At 9am Lydia Brokaw and I meet in the rotunda at Front Range Community College. The room looks to the mountains and is filled with sunlight. Lydia is the chair of the art department and her cell is constantly beckoning with messages.
May I ask you your age?
I'm 15 minutes younger than my twin sister. To paraphrase Mark Twain, I'm as old as my tongue, and older than my teeth.
How long have you lived in Denver?
I am a Denver native, truly. I was born in the Country Club neighborhood, near Downing and Speer and lived there until I was 5. My family then moved to Lakewood. It was quite rural then. Since I was very young I have found great solace in being outside. We lived near the Highline Canal and that was where we played. There were few children my age in the area. I played with my brother and sister, though mostly I played alone. Because I was outside so much I developed a real affinity for animals and plants.
What are some you remember?
There were deer, bear, rabbits and maybe foxes. There was Mount Mahogany and cacti and there was the procession of cottonwoods that let us know there was water nearby. We swam in the Canal. We built rafts and would go on adventures (traveling distances much shorter than we thought at the time...). The world of Nature was a great home for me. People seemed too complex and difficult.
Would you collect things?
Secretly, because I was reluctant to let the world know of my sanctuary. I would make little assemblies of found materials. These acquired significance. I would build them and then store them in hide-y holes in the earth. These would be outside - never inside. Outside was comfortable; inside foreign. I would never try to retrieve these hidden makings. It simply gave me comfort to know they were there... I would not anthropomorphize. That would be false. I accepted nature on nature's terms.
What was art like for you as you entered school?
When I was very young we went to Catholic school. If I used my crayons incorrectly I would be hit with a ruler.
If I pressed too hard and broke them... Wham! If I drew a tree and made the leaves brown and the trunk green... Wham!
The goal was not to teach creativity. The goal was to teach you how to take direction and how to develop your motor skills. It was not pleasant.
In middle school (moving on, to a public school) there was a wonderful art teacher! This was the first time I was given permission to experiment, to try new things. School was a struggle. I was often told I was stupid. I realized (later) that I was dyslexic. In my senior year I had a science teacher. I asked him if I might create illustrations to accompany my class notes. He was sympathetic to my difficulty and allowed me to proceed.
Art was with me, and there were some very good artists in my high school, but it was not until I left home that I could make decisions about my life and my art.
And what happened after high school?
I went first to Colorado State College in Greeley and then, eventually, to Metro State where I studied art and art education.
My experiences in college allowed me to blossom as an artist.
My life was filled with challenges. I was a single mother raising two children. I worked on art when I could. It was mostly two-dimensional work. In my hidden world, my passion was for making three-dimensional work.
How did that transition occur, into the third dimension?
In 1993 I was enrolled at the University of South Florida (in Tampa), working on my MFA. I was painting large. It took time to build the stretchers for the large canvases I wanted. I was falling behind. My advisor encouraged me to work on heavyweight paper. I followed her advice. By nature I was a very physical painter. I would lather the paint with the putty knives. One day I accidentally sliced the paper. The surface was no longer flat. There was a flash of light and my world kind of exploded.
I ripped my paintings and placed the fragments on structures that were built from anything and everything, from bamboo to pieces of telephone poles. The supporting structure became as important (if not more important) as the pieces of painting attached to it.
There was a profound re-connection to my childhood by the Highline. The structure would no longer be hidden. It would be celebrated. I studied basketry and weaving because I wanted my materials to connect in an organic manner, in ways that were inherent to the capacities of that material.
And here you are at Front Range...
Being a part of an artistic community is so important. When I was finishing at Metro I knew then that I wanted to be a part of a community of artists. I was an early member of CORE and became a member at SPARK after my return to Denver. At Front Range now I strive to develop that artistic community for others. When I teach I want to create an environment that is supportive. I want to create a space for people to just be; where they can explore and find ways to connect with themselves, to discover themselves as artists and as human beings.
Interview with Leo Franco, June 6, 2014
At 8am Leo Franco and I met for breakfast at the D & J Berkley Cafe on Tennyson just north of 38th Avenue. The morning is clear and cool.
