Bob Ragland, a longtime Denver artist, teacher and author who founded and championed his “Non-Starving Artist Program,” died over the weekend at his Whittier neighborhood home. Ragland was 82.
Ragland was an award-winning artist who worked in multiple mediums and some of his works are on public display, including his 1990 sculpture, “Flute Player with Corn Row Hair,” at the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art.
In 2016, a short video documentary was produced about Ragland, titled “Rags to Riches.” It was directed by a fellow artist, friend and former student of Ragland’s, Samantha Lobato.
“When I met him, his energy was so absolutely intense, but in such a good way, his passion for art really pushed through,” said Lobato, who studied art at Denver Public Schools Career Education Center in 2010 when Ragland taught there.
Lobato describes Ragland as a mentor, a teacher who never marked students’ art pieces, instead marking a piece of vinyl over or on the piece.
“It really struck me that he really respected everyone’s work,” she said.
Ragland’s simple brick home, with a front porch where he seemingly always worked, was full of his art. He had pieces catalogued in his mind and could retrieve a piece at a moment’s notice.
The artist was well known for his business mantra that artists should, and must, make money to pursue their discipline. “Bread and shelter has to be paid for, I’ve got to heat and eat,” Ragland said often, and with a smile.
In a 2005 Denver Post story, a satisfied Ragland said he paid off what was left of his home mortgage in 1998 with an advertised art sale. Eighteen arts lovers paid $300 — a subscriber fee — and each got to choose one painting and one sculpture from his home. The mortgage was paid.
Ragland bought his modest home in 1972 and paid $11,500. In the documentary Ragland said: “Being rich isn’t having a gazillion dollars, it’s being able to do what you like to do.”
Friend to artists, artist to friends
Dean Mitchell, a renown Florida artist, has painted several portraits of Ragland, including award-winning pieces, over the years. The two men met in 1991, when Ragland telephoned Mitchell about an upcoming prestigious show in Denver to which Mitchell had been invited.
“I got a call from this guy,” Mitchell recalled. ” ‘You don’t know me, my name is Bob Ragland. I don’t want anything from you…’ ”
“I started laughing,” Mitchell said. Ragland joined Mitchell in laughter on the phone and a rich, lasting friendship was born.
“He wanted me to know that I was the first Black artist invited to the show,” Mitchell said. “That’s how I met him, he’s been a friend ever since.”
Ragland and Mitchell exchanged telephone calls, typically about two a week, mostly on Monday and Friday. Last Friday, they didn’t hook up.
“He has been a guiding force for me,” Mitchell said. “I’m going to miss him, it’s a tough loss.”
One of Mitchell’s portraits of Ragland is in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
Ragland’s life in Colorado
Ragland was born Dec. 11, 1938, in Cleveland, Ohio. He joined the Army at age 18 and was stationed at Fort Carson. After his service, Ragland moved to Denver in 1959 and worked for U.S. Post Office for six years. He attended the Rocky Mountain Art School and learned to weld at the Emily Griffith Opportunity School.
In 1966, Ragland held his first art show in a Denver church basement that he rented for $10. He sold 17 of the 35 works that were up for sale. Ragland was listed in Who’s Who in American Art since 1976.
“Bob was a passionate advocate for Colorado art and artists,” said founding director and curator Hugh Grant, of the Kirkland Museum, in a statement. “We are glad to have him represented in our collection and on our website.”
As a child, Ragland starting drawing on brown paper sacks that his mother gave him. As an artist in Denver, he drew inspiration and materials from his Whittier neighborhood. Potential art subjects were never more than a walk away. Ragland also enjoyed trips to New Mexico where he’d also seek and find inspiration, especially landscapes.
Ragland was best known for his oil paintings. His popular sculptures were made of discarded materials, including bedsprings, tires, pipes, chains and car parts. He authored two books,” The Artist’s Question and Answer Book” and the “The Artist’s Survival Handbook: Or What to Do Till You’re Rich and Famous.”
“They’re practical nuts-and-bolts books on how to have an art career,” Ragland told the Post. “Everything that they don’t teach you at art school is in these books.”
Known to write a great many letters to a great many people, including prospective art clients, Ragland incorporated art into the envelopes and the letters themselves.
Clyde Steadman, a local artist and art teacher, has known Ragland for about 20 years.
“He was passionately devoted to art and the art community,” Steadman said. “Bob was exceptionally devoted to the business of art. I think of him as a great networker. He was a monument.”
Information on a service for Ragland is pending.
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