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Frank Vavra

 (1892 - 1967)
Frank Joseph Vavra was active/lived in Colorado, Nebraska.  Frank Vavra is known for mountain landscape, portrait, still-life.

Frank Vavra

Biography from the Archives of askART

The following, submitted February 2004, is from Sherry Betterton Walker, grand daughter of the artist. Her source is her mother, Eloise Vavra Betterton, daughter of the artist, and records of the Denver Public Library Art and Music Department.

Frank J Vavra was born March 19, 1892, in St. Paul, Nebraska.  When he was about seven years of age, his parents moved to Wyoming and settled there permanently. Frank, the oldest of three boys and two girls, spent his childhood and adolescent days in the vigorous and somewhat boisterous atmosphere of Cheyenne,Wyoming.  The impressions he was to carry away from that pioneer town, Wyoming's crossroads center since the earliest Indian days, were often colorful material for his paintings.

From the beginning, Franks' parents were pleased with his interest in painting.  They both came from Prague, where they were fond of the arts culture and where Frank's maternal grandfather had been a landscape gardener to Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria-Hungary. Outside his home, the earliest encouragement to study art came from a teacher, Miss McCormick, who taught fifth grade in the Cheyenne Public schools.

Vavra had little opportunity to study drawing and painting, however, for even the high school curriculum offered no art course.  He was obliged to practice at home during his spare time, dependent on the meager supplies the local art stores were able to offer.  One of the ingredients an enterprising merchant suggested that he mix his own paints proved disastrous.  The canvases Frank painted with the resultant mixtures failed to dry and, after five years of patient watchfulness, he was forced to destroy them.  Fortunately, the costly incidents of learning how to paint by the trial and error method hastened his resolution to study with professional artist.

After graduating from high school, Frank spent several years working on various jobs, exploring possible fields of occupation and testing his abilities.  This process of orientation was interrupted by World War I.  Severing the smooth flow of millions of lives then, the War swept Vavra along into until he was seriously injured on the battlefield where he was gassed.

The opportunity to seek the aid and instruction of a practicing artist came with an unpredictable twist of fate.  Wounded while in the front line of action, Vavra was returned to the hospital in Vichy, France.  During his convalescence there, he met Pillan, a pupil of Claude Monet, and the two became friends.  The year of contact with Pillan was fruitful in many ways.  Frank found time to paint and to ask the countless questions of a beginner.  The termination of the war found him well enough to return to his country, inspired and with firm in the resolution to become an artist.

Active service makes the soldier keenly aware and appreciative of his remaining fund of time.  During the lull of battle and, after he was wounded, through the long hours of convalescence, Vavra formulated long-range, constructive plans for the future.  Upon arriving in Cheyenne once more, he began the reconstruction of his life on a new scale of values.  By 1923 he had decided upon a course of action, and, leaving his family and home town friends, he came to Denver to begin the formal study of art.

He enrolled in the Denver Art Academy, then located in Briton Terrace on 18th Street. Directed by George William Eggers, the Academy was one of the significant art centers in the state of Colorado.  Vavra attended class for three years, during which time he met and studied with John E. Thompson, Robert Graham, Professor Rennell, and Henry Carter of the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts.

At the Academy he also met Kathleen H. Huffman, a native of Battle Creek, Michigan who had come to Denver in childhood.  She was employed as a fashion artist at the Denver Dry Goods Company, and, though their marriage followed shortly before the termination of Frank's art studies, her interest in art did not diminish through the subsequent years.  An accomplished water-colorist, she received considerable praise for the work she submitted in various art exhibitions.

An important period of development, divided into two phases, followed Frank's marriage.  Now seriously engrossed in his profession, he opened a small studio in Denver and settled down to the arduous task of establishing a reputation as a painter.  For several years his destiny hung in the balance.  He was forced to exist on a small pension from the Army and through such commissions as his skill and taste in the decorative arts brought.  Eventually, however, he was able to sell his paintings, and by 1929 he had a modest following.

Vavra now entered the second phase of his formative period. The desire to live in intimate contact with nature became more insistent, especially since city life was no longer essential to the fulfillment of his original plans.  A deliberate, careful thinker, he wanted more time for introspection and mediation.  He purchased a building in Insmont, near Bailey,  Colorado, and rebuilt it into a comfortable studio-home as well as made it a piece of artwork in itself.  In 1930, he and his wife left Denver with their first child, Eloise, born in 1925.

Insmont was to be a haven until 1942. Vavra had at last all the time he needed.  Through simplification and selection, coupled with increasing ease of technical expression, he learned to paint those elements of nature and life that appealed to his inner traits.  Fond of light, which he expresses in clear, almost startling passages, he roamed the hills and creek beds in the beautiful valleys around Bailey to study the subjects he loved.  Many of the canvases he painted during this period reveal intimate knowledge of the swiftly changing moods of the mountain atmosphere.  A burst of light illuminating a peaceful bend in some mountain stream; skillfully arranged patterns of light picking up rich, earthy colors and the lush greens of secluded woods; those were the themes he put down with a freshness that seems to retain the ecstatic surprise of a first discovery.

