The name on the wall

The Dairy’s Polly Addison gallery hangs the art of its namesake, shedding light on the person behind the art

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"My Pets" by Polly Addison
Polly Addison

As a local artist, an alumna of the University of Colorado and a former board member in the budding days of the Dairy Arts Center, there is a lot to celebrate about Polly Addison. 

She has a gallery named after her in the Dairy, but who is Polly Addison? Curator Jessica Kooiman Parker thinks it’s high time people know.

A small but moving collection of Addison’s artwork — pastels, pencil drawings, oil paintings and more —  are on display through June 16 in The Unknown Polly Addison, displayed in Addison’s namkesake gallery. Addison no longer creates art, but in her work, she drew inspiration from her family life as well as life in Boulder, depicting places including the Flatirons and Pearl Street Mall. The exhibit serves as a small look into the life of an unsung artist who has left a lasting imprint. 

The catalyst for the exhibit came through a discussion between Kooiman Parker and Jennifer Heath, chair and co-curator of A History of Visual Art in Boulder (HOVAB). Starting in 2014, Heath and others put together a comprehensive show throughout Boulder and Longmont celebrating local artists, including Addison. 

Kooiman Parker says she was very interested in having the opportunity to create an exhibit as a way to honor Addison, who began displaying signs of Alzheimer’s in 2011. 

“The idea to showcase an artist’s work in their namesake gallery, to me, sounded really amazing,” Kooiman Parker says. “She wasn’t just a gifted artist; she was also extremely essential to the growth of the Dairy and supporting artists. She curated several exhibits; she put together fundraisers — she was creative in a lot of ways [prior to the disease].” 

Along with putting together the exhibit, Kooiman Parker created an accompanying catalog. She felt that displaying the artwork wasn’t enough to tell Addison’s story. Kooiman Parker reached out to a dozen of Addison’s friends, colleagues and former professors. In the catalog, folks share stories of Addison’s warmth, intelligence, humor, generosity and talent. By reaching out to collect testimonials, Kooiman Parker also unearthed more of Addison’s art. 

“This has been a discovery process, which is fun. I was uncovering all these people who admire her so much,” she says. “It was like all these pieces of a puzzle coming together to form just a glimpse of who Polly is.”

Foremost, the show commemorates Addison as an artist, displaying a sampling of the work she created in the ’80s. Her art career began back in the 1950s when she earned a bachelor’s of fine art from the University of Colorado-Boulder. She went on to have five children and devote her time to being a full-time mother. A few decades later, in 1980, she went back to art school at CU. 

“She decided she was going to be a very serious artist, and she became very well equipped. She had her own studio and everything you could imagine,” says Mark Addison, Polly’s husband. “She was picking up the life of the artist. That was her goal.” 

The art in the Dairy’s exhibit shows Addison’s diverse style from pencil drawings playing with positive and negative space to pastel portraits, oil paintings and sketches. 

“I find her art very perplexing in a lot of ways,” Kooiman Parker says. “It’s technically done well. The composition and the choices that she makes are really interesting. It’s been making me think about my art history classes, because there’s these decisions that she has made and you’re trying to figure out why she’s has done it that way.” 

Polly Addison ‘Mother with her Father, Husband, and Sons,’ by Polly Addison

Kooiman Parker points to a painting Addison made of her mother. Her mother was 74 at the time, but didn’t like the original because it made her look “too old.” So Addison made another. This time she painted her mother much younger, surrounded by her mother’s father, husband and sons, all middle-aged. 

“There’s a lot to unpack. It gives a sense of her mother being ageless in some way,” Kooiman Parker says. “These men in her life that are admiring her, and they’re are aging but her mother is almost having this superpower. You can make a lot of assumptions.”

For the last picture in the set, Addison painted her mother as a little girl holding a fish at a lake. Behind her is a cast of men in suits admiring the little girl and looking directly at the audience. Entitled “My Pets,” it captures the story of her mother’s whole life, rather than merely a snapshot of one moment in time. 

