s GI education money from his Navy service during WWII, Nan and Jim studied art in Europe, visiting France, England and Scotland. They moved to Colorado in 1951 where they both taught ceramics at the University of Colorado. During their careers they taught together at the University of Iowa, Alfred University, the Edinburgh College of Art, Colorado State University, the Glasgow School of Art, and Loretto Heights College. They eventually settled in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Delicate decoration is common in McKinnell’s work

In addition to the extensive collection of both Nan’s and Jim’s  work in Kirkland Museum, Nan’s work is part of the collections in the American Museum of Ceramic Art and the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian. Her work is known for its creative glazes; including a deep copper red glaze that she invented that is in wide use today. She described her work as “feminine”, and delicate shapes, fine decoration, lacy edges, and elegant decoration distinguish her work, whether small or monumental.

This spring green footed bowl with a “lace” edge was available in the Museum Store

Nan’s beautiful work is part of the Colorado Ceramics collections at Kirkland Museum.

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Artist Insight: Vance Kirkland’s Watercolors

Vance Kirkland’s professional career began with watercolors – ironic because he had been flunked in his freshman watercolor class at the Cleveland School of Art in 1924. Despite his teacher’s doubts, he went on to be carried in the 1940s and 50s by the great Knoedler & Company gallery in New York for 12 years, and was in 18 group shows at The Art Institute of Chicago-for his watercolors.

Kirkland Museum Founding Director & Curator Hugh Grant adds this about Kirkland’s watercolors:

“His professors’ criticisms ironically relate to what Kirkland did in his later work. The first of two criticisms was that he was putting colors in landscapes that were not there. Never mind that the Fauvists in France had done that almost 20 years previously. It took Kirkland 16 years, until 1940 with his surrealist paintings, to again put colors in landscapes that were not there. Another criticism was that his colors were fighting. Kirkland said he tried to argue with his professors that the fight made the paintings more interesting, strong and unusual, but to no avail. But once again this is what Kirkland was innately compelled to do. This time it took him 40 years until he would again use fighting colors in his dot paintings beginning in 1964 with his Valhalla series, by setting up complex combinations of complimentary colors.”

Waterfall, Elyria by Vance Kirkland, 1927, watercolor

Most of Kirkland’s watercolor paintings fall into his first two painting styles, Designed Realism (1926-1944) and Surrealism (1939-1954). These were very successful years for Kirkland as an artist. Knoedler & Company gave Kirkland three solo exhibitions and a two-person show with Max Ernst. During this period Kirkland was included in many significant exhibitions including the landmark presentation of Abstract and Surrealist American Painting and Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1947 (in which Clyfford Still also exhibited).

Kirkland mastered a variety of water-based techniques, the names of which can sometimes be confusing to museum visitors. Here are some helpful definitions:

Watercolor is a paint that uses water to help disperse the pigment in it, and which has a water-soluble, complex carbohydrate binder (what helps the pigment stick to the paper or board). The water evaporates leaving the pigment on the painted surface, stuck in place by the binder. It is usually transparent.

Like watercolor, gouache is a type of paint consisting of pigment suspended in water, but the pigment particles are larger, the ratio of pigment to water is much higher, and an additional white pigment such as chalk is also present. Gouache is heavier and more opaque than watercolor.

Tempera consists of colored pigment mixed with a water-soluble protein binder (usually a glutinous material such as egg yolk). It is fast drying. Egg tempera was a primary method of painting until after 1500 when oil paint was invented and quickly gained popularity.

Casein is a kind of tempera paint and has been used since ancient times. It is made with a protein found in milk, and unlike gouache is fast-drying. The even consistency of casein when it dries makes it a great medium for mural painting and underpainting. Of all the water-based media, it most resembles oil paint.

Fantasy Garden by Vance Kirkland, 1949, casein on panel

Colorado is known for its dry climate and Kirkland used to leave buckets of water around his studio to increase the humidity so his watercolors wouldn’t dry so quickly. Use of watercolor didn’t keep Kirkland from playing with media. He mixed denatured alcohol in with this painting (below) of 1953, making the pigment bleed in an interesting pattern. Later on he would mix sand, glass and all sorts of materials into paintings to achieve certain textures.

Rocky Glen by Vance Kirkland, 1953, watercolor & denatured alcohol

When Kirkland painted en plein air up in the mountains, his water-based paints would often freeze. The story goes that he’d mix some of whatever alcoholic beverage he was drinking to keep himself warm in with the watercolors to keep them from freezing. Hugh Grant comments that it’s a good thing Prohibition was repealed, or Kirkland’s painting career might not have worked out!

