Aspen Art Museum co-founder Laura Thorne leaves a legacy in the arts



Laura Thorne at work in her studio. The sculptor and co-founder of the Aspen Art Museum died in May at the age of 79. Courtesy photo

Sculptor Laura “Missie” Thorne, one of three artists who co-founded the Aspen Art Museum in 1979, left a lasting legacy in contemporary art after her death last month.

Thorne died on May 6, after years of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, according to an obituary penned 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 leading role in the youthful avant-garde that wanted to promote and establish a visual arts scene here.

She was a leader in the new generation of Aspenites in the 1970s who started the second wave of arts organizations like the Museum, the Aspen Writers’ Conference, and the Aspen Film Festival, making the Aspen culture sustainable, and the original post-war institutions of the City like the Aspen Music Festival and Aspen Institute.

Along with fellow artist Richard Carter and Diane Lewy, Thorne navigated the Aspen city government bureaucracy to open 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.

In the fall of 1976, after a municipal vote, the city acquired this brick-built power station from 1888, along with the dilapidated Wheeler Opera House and a hospital building from the mining era. When city officials called for volunteers to join a task force to decide what to do with the land, Thorne teamed up and led the assignment with Carter, a painter, and Lewy, a ceramist, to turn it into an art museum .

“Whenever we went to the city council, she was the spokeswoman,” Carter said on Monday. “She was great at pitting herself against city councilors and district officials. She was really good at being the face of the organization. She was a force and she knew how to get things done. “

Their goal was to found a non-collecting, community-oriented museum modeled on the European art gallery, although the chances against the idea of ​​opening a museum for contemporary art in the remote mountains with little money in a cave-like old power station did not exist. But their persistent efforts helped the idea to prevail.

The museum was made official on paper in December 1977, prompting Thorne to tell the Aspen Times, “There was no way this arts center could have started five years ago. People were skeptical that high quality shows could be done. Now there is time and money and a lot of hope. “

Laura Thorne with “The Couple” in Mill Street. Courtesy photo

The founders positioned it as a continuation of a historic legacy of fine arts in Aspen since its rebirth as a ski area and community resource for arts education.

The Aspen Center for Visual Art opened on June 16, 1979 and would host 16 exhibitions in its ambitious first year. The first, “American Portraits of the Sixties & Seventies,” was a proud achievement for artist-led upstart and landing of the moment artists such as 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 the children to come home from school. We believed the bigger your audience, the greater the chances of success. And then it was one of those amazing things – all the pieces came together. “

Thorne was instrumental in bringing an ambitious young leader, Philip Yenawine, to Aspen from Chicago to serve as first director.

By 1981, the museum had stimulated the Aspen art community – “Artists are mingling like never before,” said an Aspen Times report on the museum’s second anniversary – and it became an integral part of local art schools.

“Becoming part of the community and bringing national shows to this community is the most important thing for us in our first two years,” said Yenawine at the time.

The museum would remain in the former power station – on the 99-year lease that Thorne and her cohort negotiated – until it gained international renown and until 2014 when it opened its new three-story downtown building.

Laura Thorne’s “The Couple” in Mill Street pedestrian zone. Courtesy photo

The installation of the pedestrian zone in the city center was part of this fertile period in local history in the 1970s. Thorne left her mark there too. Her large-format sculpture “The Couple” has been an integral part of the Mill Street pedestrian zone since 1976 and stands above Wagnerpark as her most public local work.

As she embarked on the campaign to start and get the museum up and running, Thorne continued her work as a sculptor, working in an atelier in her home on McLain Flats Road, and making large steel mills.

“She was the first artist I knew here who made this monumental, great work,” recalls gallery owner Tom Ward, who from the mid-1970s exhibited Thorne’s work in the Gargoyle Gallery on Hyman Avenue. “It was pretty far out back then.”

Ward remembered wondering how Thorne had forged fine flourishes on some of these early pieces of steel.

“‘I remember seeing this and thinking,’ What is she up to? ‘” He said. “It almost looked like curls of hair.”

For Thorne, a life devoted to art and its creation was a life well lived.