Two more children, Joey (Frank Joseph Vavra , Jr) and Diana, were born in Denver. The long stretch of years, rich with the joys of creative work and a home full of children, was terminated by the shadows that fell across the whole world.  Another war, with a disrupting power that no one can escape, brought mounting uneasiness, perhaps even evoking nightmares of its former visitation.  Illness, too, touched the home. Joey was in need of expert medical care, and there was the problem of proper schooling for the children.  The family moved back to Denver.  Joey died August 22, 1943 .

For the last year of his life Frank was affiliated with the Olinger Decorating Company, painting murals and assisting with the work in the decorating department.  That arrangement allowed him to devote some time to his own painting in the studio at their home on South Corona Street.

Born in St. Paul, Nebraska, Frank Vavra became a well-known painter in Colorado, after being raised in Cheyenne where he first worked as a window decorator. During service in World War I while convalescing from exposure to poison gas, he was in Europe where he studied with Pilan, a student of Monet's.

Returning to America, he studied at the Denver Art Academy with George William Eggers and Robert Alexander Graham. In 1923, he opened his first studio in Denver and painted landscapes, still lifes, portraits and scenes from his growing up in Wyoming. He also taught at the University of Denver.

In 1928, he moved to Bailey, Colorado where he established a studio in an old building and in the restoration process carved and painted the place so that it resembled an "art object that was the most individual studio in the Rocky Mountain region." (499)

Peggy and Harold Samuels, The Illustrated Biographical Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West
Note, December 2003, from John E. Hildreth from Laramie, Wyoming.

I was a student of Mr. Vavra from 1937 thru 1941 when he visited at Cheyenne, Woming to give art lessons, something he did during portions of each year to budding and professional artists there. We students painted in his studio in 1938, and he encouraged me to paint at the San Ildefanso Pueblo (1939) with Maria and Julian Martinez. From this latter experience, Julian gave me one of his own pictures of an Indian and Pony. The four years spent with Mr. Vavra were
most rewarding, and he was an excellent teacher.

I have in my possession four paintings by Frank J. Vavra:
1. "Mission Rancho de Taos", New Mexico
Oil on canvas board 16" x 20", signed Frank J.
Vavra in lower right.
Painting not dated but was presented to me in 1940.

2. "Ouray, Colorado"
Oil on board 12" x 15", not signed on front.
"Landscape of Valley, Rock Mountains & Trees"
On Back: To: Johnny Hildreth (written)
Merry Xmas 1938
Frank J. Vavra (signature)

3. "Rocks & Trees, Angels Roost"
Oil on canvas board, 8" x 8", signed lower left.
From original label on back - No: 25-3
Title: Rocks & Trees, Angels Roost"
Artist: Frank J. Vavra
Studio: Bailey, Colorado, P.O. Box 247.
Painting is mounted in the original matted board 21/2" wide.
Titled: Rocks & Trees, Angels Roost, Colorado Rockies
There are no dates but the painting was given to me in 1939
when our lessons and art work were in painting rock formations.

4. "Boiler Gulch"
Oil on canvas board, 8" x 8", signed lower left.
From original label on back - No: 35 - 4
Title: Boiler Gulch
Artist: Frank J. Vavra
Studio: Bailey, Colorado, P.O. Box 247

Biography from David Cook Galleries (M-Z)
In 1923, Vavra came to Denver to study at the Denver Art Academy. At the Academy, he studied with George William Eggers and Robert Alexander Graham. He married Kathleen H. Huffman, a fashion artist at the Denver Dry Goods Company, whom he also met at the Academy. Huffman was an accomplished watercolorist and her work was in several art exhibitions. After their marriage, he opened a small studio in Denver and devoted himself to his art. By 1929, he was able to sell his work, which consisted mainly of landscapes, portraits, still life and scenes of his youth in Wyoming.

In 1930, Vavra and his wife moved to Insmont, Colorado with their first child Eloise. Vavra had purchased an old building in Insmont and rebuilt it into a studio-home. He remodeled the home so that it resembled an art object that was the most individual studio in the Rocky Mountain region. Eventually, Vavra and his wife had two more children, Joey and Diana, but Joey fell ill and required expert medical care. So the family moved back to Denver. Occasionally, Vavra would visit Cheyenne, Wyoming to give art lessons. For the last year of Vavra's life, he painted murals and assisted the decorating department at the Olinger Decorating Company.

Exhibitions: Ann Denver Art Museum, 1936; Kansas City Art Institute, 1935, 1936;

Works Held: State Capitals, Denver, CO, Cheyenne, WY
Further Reading: Artists of the American West: A Biographical Dictionary, Vol. 1, Doris Ostrander Dawdy, Swallow Press, Chicago, 1980. 3 Vols.; The Illustrated Biographical Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West, Peggy and Harold Samuels, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1976; Who Was Who in American Art 1564-1975: 400 Years of Artists in America, Vol. III. Peter Hastings Falk, Georgia Kuchen and Veronica Roessler, eds.,Sound View Press, Madison, Connecticut, 1999. 3 Vols.

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About  Frank Vavra

Born:  1892 - St. Paul, Nebraska
Died:   1967 - Denver, Colorado
Known for:  mountain landscape, portrait, still-life

Essays referring to
Frank Vavra

Taos pre-1940