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Re-Imaging Women in Colorado History

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Madeline Phipps

Through her “Human Imprint” project, art professor Sarah Gjertson explores the role of women in Colorado mining towns


Over a decade ago during a backcountry camping trip, Sarah Gjertson happened upon the remains of one of Colorado’s early mining settlements. Standing among the handcrafted wooden structures that had been there for more than a hundred years, she wondered who the people were who had built them by hand and had worn the shoes whose soles remained on the ground. She couldn’t have imagined then that her initial curiosity would evolve over the next several years into an extensive project involving printmaking, photography and sculpture that utilizes found objects.

Hilltop tram house overlooking the valley
Hilltop tram house overlooking the valley

In the years that followed that first adventure, Gjertson, an associate professor at the School of Art and Art History, continued to take camping trips but began to orient them around finding more of these historic mining sites. “I’m a sentimentalist,” she says. “I’m fascinated by nostalgia and our interaction with nostalgia, how it compels us to want to learn things. When I started being present at these places, I just wanted to know more. I felt like I was standing in a living museum, which was a much more potent experience once I began to uncover the histories of these sites.

Her casual interest soon became a serious research project about the role of women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “It really evolved into understanding the role of women at this time in the American West which is so highly mythologized,” Gjertson says. “What we usually hear about are the madams and the bordellos and the prostitutes, but there were also so many other women who contributed to those places whose histories are unknown.”

Gjertson began conducting research through digital and physical archives around the state, and contacted the Park County Local History Archives in the hope of accessing their collection to learn about many of the women who inhabited the region. She was affected by the tactile experience of handling the objects in the archive—from photographs to scrapbooks and journal entries— an aspect that has informed some of the works in the project. “It’s a special opportunity to touch something historic that somebody else has touched and kept,” she says. “To have that privilege was quite amazing.”

Aided by grants from the University of Denver’s Creative Arts and Materials Fund, Professional Research Opportunity for Faculty and the School of Art and Art History’s Clemens Fund, Gjertson undertook a two-year project that includes a printmaking series showcasing 15 of the women she researched. She used archival images and employed an analog printmaking process that involved a hand-operated press to reinforce an aesthetic quality that remains at the historic sites. Gjertson worked with Sue Oehme of Oehme Graphics in Steamboat Springs on the printmaking series.

Eula and Mary Murphy
Eula and Mary Murphy

While exploring the Park County Local History Archives, Gjertson says she was especially drawn to one woman, Eula Smith, whose image is featured prominently in the printmaking series, and whose family story inspired an experiential work that viewers can touch. Smith was from a prominent family in Fairplay and was a teacher in communities throughout Colorado and eventually taught in the Greeley school system for more than 50 years. “Women have been systematically written out of or omitted from history,” Gjertson says. “It was an opportunity to give them a second life, and acknowledge their contributions to this time.”

In addition to asking viewers to think about the unexamined lives of those who precede us, Gjertson hopes this project also inspires conversations about the nature of preservation and conservation, a theme evident throughout much of the work in the “Human Imprint” project. “There is an aesthetic across the work that both highlights these items’ age and honors it,” she says. “Instead of looking at something like, ‘It’s old and it’s falling down,’ or ‘It’s garbage,’ there is this ability for those materials and those objects to tell us stories about human ingenuity and a time that has passed.”

Gjertson also hopes that her project brings attention to the kind of handwork that is largely missing from our society today. “Digital options are great, but they are tools like everything else,” she says. “I’m more interested in the staying power of things that help us appreciate those traditions of the handmade.”

See selected works from Gjertson’s Human Imprint project at the Vicki Myhren Gallery Jan. 11–Feb. 18, 2018, in the Fieldworks: Creative Research by DU Faculty exhibit.