Retrospective explores Tunson's edgy vision and absolute craftsmanship
When: Opens to the public Saturday runs through Jan 20; also, a members-only preview 5-7 p.m. today with presentation by Floyd D. Tunson and museum director Blake Milteer
Where: Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 30 W. Dale St.
Admission: $10/free for FAC members/Public Free Day, third Tuesdays of the month; 634-5583 or csfineartscenter.org
Floyd D. Tunson keeps himself tucked away in an unassuming building in Manitou Springs.
He’s considered one of the region’s most highly regarded, prolific and influential artists, though he is reserved about his 40-year career. He doesn’t vigorously promote his art, rarely has a show in the state and isn’t currently affiliated with any gallery.
The 65-year old artist will open the first major survey of his life’s work to date at the Fine Arts Center on Saturday. It’s an exhibit five years in the making, and fills the entire second floor of the museum. Tunson works with a mixed bag of mediums, including painting, drawing, installation, sculpture, mixed media and photography, and often combines two or more to bring his message to life.
He doesn't say too much about his creative process or where he finds inspiration for his work, but his sense of often humor flashes. An “Are you kiddin’ me?”often counters a question he considers obvious. He says he prefers his lifework speak for him.
“It’s the process I love, the trepidation of the first stroke on the canvas,” Tunson says. “It’s taking the technique beyond what others have done. If I was stuck with a pencil and paper, I would be fine with that.”
One look at the 65-year-old’s spacious, multi-room third floor loft, where he's lived and worked for 35 years, and it’s easy to see that art is more than a passion, it's a lifestyle. His often boldly-colored work covers nearly every inch of the walls -- paintings and photographs, portraits and spins on pop culture -- demand attention. Even the most left-brained visitor would come away with a creativity contact high.
“I have the biggest collection of Floyd Tunsons around,” he jokes.
Tunson’s studio is in a smaller room, one filled with shelves of paintbrushes, canvases, assorted materials and tools. A colossal blank canvas, which is broken into pieces so he can eventually get it out of the apartment, is perched at attention, ready to be attended to.
His work also occupies much of the second floor of the building. Storage rooms are filled to the brim with canvases and scraps of material for his mixed-media work. A ping-pong table occupies the hallway, and he likes to play with his wife and friends who stop by, says Wylene Carol, his long-time assistant and agent.
Tunson and Carol met at Palmer High School, where they taught for three decades: She taught English and he taught art. She so respected both his art and his work ethic that she began working for him, and has been at his side for the past 30 years.
“His works change, but there is a compelling narrative through most of his work -- being a black male in the U.S.,” she says. “Floyd takes the viewer back to African history involving political issues that still exist."
She acknowledges the region he calls home could be one reason his work isn’t widely known. Contemporary art is not Colorado’s overall preference, she says. Art collectors here tend to prefer more traditional subject matter, like Western landscapes.
Tunson’s work is about as far as it gets from traditional. Much of his work is challenging and confrontational, dealing with social causes and criticism, art history, cultural identity and pop culture.
His retrospective includes an installation about gang violence called “Hearts and Minds,” which features portraits of young African-American men, guns and money. In his “Remix” series, he borrowed imagery from the work of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Tunson painted them on their sides and added images of real racist comics and illustrations from the same time period as the original paintings.
“Remix” won Best Show About the Intersection of Art and Race - 2010 in Denver Westword’s Best of Awards. Art reflects the world, Tunson says, and these paintings show the order he sees society fall into: white males first, then white females and finally, people of color.
“We’re much further along, but we’re not a color blind society yet,” he says."By no means."
The Makings of an Artist
Tunson grew up in Denver, the seventh of 10 kids. His oldest brother was his artistic inspiration, and Tunson watched him draw and paint for hours, then mimicked his work. As early as kindergarten, he knew that art would be his life's work.
In junior high and high school, teachers guided his understanding of classical technique. He also ravaged libraries looking for more knowledge. He eventually came to the pop art of Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg.
