Aspen Art Museum co-founder Laura Thorne leaves a legacy in the arts
She died last month at age 79; Art Base launches Laura Thorne Sculpture Program in artist’s honor
Sculptor Laura “Missie” Thorne, one of three artists who co-founded the Aspen Art Museum in 1979, left behind a lasting legacy in contemporary art when she died last month.
Thorne died May 6 after suffering for years from Alzheimer’s disease, according to an obituary written by her family. She was 79.
The artist moved to Aspen in 1974 and soon began exhibiting her work in local galleries while finding a leadership role among the youthful avant-garde seeking to foster and establish a visual arts scene here.
She was a leader of the new generation of Aspenites in the 1970s who launched the second wave of arts organizations like the museum, the Aspen Writers’ Conference and Aspen Filmfest, putting their enduring stamp on Aspen culture and complementing the town’s original postwar institutions like the Aspen Music Festival and Aspen Institute.
Alongside fellow artists Richard Carter and Diane Lewy, Thorne navigated the bureaucracy of Aspen city government to launch a contemporary art museum, originally known as the Aspen Center for Visual Arts, in an old city-owned power plant on the Roaring Fork River.
The city acquired this brick 1888-built powerhouse in the fall of 1976, after a municipal vote, along with the dilapidated Wheeler Opera House and a mining-era hospital building. When city officials called for volunteers to sit on a task force to decide what to do with the properties, Thorne joined up and led the charge with Carter, a painter, and Lewy, a ceramicist, to make it an art museum.
“Whenever we went in front of City Council, she was the spokesperson,” Carter said Monday. “She was prodigious in facing off with city councils and county commissioners. She was really good at being the face of the organization. She was a force and she knew how to get things done.”
Their aim was to launch a non-collecting, community-serving museum based on the European kunsthalle model, though the odds seemed stacked against the idea of opening a contemporary art museum in the remote mountains, with little funding in a cavernous old power plant. But their dogged efforts helped the idea win out.
The museum was made official on paper in December 1977, after which Thorne told The Aspen Times: “Five years ago there was no way this arts center could have started. People were skeptical that quality shows could be done. Now there is time and money and a lot of hope.”
The founders positioned it as carrying on a storied legacy of visual art in Aspen since its rebirth as a ski resort and as a community resource for arts education.
The Aspen Center for Visual Art opened June 16, 1979, and would host 16 shows in its ambitious first year. The first, “American Portraits of the Sixties & Seventies,” was a proud achievement for the artist-led upstart, landing of-the-moment artists including Diane Arbus, Chuck Close, Christo, Robert Mapplethorpe and Andy Warhol.
”We were too innocent and driven by a good idea not to do it,” Thorne told The Aspen Times 35 years later. “We did it on an inclusive level. We wanted kids to come from school. We felt, the bigger your audience, the better chance you have to succeed. And then it was one of those amazing things — all the parts came together.”
Thorne was instrumental in bringing an ambitious young leader, Philip Yenawine, to Aspen from Chicago to serve as its first director.
By 1981, the museum had galvanized Aspen’s art community — “artists are mingling like they never mingled before” stated an Aspen Times report on the museum’s second anniversary — and it became an integral part of art instruction local schools.
“Becoming part of the community and bringing national shows to this community are what we count as the most important things about our first two years,” Yenawine said at the time.
The museum would remain in the former power plant — on the $1-per-year, 99-year lease that Thorne and her cohort negotiated — through its rise in international stature and until 2014 when it opened its new three-story downtown building.
This fruitful period of the 1970s in local history also included the installation of the downtown pedestrian malls. Thorne left her mark there as well. Her large-scale sculpture “The Couple” has been a fixture of the Mill Street pedestrian mall since 1976, standing over Wagner Park as her most public local work.
Even as she threw herself into the campaign to start the museum and into getting it up and running, Thorne continued her work as a sculptor, working out of a studio in her home off McLain Flats Road and crafting large-scale steelworks.
“She was the first artist I knew here who was doing this monumental, big stuff,” recalled gallerist Tom Ward, who showed Thorne’s work at the Gargoyle Gallery on Hyman Avenue beginning in the mid-1970s. “At the time it was pretty far out.”
Ward recalled marveling at how Thorne had forged steel into fine curlicues atop some of those early pieces.
“‘I remember seeing that and thinking, ‘What is she up to?’” he said. “It looked almost like ringlets of hair.”
For Thorne, a life devoted to art and its creation was a life well-lived.
“To say that art has been my life is an understatement,” Thorne wrote in her 2019 book “Real and Imagined: The Art of Laura Thorne.” “It has given me a sense of the wonders of life, the powers of imagination, the challenges of creativity, the understanding of the vast diversity of humankind and civilization of which I have been a small part.”
STEEL & COLUMNS
Born in Chicago, Thorne studied at Smith College, the Sorbonne in Paris and graduated from Stanford University in the 1960s before beginning her life as an artist in New York City and working in the Robert Elkon Gallery on the Upper East Side.
