Where Everyone is an Artist
For 27 years, the non-profit Art Students League of Denver has been the place to unleash the visual artist in each of us
For 27 years, the non-profit Art Students League of Denver has been the place to unleash the visual artist in each of us: professional artists teach students of varying levels—from stick-figure virtuosi to budding Jackson Pollocks—in a handsome 1893 Richardsonian Romanesque school building in Denver’s West Washington Park neighborhood. The League is both grassroots and ambitious, serving more than 900 students a month and mounting as many as 10 exhibitions annually. League Executive Director Rachel Basye tells us why it’s such a magical place.
Art Students League of Denver Executive Director Rachel Basye photo by Don Riley
How did the League come to be?
Rachel Basye: In 1987, a small group of artists and art appreciators came together because they wanted a professional-level art community and school. They modeled it after the Art Students League of New York, which is well over 100 years old. The teaching format is the same: All faculty members are professional artists, and none of them has a curriculum set by the League board or by me. Each class is based on the teacher’s own experience, talent and training. It’s really about working in an environment with a professional artist—that master/apprentice style of learning.
We started at a small studio setting on 15th and Platte—near where Paris on the Platte is now. A handful of faculty offered courses, and we quickly outgrew the space. At the time, Denver Public Schools had a number of small elementary schools they had closed and were trying to find a use for, including this building. DPS wanted to connect the buildings with organizations that had educational missions, and before we got here artists were already using the studios, so it felt like the building was meant to be ours.
It’s a gorgeous place.
The building is really the soul of the League. We moved in 1992, and we did a major renovation then. Now we focus on maintenance, on making it a place where people feel inspired.
So what happens, exactly, in this beautiful building?
Art-making of all kinds. I think what’s most appealing about the League is the opportunity to try a wide variety of media. Let’s say you start with an introductory drawing class. You work through charcoal, ink and silverpoint. Then maybe you take a painting class, and you have a lot of choices in watercolor, acrylic and oils. You can choose to study contemporary styles, abstract art, Realism. You can learn to paint like the Old Masters. For students interested in 3D art, we have classes in sculptural ceramics; or you can learn wheel-throwing techniques and make functional ceramics. We even have a stone-sculpting studio. We have courses in how to make your own paper or bind your own books. In printmaking, you can study intaglio, monotypes, wood blocks, screen-printing—the list is very, very long. More than 100 professional artists teach here, so you get the depth and breadth of their experience.
And even those of us who haven’t made art since the required ninth-grade studio art class can sign up?
Of course. In every catalogue we have a guide for beginners, to give people ideas of where they might start.
I’m going to start by going to one of your shows.
You should! The shows are a great way to get inspired and learn about what we offer. Besides the shows we host here, we’re going to be doing pop-up exhibits throughout Denver this year, bringing the League to creative neighborhoods. In June, we’ll have a show at the Pattern Shop Studio in RiNo. We’ll be at Niza Knoll Gallery in the Santa Fe Arts District in July, and in the fall we’ll have a show downtown at Republic Plaza.
How do you attract so many talented artists to teach?
I think it’s a couple of things. The master/apprentice format is really appealing to artists. Professional artists know what their strengths are and know what they can share with others, and this format allows them to do that—to focus on the skill and the craft. And because we’re non-accredited—as in, you can’t apply these courses to a degree program—there’s not the same level of paperwork for faculty.
And second, people who take courses here are here because they want to be. I have heard from many of our faculty that there was someone in their lives who gave them the skills they have, and they want to give back to the community to pass on that knowledge and expertise, especially to students who are so hungry for that experience. The League is an easy place to love.
To learn more about the Art Students League and register for summer classes, visit asld.org