ASPEN - A $50,000 donation to the Aspen Education Foundation from the family of the late Susan and Morton Gurrentz will enable the Aspen High School art department to create its first-ever new-media class and visual-arts laboratory.
Susan and Morton Gurrentz were residents of the Pittsburgh area who started spending time in Aspen in the 1960s because of their love of the outdoors. Eventually they became seasonal residents and then finished building a house in Pitkin Green in the late 1980s.
Following Susan's death on Nov. 20, 2011, the family set up the Susan Gurrentz Foundation to honor her artistic legacy. Morton died nearly a year after his wife of 57 years, on Oct. 30, at his home in Churchill, Pa.
On Sunday morning, the Gurrentzes' three sons - Rodger, Thomas and Patrick - and their wives and children met at the high school for a reception with school officials to talk about the donation and how it will assist the department. Naturally, the conversation turned to Susan, an accomplished and commercially successful artist of oil on canvas and other media, and her longtime devotion to exposing young students to art in Aspen, the Pittsburgh area and elsewhere.
"Our mother was an artist from an early age, 6 or 7 years old," said Rodger, of Murrysville, Pa. "She was a professional and painted everything from portraits to flowers to scenery to rodeos to bears.
"In order to keep her memory and passion for art in the Aspen area, the family decided to start the Susan Gurrentz Foundation. Our first project is to fund the media-arts room in the Aspen High School."
Patrick's wife, Lynn, spoke of how her mother-in-law generously donated time and money to support young students and introduce them to the art world.
"She wanted to give them some ideas and to spark their interest," Lynn said. "She wanted to expose art to people who maybe would not have a chance to be exposed."
That support involved contributions to school art departments in Murrysville and Aspen. Lynn recalled how the aid to Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville enabled the school to bring in accomplished artists for demonstrations and pay for field trips to museums.
"That was just something that she always believed in," Lynn said. "And she came to Aspen and worked with the students here. She liked to inspire children to continue their art because she knew that the subject was neglected in the schools, that it wasn't the main focus."
Susan believed in all of the arts, from painting to dance and everything between, Lynn said. Over the years, she supported the Aspen Art Museum, the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet and other local organizations.
Rodger's wife, Joan, said Susan would bring art supplies along on family vacations. When they'd go to the beach, Susan brought watercolors and committed the oceanside scenes to paper.
"She also did rodeo scenes, bears, portraits of people, people's pets," Joan said. "She saw the passion people had for their animals."
"Aspen was always a place where she enjoyed expressing her art, and she eventually had her art displayed at Aspen Art Museum," Thomas said.
Rodger said that his mother's passion for art was passed down to the three children, who in turn passed it along to their kids.
"She used to drag us to museums when we were kids," he said. "So we were indoctrinated into the art world from an early age. Because of that, we took our kids to museums, and they like them, too."
When Susan and Morton's three sons were growing up outside Pittsburgh, Susan owned a studio down the street from their home.
"She would paint there, and she would give us oil and canvas, and we would paint," Rodger remembered. "She would have the radio on or Bob Dylan playing, and we would learn how to paint from her. And she did that with the grandkids."
Aspen High School art teacher Stephanie Nixon said the $50,000 gift will benefit as many of her art students as possible.
"We have a digital class, new media, that focuses primarily on Photoshop skills and the Adobe CS Suite and the skills that our kids will use in the work force," she said. "We will have an arts-based visual lab. And it will be part of our International Baccalaureate program, and students will be able to create artwork from digital photography."
With the money, the school will be able to transform an unused darkroom into a living classroom.
"Before, it was a black-and-white darkroom," Nixon said. "The industry has trended away from black-and-white photography and moved into digital, so the space was mostly being used for storage.
"Our visual-arts enrollment continues to increase at the high school, and so we were looking for ways to add classroom space and up the curriculum."
Principal Kimberly Martin said the students are excited about the new lab.
"The digital lab is going to be really stunning when it's finished," she said. "There's a buzz in the art department. The computers are on their way. They should be here any day."
Aspen Education Foundation executive director Melissa Long thanked the Gurrentzes for the gift. She said the family approached the school and the foundation with the idea last spring.
"It's really nice to have donor-directed money to go to an art program, and we very much appreciate that," she said.