Vance Kirkland in the Rocky Mountains, 1944

In 1952 Kirkland began experimenting with a resist technique that combined oil, water, and alcohol compositions on increasingly larger canvases. Water continued to be an important part of Kirkland’s artistic process, even when he began to paint primarily in oil. Kirkland encountered resistance to his new modern style and Knoedler & Company stopped carrying his paintings. However, it is these large cosmic works for which Kirkland is now best known and appreciated.

Please share your thoughts on Kirkland’s use of water, or your own experience with water-based media, in the comments section below.

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Shop Talk- Artist Profiles


Edward Marecak 1919-1993

“Farewell Summer” by Edward Marecak

One of the most popular artists in the Kirkland collection is Edward Marecak. The son of Slovakian parents who emigrated from the Carpathian Mountains, Marecak was raised on a farm outside of Cleveland, Ohio. The Slovakian folktales of his youth are a common theme in his colorful paintings.

Marecak studied art at the Cleveland Institute of Art; the same school where Vance Kirkland had studied a few years earlier. During the summer of 1942, he studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Art before entering the U.S. Army and serving in the Aleutian Islands during World War II. His wife, ceramist Donna Marecak, believed that the harsh winters in Ohio and his military service in Alaska led to the common theme of the “Winter Witch” that often appeared in his paintings.

After his military service, Marecak studied mural painting and lithography at Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Beginning in 1957, Marecak began a twenty-five year career teaching art in the Denver Public Schools. Many of his students who visit Kirkland Museum remember him fondly.

This limited edition plate was one of the unique gifts available in the Kirkland Museum Store.

Several of Edward Marecak’s works, as well as Donna’s, are in the collections at Kirkland Museum. In the shop, we had  limited edition dessert plates featuring Edward’s “Fish” and “Apprentice Witch” designs. These were produced by DoveTail Pottery exclusively for Kirkland Museum during our Marecak exhibition in 2008. We also carry the extraordinary retrospective book “The Art of Edward Marecak”.

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Shop Talk: News from the KM Shop

Find us online!

We’re proud to introduce our new online shop! Many of the beautiful items from our Museum Shop are now available to you 24/7 online. You’ll see rare regional art books, fascinating Kirkland catalogues, and stunning accessories and household items that are exclusive to Kirkland Museum. Click the “Shop” tag above.

Kirkland’s Birthday Sale, November 3-6

Vance Kirkland was born in Convoy, Ohio on November 4, 1904, and we’re celebrating the anniversary of his birth with a sale on colorful and unique Kirkland merchandise. November 3-6 save 10% on posters, catalogs, boxed note cards, fabric covered journals, bags and purses and 20% off special order giclee reproductions when you come into the museum or order by phone: (303-832-8576).

Getting ready for the holidays?


This exquisitely delicate ceramic piece by Colorado artist Nan McKinnell is available in the shop.


We’ve supplemented our usual great gifts with some terrific desk calendars celebrating Art Nouveau, Stickley, or just great chairs in general. We have beautiful Christmas and Hanukkah letterpress cards, boxed and singles. We have an ever-changing array of one of a kind works from great Colorado studio ceramists: Nan McKinnell, Mark Zamantakis, Robert LeDonne, Shelley Schreiber, Jutta, Tim Wedel, Bob Baumgartner and Bob Smith; not to mention the beautiful ceramics of Van Briggle Pottery Company. And again this year we have our spectacular line of glassware inspired by Vance Kirkland’s “Open Sun” paintings and made exclusively for us by Woodeye Studios. Our shop is little, so we make every inch count!

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John Edward Thompson

John Edward Thompson (1882-1945) was called the “Dean of Colorado Painters,” a title later given to Vance Kirkland after Thompson’s death.

Thompson was born in Buffalo, New York and first studied art there and then in New York City. He moved to Paris in 1902 and remained in Europe until World War I brought him back to the United States. While in Europe, Thompson traveled widely and lived for a year in Holland, but France was his base. He studied for three years with Percival Tudor-Hart, a great color scientist. Thompson saw the Paul Cezanne retrospective in Paris in 1907 and changed his own paintings as a result of Cezanne’s use of geometry and color.

When Thompson returned home to New York in 1914, a railroad agent recommended he move to Pine, Colorado, because of the fine quality of mountain light. While in Pine he painted this painting:

oil on panel
12 x 12 in.

