Frank Mechau was the son of a barber, raised amidst the mountains of western Colorado. He was well-liked by all in his small town – an acknowledged leader among his peers, an eager student who read widely, and a superb athlete with particularly impressive skills in the boxing ring. But if one was to catch a glimpse of this young man in the streets, he was likely carrying his sketchbook and pencil. He was indeed an artist at heart.
Against the wishes of his father, who pleaded with his son to be practical, Mechau headed to Denver University to pursue his passion. Earning a boxing scholarship and winning money as a local prizefighter, he paid for his education, quite literally, with sweat and blood.
Mechau then took a job as a cattle hand and made his way to Chicago. There he worked odd jobs to pay for classes at the Art Institute of Chicago, but he quickly became disenchanted with the rigidity of the curriculum and tentative conservatism of the faculty.
Mechau turned his back on the Windy City and trudged eastward once again, this time on a job taking a load of pigs to New York City. He worked in the book binding department of Lord and Taylor and fell in love with a fellow art buff, the beautiful Paula Ralska from the advertising department. The young couple struggled to make ends meet, and Frank made all their furniture himself to save money.
Frank and Paula both knew well that the center of the art universe lay across the Atlantic. In 1929, with true pioneer spirit, they sold everything they had in exchange for two one-way tickets to Paris.
Once there, Mechau cobbled together odd jobs and designed sets for the Ballet Russe. He immersed himself in the world-renowned museums and was exposed to a wide range of artistic influences. He admired the precision of the Renaissance masters and the modern perspective of the Cubists. Close to his heart were landscapes of the American West, but he also found delight in the spare, minimalist landscapes of China and Japan.
In his own art, Mechau used majestic mountains and his experiences in small town America as his muse and infused them with elements from seemingly opposite genres of art. Bridging gaps between different styles became emblematic of Mechau’s style as time went on.
The unique style of his early works won accolades from European art critics of all stripes, and Mechau was widely viewed as an up-and-coming American artist. However, as the popular Cubist movement became increasingly abstract, he began drawing criticism for his commitment to his own style.
Mechau chose not to swim with the current, effectively ruining the trajectory of a once promising art career in Europe. Not one to compromise on his principles, he simply closed the door on fame and fortune and moved back home to rural Colorado. The return to America, however, was more than just personal. It was driven by a deeply held conviction about the future and promise of America, even in the midst of the Great Depression.
Upon his return to the states, Mechau said in an interview:
I’m glad for the crisis – the Depression – which has driven American talent back to America. Sports, mountains, canyons and the history of the West – of which Colorado has more than her share – are the subjects from which I hope to fashion art.
Mechau, now the father of a growing family, had mouths to feed. Fortunately, he received numerous mural commissions from the New Deal’s Public Works of Art Program (PWAP). In addition to receiving his first Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1934, he began teaching at the Kirkland School in Denver and at the Broadmoor Art Academy, which was soon to become the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Several of his students went on to become great artists in their own right. Acclaim for his PWAP murals later won him a post teaching at Columbia University. Money was still tight, so Mechau took the train to New York for the school year, returning only at Christmastime. Each month, he sent almost his entire paycheck home, keeping only a few cents for himself. His children recall that the four year stint at Columbia was a difficult time for the family, but their father’s tremendous love was felt from afar through a steady stream of drawings and postcards. He is remembered by them as a warm, kind man who sang and played with them whenever he could.
Tragically, Mechau died from a heart attack in 1946 at the age of forty-two. He left behind sixty finished works of art over a twelve year career and a legacy as a pioneer of Western American artwork.
His story, however, is a timeless one that echoes back into our past and forward into our future.
Frank Mechau’s life is emblematic of America’s promise. His story tells us that no matter who your parents are, where you’re from, how poor or rich you may be; you can dream lofty dreams and achieve great things. His story reminds us that anything is possible – that a ragtag band of idealists can win independence from the greatest superpower of the time, that a nation torn asunder by a war that pitted brother against brother can be mended, that government by the people could persist and prosper.
Mechau’s story reminds us that at our best, we Americans are a gritty bunch. We aren’t afraid of hard work, getting our hands dirty, and embracing struggle. We don’t choose to pursue our dreams because they are easy – we choose to achieve them because they are hard. We aren’t afraid to make mistakes, risk it all, or pack it up and head off for a new horizon. We relentlessly march forward – Westward, into space, to the moon and beyond.
He reminds us that America’s great strength lies in its diversity. We are a nation of immigrants. There have been times in our history that this diversity has threatened to tear us apart, and there will be moments in the future when it threatens to do the same. Nonetheless, as Mechau bridged artistic gaps between cultures on the canvas of his easel, we as Americans have a way of coming together under one fervent belief about humanity – the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, and that at the end of the day we should not judge one another by our gender, race, or creed – but rather by the content of our character.
Mechau himself reminds us that America is an exceptional place. Upon returning home from Europe he said:
America has been altogether too modest in the realization of the rich potentialities which lie within her boundaries and has blindly worshipped everything foreign. It has been a great experience to study in France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Holland, but it has furthered my conviction that America is the place for American artists.
Mechau reminds us that we are all American artists. We paint under the promise that anyone with a dream can do anything. It is our birthright as American artists to paint the picture of our own lives. We must do all that we can to protect that right to dream, especially during these trying times for our country. At times, the proverbial grass certainly may look greener elsewhere. But America, though it has and continues to stumble, is the freest, most prosperous, and most exceptional nation in the history of all mankind.
We are all called to add our brushstroke to the American story. There are tears in our canvas and smudges all over, to be sure. But when our descendants look back on our work, they will see that America is the most beautiful painting the world has ever seen.
But the painting is ongoing – it is an unfinished work with much to be done.
Pick up your brush, add your stroke.
By Robert Delfeld, guest blogger, intern extraordinaire and FAC member of the month