“My eyes were opened to possibilities,” he says.
He went on to graduate with a bachelor of arts in visual arts and education from Adams State College in Alamosa. It was the 1960s, and he was the president of the Black Student Union. Though the political environment wasn’t yet reflected in his art, he busied himself making a mark at political protests on campus -- even though they weren’t all that radical in Alamosa, he says.
After college, he was drafted to go to Vietnam and because of his degree, enrolled in the U.S. Army Officers Candidate School. His commitment ended early after he was offered a job teaching art at Palmer High School.
He spent 30 years teaching during the day, coming home for a nap and then working on his own art into the night. Summer vacations were three months of uninterrupted time that allowed him to be prolific. He retired in 2000.
"Son of Pop"
It’s rare for the museum to have a show of a single local artist, and rarer still for that exhibit to take up the entire second floor. Tunson has an excellent reputation with the museum, and they are one of his biggest supporters. They gave him his first one-man show in 1974.
Museum director Blake Milteer came upon one of Tunson’s enormous abstracts in the museum’s collection five years ago, not long after he joined the staff. The idea for a career retrospective was planted. The new exhibit is titled “Son of Pop” and is focused on ideas in American social history, pop culture and art history.
“It’s tremendously significant to integrate a regional artist on the second floor,” Milteer says. “He has 40 plus years of dealing with a wide range of subject matter in a wide range of mediums. He has deep expression combined with absolute craftsmanship.”
Tunson’s exhibit isn't in chronological order, but Milteer notes how themes and issues from his older pieces rear up as you follow those threads over his career.
“I don’t do the same things over and over,” Tunson says. “I personally can’t allow that, I have to be intrigued. I go in cycles. Five, 10 years later, I come back to an idea and it’s changed due to my experiences.”
The exhibit starts on the first floor of the museum. Handcrafted boats hang from the ceilings beginning halfway down the main corridor, and end at the 1991 exhibit known as “Haitian Dream Boats.” It’s the exhibit-goer’s first look at Tunson's thinking: The large-scale painting accompanied by 28 boats was the artist’s response to the dictatorial regimes in Haiti in the late 1980s. It depicts the men, women and children who left the turbulent nation on make-shift boats. It wonders what shore they'll arrive on, dead or alive, and if they‘ll truly be better off. This first work is indicative of the rest of Tunson’s retrospective.
“In the intro to the show, it’s presented with beauty and elegance in the work and then, when you dig in, you find subject matter that takes you by the gut,” Milteer says. “It shows us who we are, an aspect of society that we consider outside our lives. It can open people’s eyes.”
This is one of the few chances to see the artist’s work. Right now, his pieces reside in collections at the Fine Arts Center, Denver Art Museum, Kaiser-Permanente Corporation and Walter O. Evans Collection of African-American Art and private collections around the country.
Colorado Springs teacher Kendra Henry has collected Tunson’s work since the early 2000s.
Her first acquisition was a lithograph of a small portion of “Delta Queen,” an installation about the black culture of Mississippi that will be included in the retrospective at the Fine Arts Center.
“You always feel emotion when you look at one of his works,” she says. “It’s not just ‘oh, that’s nice.’ I have a huge appreciation for the creativity and thoughtfulness that goes into his work. It seems like it always has a message and it’s up to the viewer to figure out that message.”
What’s Next for Floyd
It remains to be seen if Tunson will find success on a national scale. He’d love to show his works in New York City and Los Angeles, but doesn’t seem rushed.
“Somebody out there will take me seriously,” he says. “I’m patient.”
One museum clearly takes the artist seriously. Milteer believes the Fine Arts Center plays a role in getting the work of important artists out there. With such an impressive one-man retrospective show, the attention could come sooner rather than later.
“This is work that will hold up in a national and international context,” he says.
Even if that attention never comes, Tunson will happy as long as Tunson can keep doing his art.
“When the smoke clears, maybe I just do the work,” he says. “I’m compelled to do it. It’s my sanctuary, my love, my heart.”