He returned to Buffalo with his new wife in 1915 to teach, but came back to Colorado two years later.

Pine, Colorado
c. 1917
oil on canvas
8 x 12 in.

In Denver, Thompson made a splash when he took part in the controversial, landmark exhibition held in 1919 at the Denver Public Library. It was innocently called the Twenty-fifth Annual Exhibition of the Denver Art Association (renamed the Denver Art Museum in 1923) but was nicknamed the “Denver Armory Show,” a reference to the 1913 New York Armory Show. The 1919 exhibition was the first time modern art was collectively displayed in Denver. It caused a scandal, but Thompson persisted along with other modernists who championed the cause.

In 1923 Thompson began working with an architectural firm and completed many decorative paintings and murals in Denver office buildings and homes. From 1924 – 1929 Thompson taught at Chappell School of Art at 13th and Logan. In 1929, Chappell School was purchased by the University of Denver and Vance Kirkland was hired as Director of the school.  Thompson continued to teach at D.U. until his death in 1945.  Thompson is one of the many Colorado artists who worked and studied abroad and in the eastern United States and elsewhere, enriching our state with the latest international directions. He, along with Robert Graham, was a teacher of Clarence Durham (significant Denver Artists Guild painter) and Frank Vavra (one of the 15 Colorado Artists).

There is a tribute to John Thompson on Kirkland Museum’s lower level through the end of July 2011. Though he died before the formation of 15 Colorado Artists, he is Colorado’s first truly modernist painter, and we honor his contribution to modern art in our state.

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15 Colorado Artists—Breaking With Tradition

It was creeping inexorably across America—modern art! An alarm was sounded by Rocky Mountain News columnist Lee Casey on 11 February 1948:  “The influence of decadent Parisians…Picasso and Cezanne…has even been felt in the West. Santa Fe has been damaged by it and Denver has not wholly escaped the blight.”

Eleven Denver newspaper articles in 1948 trumpeted the conflict between “conservative” and “radical” artists. These debates climaxed with the break from the 20-year-old Denver Artists Guild by a group of rebel artists calling themselves 15 Colorado Artists. The modern group requested and got a separate, simultaneous exhibition adjoining the Denver Artists Guild exhibition at the Denver Art Museum, 3 December 1948 to 1 January 1949. Newspaper headlines blared: “Time for Showdown in Artists’ Range War” and “Modern vs. Traditional Painting Inspires Denver Artists’ Schism.”

Although the avant-garde 1913 Armory Show in New York had a profound impact on American academia and some artists and dealers, there was generally a strong resistance to modern art until after WW II in America. Thomas Hart Benton rejected the New York—Paris art scene and moved back permanently to Kansas City, Missouri in 1935. He and other regionalists concerned themselves with developing an American artistic identity without relying on the European styles in vogue at the time. Yet modern art styles eventually became established outside New York as this exhibition demonstrates.

On May 5th, the Kirkland opened 15 Colorado Artists—Breaking With Tradition, showcasing the founders of “the 15″—Don Allen, John Billmyer, Marion Buchan, Jean Charlot, Mina Conant, Angelo di Benedetto, Eo Kirchner, Vance Kirkland, Moritz Krieg, Duard Marshall, Louise Ronnebeck, William Sanderson, Paul K. Smith, J. Richard Sorby, and Frank Vavra. Works by all 15 artists have been located, several from the 1948 exhibition. Interest in modern art had been growing for some time in Colorado but in 1948 it came to a head. Lines were drawn in the sand of art styles. People came in droves to the two dueling exhibitions, people took sides, arguments ensued and artists called each other names—which were printed in the newspapers. It was a magical, seminal moment in Colorado art and emblematic that modern art was becoming widespread in America. Even more extraordinary, modern art would command attention in the same city where the big winter event, since 1906, was the National Western Stock Show.

—Hugh Grant, Founding Director and Curator

15 Colorado Artists—Breaking With Tradition

May 5 through July 31, 2011

Burlesque (1947) by Angelo diBenedetto

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Mother’s Day Sale!

Save 20% on selected items!

Shop the Kirkland’s gift shop and you’ll find a wide selection of gift ideas that are perfect for your mom—and many are on sale. Save on ceramics, accessories and more. Shop now for the best selection.

And children (over 13) can bring their moms to Kirkland Museum on Mother’s Day for free!

Remember a Kirkland Museum Membership makes a great gift for Mom.

