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 Mina Conant  (1910 - 1999)

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Lived/Active: Colorado/Ohio      Known for: symbolic, whimsical modernist painting

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Mina Billmyer is primarily known as Mina Conant

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Source: Denver Post newspaper article 12/1/69

As a student at East High School, Mina Conant was enough of an artist to execute professional commissions. She has been painting ever since, in Cleveland, Ohio, where she was married in 1933, and in Denver after 1947.

Mina Conant is the wife of John Billmyer, a professor of art at Denver University. She also has taught at Denver University at the Denver Art Museum and in the Denver Public schools.

Submitted by:
Katherine Tozier

Biography from Savageau Gallery:
Born in Fort Collins, Colorado, on November 3, 1910, Mina Conant was making artwork by the age of five. During that creative childhood, her family moved to Denver, and she grew up here, eventually graduating from East High School. While beginning her BFA at Denver University, Conant met John Billmyer. The young couple worked together for a time as janitors at Chappell House in the 1930s, scrubbing in exchange for studies with Chappell teachers: Vance Kirkland, John Thompson, Frank Mechau and Margaret Tee. Living for a time in Ohio, while Billmyer completed his ceramics studies, the couple married in Cleveland in 1933.

John Billmyer and Mina Conant (who worked under her own name with few exceptions) moved back to Denver in 1947, bringing along their two young daughters; another was born the next year.  Billmyer took a teaching position at Denver University. While raising the children, Conant clearly continued to pursue her own art career, and she must have spent the Cleveland years well in terms of honing both her artistic skills and her professionalism.

Both Billmyer and Conant established themselves rapidly in Denver, showing at the Denver Art Museum in 1948. In 1953, her wood-block print, “Dreaming Cat,” was offered as a DAM membership premium ; in 1954 she won First Place oil painting honors at a Canon City annual show ; two years later she was creating a mural for Boettcher School. Her 1964 exhibit at the Neusteters Gallery of Fine Arts was that venue’s second show; the first had been Emil Bistram’s.

Playfulness and color infuse Conant’s paintings, as do symbolism and visual puns. A symbol-laden painting called The Tree was explained by the artist as follows:

"The pear is because I like things to come in pairs …The match is because I like things to match… The rose in the glass is the rose spectre. You’ve heard about that? It dates all the way back to medieval times – it indicates magic. I’ve always been fascinated with magic, since I was a little girl. I learned how to call up the devil. I felt he was there, but by the time I turned around, he was gone… Do you like the winged lion? That’s my husband."

This type of layering – whimsical and spiritual – is a unique component in Conant’s work. Childhood is an obvious theme, frequently noted in Conant’s press coverage, but spirituality is present just as often – and often in the same paintings. It’s no accident that many of Conant’s mural commissions were for Denver-area churches. She was a devout and involved Episcopalian, a woman of conscience who obviously thought deeply about life.

Around her fiftieth birthday, Conant had a life-threatening bout of pneumonia. The Last Rites were administered. As she drifted in and out of wakefulness, so ill she was unsure of seeing another day, Conant made a vow to herself: If she survived, she’d paint one-thousand new pictures to celebrate her survival. Against all odds, Conant made it through the night. Recovered and painting again, she commemorated her vow with a new addition to her signature. The paintings that post-date her health crisis are signed with a small butterfly, which she considered a symbol of rebirth, and, if you look closely at the insect’s wings, a nearly-disguised number can be found, enumerating her main paintings from that time forward. By 1993 she was up to 850.

While she’d had mural commissions and other community-project involvement prior to her illness, after that occurrence Conant emerged as a vocal activist for peace and environmental concerns. She protested the Vietnam War (sometimes anonymously, out of concern for her husband’s teaching position). Her daughter, Joanna, recalls helping her bake oatmeal cookies for protesters camped along the railroad tracks leading into Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant. Conant actively opposed billboards in the Denver metro area, calling them an “aesthetic blight.”

In 1977, after the national Episcopalian Church voted to ordain women, Conant’s congregation at St. Mary’s voted to secede from the denomination. Supporting female ordination, Conant opposed the St. Mary’s secession. She left the congregation and a local controversy ignited when she attempted to take back artwork – a tabernacle and 14 Stations of the Cross – she’d created for and donated to the church, saying loyalist Episcopalian churches should have the pieces. The church balked and police were called. The works eventually became the property of the Colorado Episcopal Diocese, and are now in St. Elizabeth’s Church in Brighton.

Shortly after the church controversy, Billmyer retired from teaching and the couple moved to Tucson. Through the 1990s, Conant’s social activism was transferred to air and water issues in that community. These concerns were present in Conant’s subject matter for many years, soft-spoken but evident under the whimsical surface.

For example, in the 1962 painting Rainbow Ribbons, a graceful man holds a multi-strand ribbon garland. A knot in the center allows him to fan the ribbons out like wings – pretty, ethereal. In Conant’s symbolism, however, God placed the rainbow in the sky after the Flood “as a symbol of His promise that the earth would not again be destroyed by water.” But humans have created their own potential destruction through the power of the atom: this is the knot we’ve tied in the rainbow, snarling that promise for the future. By speaking in symbols, Conant packed an innocent-looking, charming painting with additional, very serious undercurrents.

Text by the Savageau Gallery


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