Kirkland Museum Displays Work of Former DU Instructor and Alumna
Denver’s Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art has mounted shows by many Colorado artists over the years, but few have had such a personal connection to the institution’s namesake — modern artist Vance Kirkland, former director of the University of Denver’s art school — as “Barbara Locketz: Form, Color, Texture,” a temporary exhibit on display at the museum through July 14.
Born in Illinois in 1927, Locketz was a University of Denver graduate and later a faculty member. A painter who got her start in an on-base art class for Air Force wives in the late 1950s, she came to DU in 1961 to get a master’s degree in art and ended up studying under Kirkland and other DU faculty members, including Robert Mangold and John Billmyer. Kirkland hired her as an instructor after she graduated, and she taught at the University for six years. Many of her drawing, painting and design classes were conducted in the converted World War II military barracks on campus.
“She introduced her students to abstract art, particularly the abstract expressionists then much in vogue, presenting and discussing images of their work,” Stan Cuba writes in an essay for a book on the exhibit. “She had full classes because students liked her teaching methods. Former student William Johnson said of Locketz, ‘She was the proverbial Jewish mother who took you under her wing.’”
Locketz died in 2017 at the age of 89, but in the years before her death she became friends with Hugh Grant, founding director and lead curator at the Kirkland Museum, who conceived the exhibit both as a tribute to his friend and as a way of shining light on an artist unknown to many, even in her hometown of Denver.
“That’s one of our missions here, is to dig into those undiscovered stories and bring these people’s lives and their work to light,” says Christopher Herron, deputy curator at Kirkland Museum, who co-curated the “Form, Color, Texture” show. “I've gotten feedback from some of our members who have belonged to Kirkland Museum for a long time, and I know they’ve seen her work, because we had it out, but they still say, ‘I don’t know anything about her.’ Or maybe they appreciate a single piece of [her] work. And now they come in and see [her body of work], and they say, ‘I had no idea. This is great.’ It’s really fulfilling to fill that out for people and to show them what she was capable of.”
Consisting of 56 works, the show features Locketz creations from the 1950s through the 1980s, ranging from paintings, collage and sculpture to jewelry and clothing. As he worked to put the show together, Herron says, he was intrigued both by the wide range of styles in which the artist worked and by the marked shifts in materials that occur in her work over time. The abstract paintings Locketz created in the early ’60s are replaced in the middle of the decade by collages made of metal and wood; those are later supplanted by more sleek, flat metal sculptures and then, in the early ’70s, by colorful acrylic works.
“It seems like an exploration,” Herron says of Locketz’s work. “She’s really inventive and is just trying stuff: ‘What happens when I combine oil paint with metal?’ That’s what I find the most interesting about her, is she’s like, ‘I'm going to do this for a while, and then I’m going to totally shift gears.’”
At the peak of her career, Locketz showed her work regularly at the Denver Art Museum, as well at group shows throughout Colorado and in North Dakota, Utah and Nebraska. But in the early ’70s, after a restructuring in the art department resulted in the loss of her job at DU, her artistic output slowed considerably. She made jewelry for a time — she was featured in a 1972 Time magazine article about “the new jewelry” and was part of a jewelry show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. She also remained active with the Friends of Contemporary Art, a group that she, Mangold and 13 other Denver-area art lovers started in 1965 to bring modern art to Denver at a time when it wasn’t a museum-friendly offering.
Locketz was a figure on Denver’s art scene until she died — sadly not in time to see the show Kirkland put together in her honor.
“I know she was 89 years old when she died, but she was extraordinarily entertaining and sparkling until she returned from a trip to Mexico with an infection and passed away,” Grant writes in the introduction to the exhibit book. “What an analytical mind; what a talent; what a personal loss to me and others!”
“Barbara Locketz: Form, Color, Texture” is on display at Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, 1201 Bannock St., through July 14. Visit kirklandmuseum.org for information on hours and admission prices.