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Doors Open Denver

The historic Arts & Crafts building is on the right side of the image with the mirror-image addition on the left side.Come to Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art during Doors Open Denver (April 16 & 17 2011 from 10a.m.-5p.m.). All tickets are available at Kirkland Museum (1311 Pearl Street) this year, NOT at Union Station. Tickets for both Saturday and Sunday’s tours can be picked up beginning at 10a.m. on Saturday. There are only 20 tickets per tour and they’ll be given out on a first come, first served basis. Each person can pick up two tickets for two tours per day.

The tour schedule is (same Saturday and Sunday):
Kirkland Museum Highlights:
10:30 a.m. or 1:30 p.m.

Architects in the Kirkland Museum Collection:
11:30 a.m. or 2:30 p.m.

100 Years of Art at 1311 Pearl Street:
12:30 p.m. or 3:30 p.m.

Built 1910-1911, Kirkland’s historic art school and studio building is the oldest freestanding art school building in Colorado. It is Denver’s oldest commercial art building and second oldest in Colorado–after the Van Briggle Memorial Pottery building in Colorado Springs. The Kirkland’s architectural style is Arts & Crafts. The building’s original architects were Maurice Biscoe and Henry Hewitt. Architects of additions to the building are: Carl A. Groos (1971 storage room and kitchen for Kirkland Museum); Stafford Clark (1989 Director’s office); Chip Melick, AIA, Rachel Lawrence and Sarah Boulet (1998-99 main museum addition).

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Herman Casagranda – A Legacy

Herman (Cas) Casagranda was born in 1917 in Ouray, Colorado, the son of an Austrian immigrant miner. He attended East High School and the University of Denver, and taught art and art history in the Denver Public Schools for thirty-one years. Casagranda was especially drawn to medieval imagery. He built a family chalet in Frisco, Colorado, which was decorated with his own medieval themed artwork, including a knight. Casagranda worked in a wide variety of mediums but is best known for his enamels.

Enamel is created by melting powdered glass as a coating onto metal, glass or ceramic. The colors are created by grinding colored glass or by mixing clear glass with minerals or metal oxides. The ground glass can be applied as a powder or a paste onto the surface to create a design or image. Different colors of glass cannot blend in the same way that paint can to create new colors or tones, but through a trick of the eye similar to the effects of pointillism, the illusion of a blended shade can be created by mixing tiny particles of different colors in the same area. Famous uses of enamel include Fabergé’s eggs and Art Nouveau jewelry. It is also extensively used on functional objects such as pots, cast iron bathtubs and kitchen appliances.

Herman Casagranda, Clown With Wand

Herman Casagranda
Clown With Wand
Enamel on copper
6 1/4 x 7 3/4 inches 

Kirkland Museum has four Casagranda enamels along with other enamels in our collections. One piece, “Clown With Wand” is an example of Casagranda’s interest in medieval characters. The clown has both opaque and translucent elements.  One of the abstract Casagranda enamels used to hang in Vance Kirkland’s kitchen.

Herman passed away April 3, 2011.

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Last Chance to See Warhol in Colorado

Tonight (Wednesday, March 9th 2011) at 6PM

Photographing Warhol: Forum with John Bonath, Valere Harris Shane, and Mark Sink + Turn-About is Fair Play: Documenting Andy Warhol, an opening presentation by moderator Elliot King. The event is free and open to the public.

The Myhren Gallery reminds us: “This evening’s event is both a photographic investigation and a post-Warhol reunion. It opens with a presentation by art historian Elliot King, who writes that “As a photographer, Andy Warhol was keenly aware of the camera’s power to disseminate a desired image.  He was also apt at breaking down others’ constructed ‘images’, through his documentary films, photographs, and, most especially, his ‘screen tests’ – silent film ‘portraits’ executed between 1964 and 1966.  In the uncomfortable space of staring blankly into the camera for several minutes, Warhol’s subjects frequently dropped their pretensions, and yet Warhol himself remained ever in character, both in front of and behind the camera. Through examples of the screen tests and photographs included in the exhibition, Elliott King provides an historical background for the unique experiences and reminiscences of three Colorado photographers – John Bonath, Valere Harris Shane, and Mark Sink — whose documentary photographs turned the camera’s unflinching eye on the most elusive of Warhol’s subjects: the artist himself.”

Warhol in Colorado (the exhibition) continues at the Myhren Gallery on the University of Denver campus through March 13th.

2121 East Asbury Avenue
Denver, CO 80210
(303) 871-3716

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