Aspen loses an arts pioneer with death of John Powers |

Aspen loses an arts pioneer with death of John Powers

Mary Eshbaugh Hayes

The Roaring Fork Valley lost one of its pioneers in the arts when John Powers died Sept. 2 at the age of 83.

Powers was known for his collection of the works of modern artists, and his knowledge about the works as well as the artists themselves. He also had a love of music, playing the saxophone every Tuesday evening with the Walt Smith jazz band at Sopris Restaurant.

He and his wife, Kimiko, first came to Aspen in the mid-1960s when Powers retired as president of Prentiss Hall Publishing Co. in New York. They came on the invitation of Alvin Eurich, who was president of The Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies at the time.

Wishing to integrate art into the Aspen community, in 1965 the Powerses and Celeste and Armand Bartos founded the Aspen Center for Contemporary Art, an artists-in-residence program. The center flourished during the summers of 1965 through 1970.

During those summers, some 20 of the most avant-garde artists in the United States came to Aspen to live and work and mix with the community. Robert O. Anderson, who was then president of The Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, gave the art center studio space on the second floor of the Brand Building, which he owned.

The artists gave tours of their studios, showed their work to the townspeople and gave art shows and “Happenings.” The work was mostly pop art and minimal art. Roy Lichtenstein painted big “cartoon strips.” Claes Oldenburg drew sketches of his car. DeWain Valentine created giant plastic sculptures, and Christo strung a curtain across Rifle Gap.

Other artists who participated in the contemporary art center included Carl Andre, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Robert Indiana, Allan D’Arcangelo, and Les Levine. Powers wrote a weekly column about art for The Aspen Times all through the 1960s.

Unfortunately, the art center did not last. The Brand Building was sold and refurbished. Studio space became impossible to find at an affordable rate. Eurich, who had been a sponsor with The Aspen Institute, left Aspen to start an educational foundation on the East Coast. The direction of the Institute changed from concentration on the arts and humanities to involvement in the political scene. Many of the artists went on to become famous.

Powers was disturbed by the change in direction of the Institute. The Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies became simply The Aspen Institute and Powers often complained that they even took the humanities out of the name.

However, in the summer of 1995, he and Kimiko revived the contemporary art center when they put on a show of Claes Oldenburg’s work in the gallery of The Aspen Institute. In following summers, they put on shows at the Institute featuring the works of Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg. This summer, they mounted an Andy Warhol portrait exhibit.

Said Kimiko this week: “John was the idea man. He excelled at putting people together. His enthusiasm made things happen. Bob Anderson gave the use of the Brand Building summer after summer. The artists came because of John’s philosophy. The artists weren’t paid. But they loved to come to Aspen and work. It gave them freedom in a beautiful place.”

Powers was pleased when former Mayor John Bennett joined The Aspen Institute this summer as vice president. Said Bennett: “When my position was announced, he was about the first person to congratulate me. He had me to lunch at his home (it lasted about six hours). He was so excited about reinvigorating the arts and humanities into the Institute.”

Bennett first met Powers in 1991 when he was mayor of Aspen and invited Powers to a luncheon with Mayor Kannon of Shimukappu, Aspen’s sister city in Japan.

“John told me that when Al Eurich invited him to Aspen, he totally fell in love with the community and the mission of the Institute. I learned that John had moderated more seminars at the Institute than anyone else except Mortimer Adler,” said Bennett. “He moderated seminars on art and music and on Eastern philosophy. Elizabeth Paepcke told me many times about a trip that John took her on to Kyoto, Japan where they visited with Japanese scholars and artists and philosophers.”

Bennett credits Powers with sparking a renewed interest in the arts and humanities. “This summer I met with heads of other arts groups such as Robert Harth of the Music Festival and Suzanne Farver of the Art Museum to talk about collaborative programs,” he said.

“John had a contagious enthusiasm for anything related to creativity,” Bennett added. “He was interested in everything – art, music, modern physics. He was excited by all of it. He was always exploring new concepts.”

Powers was a friend to Joyce Webb, owner of the Webb Art Gallery in Glenwood Springs.

“We met in 1991 when I began to do his framing and conservation work,” she said. “I had apprenticed with the Cleveland Art Museum, with which he was familiar.

“I was only 31 at the time and I couldn’t believe I was framing works of Jasper Johns and de Koonig, two of my favorite artists, and hearing personal stories about them.

“I did a Warhol exhibit for John at my gallery in 1991 and an Oldenberg exhibit later. I helped him with the shows at The Aspen Institute,” Webb said.

“I learned so much from him. There were many times I was bored … didn’t want to ever frame another poster or picture. John would walk in with his high energy and make my week,” she recalled. “He always came with a big problem. He gave me problems, so I learned. He didn’t give me answers, so he elevated my skills and knowledge.”

Powers and Kimiko moved from New York to live full time in Aspen in the mid-1970s, living first in one of The Aspen Institute trustee houses, and then later moving to Carbondale.

Powers teamed up with the Walt Smith Band many years ago and they played at all kinds of occasions, including weddings, private parties, community gatherings, and art gallery openings. He loved the Tuesday evening gigs at Sopris and played until mid-June of this year.

Memorial services will be private.

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