Book Chronicles Art Renaissance at Highlands in 1960s

A Fine Frenzy book cover

Las Vegas, N.M. — Elizabeth Orem’s book, A Fine Frenzy — New Mexico Highlands University Artists and Teachers in the 1960s, chronicles the visual arts renaissance in this era and is available through the university’s Foundation.

All proceeds from the sale of the book will be used for scholarships for Highlands art students awarded through the Foundation.

The collector’s book illustrates the artwork and lives of legendary Highlands University art professors Elmer Schooley, Ray Drew, Harry Leippe, and Paul Volckening. All four were internationally known for their art. Schooley and Drew were painters, while Leippe is a bronze sculptor living in Las Vegas and Volckening is a Santa Fe potter.

Each donated art work to the university’s fine art collection, with many pieces gracing the walls and alcoves of Donnelly Library.

The professors’ passion and remarkable dedication to teaching art were hallmarks of their collective style. In the 1960s, 300 students were art majors at Highlands. The four were known for their hands-on approach to teaching, and their love for sharing the process of creating art.

Schooley joined the Highlands faculty in 1947 and taught for 30 years at the university, demonstrating extraordinary vision in leading the Arts and Crafts Department through these decades. He became the department chair in 1956, hiring Drew in 1958, Volckening in 1960, and Leippe in 1963.

Schooley, who preferred to be called Skinny rather than Elmer, once wrote: “We all got along well, and the student was king — a rare thing.”

In 2000, Leippe wrote: “Under the inspired leadership of Elmer Schooley, New Mexico Highlands University experienced its own renaissance in the visual arts. Because he understood and appreciated the unique heritage, spirit and destiny of Highlands, as well as the nature and purpose of art in higher education, he was able to create his Department of Arts and Crafts, a program which became known across the land for its diversity, coherence, relevance, integrity and mystique.”

A Fine Frenzy is filled with color photographs of the four authors’ work, as well as historical photographs and text. Leippe and Volckening, both Fulbright scholars, each wrote a section of the book. Schooley died in 2007 and Drew died in 1982.  

“These four taught through example and through their art, demonstrating superb execution, high educational standards, and strong personal commitment to students,” Orem said. “These remarkable artists and teachers represented the best of Highlands in the 1960s. I didn’t want this to be lost in history. I was determined to document who they were and what they did — and to show their art so people could recognize their greatness.”

Elizabeth Orem
Elizabeth Orem

Orem was the development officer for Highlands University from 1994 to her retirement in 2005. She earned degrees from the University of New Mexico and Stanford, and has taught, written and edited for many years.  

Orem met Schooley in 2000, when she arranged a joint art show at Highlands of his work and fellow painter Gussie DuJardin, also Schooley’s wife. Orem remained friends with Schooley until his death, saying she is fortunate to also know Leippe and Volckening as friends and artists. She worked closely with Ray Drew’s family and others who knew him for the book.

“Schooley, Drew, Leippe and Volckening expressed themselves uncommonly well in art and language, and the book reveals their character along with their intelligence and humor. Resisting movements and trends, they all remained grounded in the traditions of classical art, while producing paintings, watercolors, prints, ceramics, sculpture and jewelry that defined their own modernity,” Orem said.

The title of the book is drawn from a line in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and  from Leippe’s description of the “fine frenzy” of the bronze foundry at Highlands, which he designed and built with the help of his students. It was the first university art foundry in New Mexico.

Volckening established the pottery program at Highlands, teaching his students everything from digging their own clay and calculating glazes to developing skill and artistry on the potter’s wheel throwing pots.

A primary focus of Drew’s work at Highlands was art education, preparing and inspiring future art teachers. He also taught courses like watercolor painting, sharing his expertise with his favorite art medium.

Bob Read, the curator of the Highlands University fine art collection and the Ray Drew Gallery since 1985, edited A Fine Frenzy. He earned his M.A. in arts and crafts from Highlands, studying sculpture and printmaking. He took many a class from Harry Leippe and Ray Drew.

Bob Read
Bob Read

“It’s uncommon to find art professors who are excellent artists and teachers — all four of these men were both,” Read said. “They were old school in their teaching, with art students learning the fundamentals of art — like drawing and design — before proceeding to more advanced classes and teaching. They all emphasized art history.

“It was enjoyable to learn from such knowledgeable, learned artists who were the best in their field. It was exciting to be involved in such a large art department with so many students,” Read said.

He added that like many art students of the era, he became friends with his former professors — whether he was curating art shows with them or meeting at the Spic & Span Bakery.

In 2002, Read curated an art exhibition at Highlands called Four Old Cowboys that featured the four artists’ work.

“I began to realize what a rich reservoir Bob Read is about art at Highlands — from history to anecdotes — and his own depth of knowledge about art. I wanted to work with him on this book and he was there to help me make sure I got every word right — especially when it came to art mediums, techniques and vocabulary,” Orem said.   

She added that the book was truly a group effort by Highlands for Highlands. Photographers of the art include Leippe, Sean Weaver, University Relations director, and media arts students Matthew and Deanna Threadgill. Alumni Joe and Martha McCaffrey coordinated the photography for the Ray Drew paintings and Elmer Schooley’s son, Ted, photographed many of his father’s paintings.

The publisher for A Fine Frenzy is Robert Bell of Bell Tower Editions. Mark Diederichsen designed and produced the book.

Bell, an art collector, art patron and local ophthalmologist, is well known to the campus and Las Vegas communities. Since 2001, he has donated more than 2,000 original fine art prints to Highlands University and teaches a popular fine art print lecture series. This year, Bell donated 200 paintings from New Mexico artists to establish the Dr. Robert Bell Permanent Art Collection at Highlands. The collection’s first exhibit continues through Dec. 18 in the Margaret Kennedy Alumni Hall.

“Without Robert Bell’s generosity and support this book would not have been possible,” Orem said.

A Fine Frenzyis available at the Highlands Alumni/Foundation Office, with the softcover edition selling for $25. Donors who make a $300 – $500 gift to the Highlands Foundation will receive a boxed hardcover edition of the book as well as an original fine art print etching of the four professors by current fine arts professor Todd Christensen. For more information, call 505-454-3248.