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A Steele centennial

RMCAD celebrates founder with gallery


Philip J. Steele was a lot of things to a lot of people.

He was a father, an artist, a teacher, an advisor and a friend. And as a founder of the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design, he was many of these things to his students and colleagues.

To celebrate the late Steele’s 100th birthday, the school presented an exhibition of his work and a panel comprised of some of the people whose lives he touched. Steele died in 1993 of a heart attack. He was 77.

Family and friends gathered to pay tribute at the Sept. 7 centennial panel and exhibition opening.

“Putting together the exhibition with Mark (Steele, Philip’s son) was a thrill,” said Rick Dailey, gallery director for RMCAD.” Working on the exhibit taught me how involved in the Denver art scene Phil was, and how determined in his career he was.”

The exhibit is on display in the Philip J. Steele Gallery, RMCAD’s largest dedicated gallery space on campus, and runs through Nov. 4. Dailey split the exhibit into two parts — one showing Steele’s academic side, and the other his wit and creativity.

Steele was a master of figure drawing, anatomy, oil painting and, later in his career, sculpting. All of these facets are on display in the exhibit.

The panel — moderated by Mark Steele, also an artist — allowed participants to share some of their favorite stories and experiences with Steele. Here are the best things we heard from participants:

1. Mark Steele: “This panel is a way to celebrate Phil in each person’s own personal way. He was fearless about his art and the way he thought about the dream of creating this school. He also had a tremendous spiritual side. We always claimed he was born at the right time, and he would always respond that he’d been here many times before.”

2. David Nygren, a lifelong friend of Mark Steele: “Growing up, Phil gave me participation in his family. Mark and I used to talk endlessly with him into the evening. He was a profoundly spiritual man. He used to say he attributed his success to the prayers of his sister, who was a nun. He absolutely grounded me in art and a love of art.”

3. Teddy Schmedeke-Lee, a student of Steele’s at RMCAD and current teacher at the college: “He had a wonderful way of starting people out in art. He would teach the basics right from the beginning and made it so much fun. I loved watching him do demonstrations for his students. He always seemed to know what to say about your drawing that would make it the best it could be.”

4. Suzanne Alvord, a student of Steele at RMCAD: “Philip really was like a grandfather that made learning so much fun. He appreciated everyone ...”

5. Mitch Caster, another student of Steele at RMCAD: “He had these great ways to breaking drawings down to straight lines for his students. He was just a great teacher who did a lot for me and cared about all his students. All the methods I use in my own teaching come from Phil.”

6. Mike Litrell, teacher and colleague of Steele at RMCAD: “As we were both instructors at the same time, I always watched his demeanor and attitude in his classes to see how I should conduct my own. He was there the day I was hired, and I was there the night he had his heart attack (in 1993). All the time between was precious, and I miss him terribly.”


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