Polly Addison ‘Climbing the Maiden’ by Polly Addison

During this creative period, Addison was exploratory with her style and mediums. She approached art with a playful attitude that never lacked depth. 

“I don’t exactly know what her impetus was,” Mark Addison says. “She did a lot of different stuff. What she was really good at was taking different images and rearranging them, like in [‘My Pets’]. … That was probably one of the things most interesting about her work is that she could make compositions out of many different elements.” 

Frequently, Addison drew inspiration from her surroundings but created something new and interesting. In the catalog, Jennifer Heath admires what she calls Addison’s “alchemical” wit. 

“Magic can’t happen without love, and it certainly can’t happen without humor… ‘Climbing the Maiden,’ Polly told me, relates to one of her five children’s favorite activities, scrambling up and down the miraculous ‘Maiden’ formation in Boulder’s Flatirons,” Heath wrote. “Again, it is a work embedded with family and memory, sly and cleverly imagined.” 

Unfortunately, Addison’s artistic career was short lived. 

Polly Addison ‘Holding You’ by Polly Addison

“Her career only lasted about five years,” Mark Addison says. “She did produce a paramount of stuff. … She went through a lot of different media and was great at all of them. But for whatever reason she decided she wasn’t good enough, and she stopped.” 

But Addison’s love of art continued in other ways. She and Mark curated a sizable art collection in their home. Mark Addison says Polly would give tours and would frequently end up showing her art to friends and explaining her processes. 

Moreover, Addison went on to become an essential figure in the first few years of the Dairy, which opened in 1992. Through the mid-’90s to the early ’00s, Addison did what she could to help the burgeoning art space.

Throughout the catalog, many former Dairy employees praise Addison’s efforts, saying that the Dairy wouldn’t have survived without her. 

“She was active on the board, and her role was varied,” Kooiman Parker says. “Like, ‘Oh, we couldn’t pay our water bill this month,’ and she would pay it. She was known for things like that.”

Former Dairy board member and friend Deborah Malden tells a story in the catalog that encapsulates Addison’s attitude. 

“A few months into our board term, I found Polly outside the Dairy picking up cigarette butts and other trash,” Malden wrote. “I asked Polly what she was doing. After all, the Dairy had paid staff who surely could help keep the place clean. Polly shared that, ‘If board members failed to treat the Dairy as we would our own homes, how could we expect the rest of the community to support it?’” 

Addison also curated a few exhibits, including one about the internet.

“Some of the shows she curated were really cutting edge,” Kooiman Park says. “Net Art was all based on work created about the internet, and this was in 2003, fairly early for technological art to be highlighted. I think that’s really telling about her and her character and how contemporary she was.” 

For decades, Addison has been an integral member of the Boulder art scene. While the exhibit serves to thank Polly, it has also added to her well-being. Addison and her family attended the opening reception on April 26, and Mark Addison says he continues to see the positive effect it had. 

Courtesy of Jessica Kooiman Parker Polly Addison (center left) speaks with a guest at the opening reception for ‘The Unknown Polly Addison’ on April 26 at The Dairy Arts Center.

“It was a big deal for her,” he says. “And it has carried over to some degree. She remembers there was a show and that she made the art and all the people who attended. I think it was very good for her.” 

It’s been a mutually beneficial experience for the Dairy as well. 

“For me it’s being able to honor her and tell her story,” Kooiman Parker says. “She is a really incredible person with a lot of history. … This just scratches the surface. 

“It’s important to hear these stories to understand her and showcase how strong her small contributions and dedications really were, and to show the bigger picture of her as a mother and a daughter, as an artist, as a partner to Mark, as a philanthropist,” she continues. “Now when people see work in the Polly Addison, they can say that the know who she is.”    

The original version of this article incorrectly identified Jessica Kooiman Parker as Jennifer. We apologize for any convenience.