“To say that art was my life is an understatement,” Thorne wrote in her 2019 book “Real and Imagined: The Art of Laura Thorne”. “It gave me a feel for the wonders of life, the imagination, the challenges of creativity, an understanding of the great diversity of humanity and the civilization of which I was a small part.”


Born in Chicago, Thorne studied at Smith College, the Sorbonne in Paris and graduated from Stanford University in the 1960s before starting her life as an artist in New York City and working at the Robert Elkon Gallery on the Upper East Side.

She was drawn to work with steel and landscape-changing works from an early age. Thorne learned welding and forging while indulging in her passion.

“I wanted the physicality of working with things,” she told The Aspen Times. “But nobody knew how I could learn to weld.”

Thorne with her sculpture “Vago II” in Youngstown, Ohio. Commissioned and installed in 1973, it was one of her first major works of art.

Her early major contracts included “Vago II,” which was installed in 1973 at Youngstown Sheet and Tube, Ohio. The massive steel sculpture, combining three corrugated sheets of metal, was made by Thorne at the foundry under steel workers wearing hard hats, weighs 15,000 pounds and is 4.5 meters high.

Once in Aspen, Thorne mastered her craft by training at 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 recalls.

As she honed her style, Thorne made regular trips to landfills and junkyards across the west to collect steel and materials.

“Here was this rather petite woman doing this pretty macho job – welding and cutting steel and moving huge structures,” recalls Aspen-based artist Teresa Booth Brown, who was Thorne’s studio assistant from 1989-1992. “It was very impressive.”

In 1983 Thorne met journalist Loren Jenkins, who would remain her partner for the next 38 years. He then worked out of Rome for the Washington Post, where the couple split up their time for the next decade.

In Rome, Thorne made sculptures in a guest studio of the American Academy and found new inspiration.

“If the Robert Elkon Gallery had been my first art school, Rome was where I got my MFA degree,” Thorne wrote in Real and Imagined.

She spent time walking by ancient structures like the forum and was fascinated by pillars. This pillar shape was to become the characteristic shape of her work of art, which would continue to develop and refine over the coming decades. During this time she also started to work in printmaking and eventually exhibited monotypes in galleries in Aspen, the USA and Europe in addition to her sculptures.

Thorne with one of her columnar works in 2004. Aspen Times file photo

Thorne made countless iterations of columns, especially in open steel structures connected and connected by rings. In these open columns she placed other sculptures – often made of porcelain, glass or bronze – and found objects, often exploring the relationship between the natural and the made.

“I got the idea that there is such complexity and diversity in our world,” Thorne told the Aspen Times before opening an exhibition at the David Floria Gallery in 2004. “I embrace it instead of structuring it.”

The sculptures gradually tended more towards natural images and included shaped branches, nests, tumbleweeds and the like, elements that Thorne referred to as “calligraphy of nature”.

Her travels with Jenkins during the Rome years included trips to the Middle East and Asia, adding other layers of influence to her work. Following Jenkins’ postings, the couple later relocated their home base to New York and Washington, DC, where Thorne began exhibiting in the 1990s. Thorne and Jenkins retired to the mountains full-time in 2012, and Thorne settled in a studio in their Old Snowmass home.

“Tucked away in the heart of the Rocky Mountains these days, after a lifetime of traveling through different cultures around the world, art is an extension of my universe, both physically and spiritually,” Thorne wrote in “Real and Imagined”. “It is a means to find space for ideas, thoughts, personal visions and ultimately creations and to pass them on to others, friends as well as strangers, in the hope that they too can be stimulated and built up by new ways of seeing and thinking . “

Brown, the former assistant who now works as the artist and administrator for the Aspen Art Museum’s artist programs, said Thorne is a role model of how an artist can impact his community.

“She did that with the museum and there was always something going on that she was involved in,” 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. ‘”

With this in mind, Thorne’s family is working with Art Base in Basalt to establish the Laura Thorne Sculpture Program, which aims to develop educational programs for adults and children in the creation of three-dimensional art. A private memorial to Thorne is taking place in Snowmass this weekend. Instead of flowers, the family is asking for donations for the Thorne Sculpture Program.

Thorne leaves behind Jenkins, their children Wink, Hunter and Melanie; Stepchildren Sara and Nicholas Jenkins; and seven grandchildren.


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