July 2018: The Son and The Student

The Son and The Student

During the month of July, the Paquette Gallery will feature the art of Ben Strawn and Denise Liebl, two of the SteamPlant’s favorite artists. Ben is an incredible asset to the daily life here at the SteamPlant and Denise is an extraordinary artist with Salida roots of her own. The two met at the University of Denver as art students and have been friends ever since. This month’s exhibit is a tribute to their friendship. Ben is the son of the esteemed Artist Mel Strawn and Denise was, in Mel’s own words, “his best student”.


Denise Liebl


Ben Strawn

Preppy clothes were the norm at the University of Denver in the early 80’s, and art school students Ben Strawn and Denise Liebl were hard to miss among their clean-cut classmates. Strawn, primarily a painter while at DU, was perpetually covered in paint. Liebl, on the other hand, was always grimy with ink from the printmaking studio. What they had in common, however, were talents that spanned multiple mediums, drives to persevere as professional artists and, later on, connections to Salida that would rekindle their friendship.

When they met in a drawing class, their backgrounds could not have been more different. Strawn came from a family of artists. His father, Mel Strawn, was director of the DU art school. He grew up in a household where serious discussions of line, color and form were commonplace. Liebl was a country girl by comparison. She was the first in her family to attend college. She chose to go to DU, in part, because it wasn’t too far from her hometown of Rapid City, South Dakota.

When Liebl began to grasp the affluence of her classmates, she realized that she had grown up in a world apart. But her naivety didn’t obscure her talent. 27 years later, Strawn still recalls that their professor picked Liebl’s drawings over his own for use in what would become a well-known book on how to draw.

Their classes together were few, but Strawn and Liebl became good friends. When Liebl left for France to take part in a printmaking program in 1982, they sent letters back and forth. But by the mid-1980’s the two began to lose touch. Strawn continued living Denver and worked with his brother restoring furniture in Boulder. Ben moved to Salida in 1991, though he continued showing his art in Denver. The Denver gallery Walker Fine Art has carried Strawn’s work for the past 13 years, and he has an exhibition opening there July 13.

Liebl returned from France in 1984. While working to save enough money to return to Europe, she met the man who would become her husband, Todd. They had a daughter, bought a house in Denver and planned to share a life together in Denver. But Todd’s job required that they move to Houston, Texas in 1990. Denise has lived there ever since.

Despite the ups and downs of their lives over the last three decades, Strawn and Liebl have continued to produce art. Salida owes much of its identity as an artists’ town to Strawn and Mel and Bea, his parents. Strawn continues to paint, make furniture, and is unmatched in his ability to salvage items from the second-hand store Caring and Sharing for art and other purposes.

Liebl painted murals for Disney before becoming one of the most sought-after faux finish painters in the Houston area. She brought her aptitude for using textures, stencils and painting on large canvases with her when she dove into the world of watercolor about a decade ago. Her work has hung in some of the most prestigious gallery spaces in Houston, and she has participated in the Glassell School of Art’s Block Program for advanced artists.

When Liebl’s son and daughter-in-law moved to Salida, she had no idea that she would soon see her art school friend again. But when she walked into one of Salida’s downtown galleries she recognized a painting’s style and the name attached to it. Shortly thereafter, the pair reunited, a moment that Strawn said was happy “like a homecoming.” For Liebl, it was a great comfort to see Strawn again because they had shared a formative chapter in their lives, she said. Strawn is now “Uncle Ben” to Liebl’s grandson. Liebl, after some prodding, convinced Strawn to celebrate their friendship with this show here at the SteamPlant.

Thank you to Sam Liebl for sharing this piece with the SteamPlant.


Artists’ Opening Reception: Friday July 6, 2018 from 4:00pm-6:00pm in the SteamPlant’s Paquette Gallery.

Come meet both Denise and Ben in person on Friday July 6. Complimentary beer and wine from the SteamPlant!

Creative Mixer: Thursday July 12, 2018 from 5:30pm-7:00pm on the SteamPlant’s Riverside Plaza.

Join the Salida Council for the Arts and the Salida Creative District on the Plaza for a fine and festive social hour from 5:30 to 7:00 pm. Munchies are served, the cash bar is open, live music will be playing, and both Denise and Ben will be there in person to ask about their work.

Join us, bring your friends, meet some new ones, and, if you have news about your own artistic endeavor, you’re invited to step up on the “Soapbox” to share the excitement.