Mick Reber, professor emeritus of Fine Art at Fort Lewis College and professional artist, died May 10 in Bayview, Texas, at age 76.
For those who did not have him as a professor at FLC or knew him when he called Durango home for the better part of three decades, a stroll through Santa Rita and Memorial parks to look at his permanent sculptures – “Parade Formation” at Santa Rita, “The Guardian” at Memorial – are literal, lasting reminders of his artistic legacy in the area.
Reber was born June 6, 1942, in St. George, Utah, the sixth child of Ernest Glen and Elsie Turner Reber. He grew up traveling between southern Utah and Las Vegas, “a dichotomy that would come to influence his early artistic style,” according to an obituary written by his grandson, Dylan Smith.
After graduating with an MFA from Brigham Young University, Reber, his wife and two young children moved to Durango, where Reber began his teaching career at FLC. It was also in Durango where their third child, Rachele, was born.
Gerald Wells, a professor at FLC who retired about 15 years ago, worked with Reber in the art department. Wells, the second instructor hired by Stanton Englehart, said he and Reber became instant friends. That friendship endured, and the two, along with fellow professor David Hunt, became lifelong friends. (Hunt would precede Reber in death by five weeks.)
“I couldn’t imagine a better friend. He was cool,” Wells said. “He and I liked the same music; I could call him any time and he would say, ‘Gerald. What are you listening to?’ and I’d say, ‘Keith Richards,’ and he’d say, ‘You know, I just listened to him a few minutes ago.’ We were always on the same page. No matter what time of day, night. It’s funny, neither of us slept very well, so sometimes I’d call him in the middle of the night, and he’d say, ‘Well, what are you doing?’ and I said, ‘Well, you know, calling you to find out what you’re doing.’ Basically, he was the brother I never had.”
For Wells, the two being on the same page extended to their philosophy about art, understanding how important it is. He said they were also close because they had both been trained as expressionists.
It was Reber’s classical training that allowed him to push past artistic boundaries, said Rosie McGowan, who was Reber’s partner for nine years.
“He was classically trained and had an MFA in art, and he would always say that, because he was classically trained, he could deviate from that in a way that actually worked,” she said. “In the period of time that we lived together and up until his passing, he had really moved into this abstract painting world.”
She said the way his mind worked was something that not even he understood.
“There’s so much he said about his art over the years and the way that his subconscious would speak through something, and often he would do a series of paintings and not know what it was about internally, like what was driving the sort of obsession for a particular approach to something,” she said. “He would often say, too, once he discovered what it was about, often then he would lose the interest in it, so it was more appealing to him to be in the unknown about it than it was to actually know fully what was driving him.”
As a professor, he was cool.
“The students loved him. He was very creative with his students and how he taught them,” said McGowan, who met Reber in one of his classes. “He was super-hip, he would duct-tape his jeans when they would tear, spill paint of them and bleach them out intentionally. He was just hip and cool.”
Longtime Durango artist Karyn Gabaldon, owner of Karyn Gabaldon Fine Arts, was a student of Reber’s from 1973-77. She was in his figure drawing and painting classes.
“He was very, very avant-garde for the time, I mean, we’re talking the ’70s,” she said. “It was the height of the abstract, end of the hippie, definitely non-realism-type thing. He was an incredible artist.
“I remember one time he even had all of us out to his house – he had a house out in Lightner Creek – and we walked in, we were little students, little 18- and 19-year-olds, and we were like, ‘Oh my God!’ I just remember that he had just the coolest, artsy house in the world (laughs)! We were young, and he was kind of like the ... you put these teachers up on a pedestal.”
Wells, too, remembers the house, which Reber designed himself and was also used as a gallery and studio.
“He built this beautiful house on Lightner Creek. He had a big fireplace and he would invite his friends to come up and we’d sit there and cook things over the fire and talk about things. And you could look up toward Kennebec Pass from his deck ... probably those were the most important things,” he said.
A prolific artist, Reber also returned to Las Vegas, where, according to Smith’s obituary, he became known for his billboard paintings of celebrities. This talent was captured in the PBS documentary “Mick Reber: Wild William Bill.” He also is listed in Who’s Who in American Art, and his work may be seen in numerous publications, has been exhibited extensively throughout the U.S. and is also in many private and public collections, including the Annenberg Foundation for the Arts; The Hilton Corp.; The Reynolds’ Foundation; and city of McAllen, Texas.
Smith, who is a writer living in New York City, said he will catalog and photograph his grandfather’s work.
“My hope as his grandson is to make his art as accessible as I can to people,” he said. “He was such a caring, genuine person and a professor. I think it’s safe to say that his legacy will be how he influenced his students and family.”
For Reber, despite the fact that he spent his whole life creating, he was never content to kick back and just float.
“The thing that keeps me coming back into the studio time after time is not the finished product but the process, the idea, the building of content,” Reber said in the PBS documentary. “The way I see it, to stop exploring would be to stop growing in art, and that could never be my way of doing things. So I’m going to continue to work; I’ve really enjoyed all of it anyway, it’s great, it’s an experience.”