Twelve Extraordinary Years
1934 was a pivotal year for Frank Mechau. He had settled into Denver after returning from Europe, and his teaching and lecturing in Denver caught the attention of key people active in the Denver arts scene. Among them was Anne Evans, an influential member of the Denver Artists Guild. At her recommendation, Mechau was awarded his first mural commission with the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) to be hung in the Denver Public Library. His painting, Horses at Night, received immediate favorable response and was exhibited in three distinguished locations—the Whitney and Modern Art Museums in New York, and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC. Edward Rowan, assistant director of the PWAP in Washington DC, wrote Mechau:
I want to tell you of the great pleasure this beautiful design and poetic conception have given me. … I see a great many paintings in my work and it is not often that I am moved as deeply as I have been over this painting. …
1934 was also the year Mechau received his first Guggenheim Fellowship—the first Colorado artist to receive the award, and among the first fellows allowed to work in the U.S. rather than in Europe. The award initiated an important and engaging correspondence for Mechau with Henry Allen Moe, Secretary of the Guggenheim Foundation, that spanned the years of Mechau’s three fellowships and beyond: the second was awarded in 1935, the third in 1938.
Horses at Night was the first of twelve mural commissions Mechau was awarded through the PWAP over half a dozen years. The two that followed most immediately, in 1935, were his two most notable: Pony Express and Dangers of the Mail. Mechau entered designs for these murals in a competition to decorate the Post Office Department Building in Washington, D.C. The designs required intense focus. In a letter to Moe, he wrote,
I hardly knew I was capable of working so arduously. For about five months I have scarcely left the studio—certainly an abnormal way to behave. However, the two large and ten small compositions that emerged from the effort carry a reward of their own. It has been a test case for me, and I have come out of my corner with a feeling of exultance.
Mechau soon learned that he was one of twelve winners of the competition, including leading muralists across the country. His murals drew quick praise from critics, but Dangers of the Mail also sparked significant controversy that continues to this day. Its depiction of a massacre of whites at the hands of Indians included nude female figures deemed unacceptable at the time. More recently, the mural has generated controversy among Native American groups who consider it racist and offensive. After a lengthy review process, the Government Services Administration (GSA), the agency in charge of public art in federal facilities, chose to install a screen in front of the mural to block it from public view. That screen remains in place.
COLORADO SPRINGS FINE ARTS CENTER
In the fall of 1935, Boardman Robinson, head of the Broadmoor Art Academy, invited Mechau to join his teaching staff in Colorado Springs. The new Fine Arts Center, designed by distinguished architect John Gaw Meem, was nearing completion, and both Robinson and Mechau were commissioned to create frescoes for the exterior of the building. Mechau’s deep interest in conjunctions between art and architecture made this commission a dream come true. His fresco, Wild Horses, a sixty-foot panel of running horses executed in 1936, still adorns an outside wall overlooking a courtyard at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.
While creating the fresco, Mechau was also at work on three PWAP murals for the Glenwood Springs and Colorado Springs Post Offices. With so much work underway, he enlisted several of his most talented students to assist, employing a fundamental principle of apprenticeship he utilized throughout his teaching career. Another mural was commissioned for the Ogallala, Nebraska, Post Office the following year.
REDSTONE BECOMES HOME
In the summer of 1937, Mechau had a chance to take his wife Paula to see the virtually abandoned town of Redstone, up the Crystal River from Mechau’s hometown of Glenwood Springs. That visit spurred the Mechaus’ pivotal move to Redstone in 1938. The remote mountain haven became a center point for the rest of their lives.
MEETING FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT
For some months, Mechau travelled back and forth to Colorado Springs to continue teaching. In 1938 Frank Lloyd Wright visited the Fine Arts Center there to speak at a conference on “The Arts in American Life.” Mechau had long admired Wright and welcomed the opportunity to meet him. He was especially gratified by an invitation to visit Wright at Taliesen, his winter home and school in Arizona. Before that visit, Mechau began three final PWAP murals designated for federal buildings in Texas.
The Taliesen trip was an engaging interruption that included lively discussions with Wright about architectural elements common to painting, sculpture and music, and the incorporation of painting into architectural design.
Returning home, Mechau completed the Texas murals, but also recognized the financial need to return to teaching. Urged by friend and sculptor Oronzio Malderelli, he applied for an opening at Columbia University. In May 1939, Mechau was appointed head of the Department of Painting and Sculpture in the School of Architecture. The job took the family to New York for two academic years, with important summers in Redstone. Later, Mechau returned to Columbia by himself so as to save on expenses.
WAR ART UNIT
In spring, 1943, Mechau was invited to participate in a project involving artistic documentation of U.S. Armed Forces in World War II. He headed up a four-artist unit assigned to the Caribbean and Panama. Mechau’s lively journals of the trip recount a fascination with people he met along with adventures by cargo and amphibious planes that included four forced landings during violent tropical storms. He created twelve paintings from the assignment, straying necessarily to tropical and war-related themes.
HOME AT LAST
Upon his return, Mechau was eager to immerse himself in the work he knew best. Teaching at Columbia had significantly curtailed his creative production, and in August 1943, he requested a leave of absence that ultimately became his resignation. He happily settled into Redstone for the next few years and produced some of his iconic paintings — Tom Kenney Comes Home, Autumn Roundup, Dorik and His Colt, and Children’s Hour. Deer in Moonlight, painted early in 1946, would be his last. His untimely death from a heart attack came in March, cutting short his extraordinarily full life and artistic career.