May I ask you your age?
I'm 21, but life has been rough... I'm 54.
How long have you lived in Denver?
I was born in Detroit. My family was introduced to Colorado through my brother-in-law. He had served in Vietnam and afterwards was stationed at Fort Carson, outside Colorado Springs. My mother decided to relocate the family to the Springs. We left Detroit in 1973, when I was in the 8th grade. Moving to the Springs was the beginning of my art career.
In Junior High School, in 8th grade, I had a terrific art teacher, Ms. Oiler. She was the catalyst for me. She created a classroom with great freedom (this was the 70s...). It was kind of an open studio. Our class met formally once a week - however the room was always available to work. If another class was in session I could work in the back of the room. After school I could always go to the classroom to work on things. Mostly I was painting in oils, and I was making "pretty pictures".
While in Junior High I asked my mother to enroll me at the Bemis School of Art, which was connected to the Fine Arts Center in the Springs. At Bemis I also had great instructors. I was introduced to Cubism. We would work from the figure, and we would work outside. One teacher very important to me (I can't recall her name...). She always pushed me to create art that moved beyond basic realism. I was encouraged to use line and color in expressive ways. We did interesting exercises, like being asked to draw with our eyes closed. I really remember that one.
So you were on your way...
Not really... High School was a lost time. Also, throughout my growing up years music was an important part of my life. My parents loved Classical music. I played Classical guitar, and I had an aspiration to compose. It was suggested to me that I attend the University of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff to study music composition.
So at that school you studied music?
It was complicated. I studied music; but you know - I really wasn't all that good. Plus, I wanted to major in art. My teachers wanted me to start from the beginning. They wanted me to do all of this rudimentary stuff, and I wouldn't do it. I thought I knew a lot already (and I did). In my Junior year at college I hit my stride. I painted (mostly watercolor) and did collage. Media I could afford.
What artists did you admire?
Matisse - his continuous line drawings and his cut-outs with colored paper and fabric; Modrian because of his forms; also, Maholy-Nagy’s experimentations in Constructivism and the simplicity and elegance of Japanese art.
When did you embrace sculpture?
My painting became more and more three-dimensional. I was doing collages on 300# watercolor paper. Then I was layering stretched canvases, and creating uniquely shaped canvases.
And so, sculpture?
You know, my father built models for General Motors. Full scale models of cars made from clay. He was extremely precise in his work. He had a unique set of tools that he accumulated over his working life. He always had this smell of clay... My father died young [we think from an illness related to the malaria he contracted as a soldier in the Pacific Theatre]. I have his tools, and it is something... I can smell the clay on his tools to this day. Anyway, it is in my DNA, this affinity for sculpture that found its way outward through my hands.
It's funny; I flunked wood shop in high school and I really was not inclined toward welding. When I first began working in wood I gravitated to the softwoods; pine, poplar, etc. However I wanted more variety, more color and texture. So I explored the exotic hardwoods. I eschewed stains. I wanted to reveal the essence of the wood.
Was it hard to let go of painting?
No. Sculpture is just one more step on the ladder.
How would you describe your work? How does it present itself visually?
This is an art of construction. Maybe I will sit down at a table collected with materials: woods of various shapes, and wire and metal pieces; and something will catch my eye. I arrange objects. All of the elements are arranged in a simple and pleasing way. Kant referred to art-making as a kind of "free-play". That resonates with me. I love the simple aesthetic.
I do not carve. I think carving leads to a kind of realism. I like to use machines, and I like clean and modern lines.
My work is small. I like the greatness of little things. Sculptors work large; and Leo being Leo - being ornery and contrary - I work smaller. Though I do think about making larger work...
Plato talked about Forms, about fundamental essences. We are always chasing something, seeking to reveal these essences and relationships. A work of art is done, and we're on to the next, always seeking...
Do you have any expectations of the viewer?
No expectations. I hope people get something from the work, something lovely. As artists, we are a positive force in this crazy world. There is such destruction in the world. Our duty is to create.