She was drawn early on to working with steel and to making works on a landscape-altering scale. Thorne learned to weld and to metalsmith as she followed her passion.
“I wanted the physicality of working with stuff,” she told The Aspen Times. “But no one was clear on how I could learn to weld.”
Among her early major commissions was “Vago II,” installed at Youngstown Sheet and Tube in Ohio in 1973. The massive steel sculpture combining three curled sheets, made by Thorne in the foundry among hard-hatted steelworkers, weighs 15,000 pounds and stands 15 feet tall.
Once she arrived in Aspen, Thorne mastered her craft by apprenticing in a commercial welding shop on Mill Street.
“They told me to get boots and goggles, pay $3 an hour, and stand in the corner and watch,” she recalled.
As she refined her style, Thorne took regular trips to dumps and scrapyards around the West to scavenge steel and materials.
“Here was this fairly petite woman doing this pretty macho work — welding and cutting steel and moving giant structures around,” recalled Aspen-based artist Teresa Booth Brown, who was Thorne’s studio assistant from 1989 to 1992. “It was very impressive.”
Fellow sculptor James Surls, who would later move to the Roaring Fork Valley, first met Thorne when she invited him to exhibit at the Aspen Art Museum in the early 1980s. She later invited him to join the board of the nonprofit International Sculpture Center, where he witnessed how Thorne navigated the testosterone-heavy world of monumental sculpture.
“She stood shoulder to shoulder with some pretty macho guys and held her own, but wanted me with her because she felt I could help maneuver the thinking to encompass a more level playing field and bring more diverse and inclusive ways of looking at sculpture,” Surls said. “She had a quiet strength that gave her a powerful presence and made her an ally on the road of life.”
In 1983, Thorne met journalist Loren Jenkins, who would remain her partner for the next 38 years. He was then working for the Washington Post out of Rome, where the couple split their time for the next decade.
In Rome, Thorne made sculptures in a visiting artist’s studio at the American Academy and found new inspirations.
“If the Robert Elkon Gallery had been my first art school, Rome proved to be where I earned my equivalent of an MFA degree,” Thorne wrote in “Real and Imagined.”
Spending time walking ancient structures like the Forum, she became fascinated by columns. This columnar shape would become the signature form of her artwork, evolving and refining itself in the decades to come. She also took up work in printmaking during this period, eventually exhibiting monotypes at galleries in Aspen, across the U.S. and in Europe alongside her sculptures.
Thorne made countless iterations of columns, notably in open structures of steel bound and connected by rings. In these open columns she would place yet more sculptures — often made of porcelain, glass or bronze — and found objects, often exploring the relationship between the natural and the manufactured.
“I let one get the idea that, in our world, there is that complexity and diversity,” Thorne told the Aspen Times before opening a 2004 show at David Floria Gallery. “I embrace it, rather than structure.”
The sculptures gradually trended more toward natural imagery and would include sculpted branches, nests, tumbleweeds and the like, elements Thorne dubbed “nature’s calligraphy.”
Her travels with Jenkins during the Rome years included trips to the Middle East and Asia and added more layers of influence to her work. Following Jenkins’ postings, the couple later moved their home base to New York and Washington, D.C., where also Thorne began exhibiting in the 1990s. Thorne and Jenkins moved back to the mountains full-time in 2012 and Thorne settled into work in a studio at their Old Snowmass home.
“Holed up these days in the heart of the Rocky Mountains after a lifetime of travel through different cultures around the world, art is an expansion of my universe, both physically and spiritually,” Thorne wrote in “Real and Imagined.” “It is a means of finding space for ideas, thoughts, personal visions, and ultimate creations and passing them on to others, friends as well as strangers, in the hope that they too can be stimulated and edified by fresh ways of seeing and thinking.”
Brown, the former assistant who now works as an artist and as an administrator running the Aspen Art Museum’s artist programs, said Thorne was exemplary of how an artist can impact their community.
“She had done that with the museum and there was always something going on she was involved with,” Brown recalled. “She was an art activist. She took it upon herself to say, ‘Oh, we don’t have a museum? Let’s start one.’”
In that spirit, Thorne’s family is working with the Art Base in Basalt to establish the Laura Thorne Sculpture Program, aimed at developing adult and children’s education programs for making three-dimensional art. A private memorial for Thorne will be held in Snowmass this weekend. In lieu of flowers, the family asks for donations to the Thorne Sculpture Program.
Thorne is survived by Jenkins, her children Wink, Hunter and Melanie; stepchildren Sara and Nicholas Jenkins; and seven grandchildren.
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Lehmann Maupin pioneered the pandemic pop-up trend for blue-chip art galleries in Aspen. The gallery is back for its second season, partnering with Carpenters Workshop Gallery on Hyman Ave. this summer.