For many who follow our Alumni Association on social media (Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter), a July 14 post of a charcoal drawing titled “Curl” was their first encounter with the art of Blake Welch (B.F.A, ’85).
A few days later, the original, 40-inch square, CAM-inspired drawing was purchased by Kevin Sheesley (B.S., ’82), who played football and wrestled for Colorado State University and is the longtime owner of C.B. & Potts restaurant.
“I couldn’t be more pleased with my art’s new home!” wrote Welch in a July 19 post. Welch said he feels like the charcoal drawing is where it should be and belongs – in Fort Collins with a stalwart Ram.
Welch is where he belongs, too. But it took the courage of his convictions to change the course of his life, and CSU played an important role.
Turning Talent into a Career
Born in El Paso, Texas, Welch enjoyed art from an early age. His family lived near a horse racing track, so he drew a lot of horses, and his classmates liked his drawings. “I would sell them at lunchtime and make bank,” said Welch half-jokingly. He even drew cartoon characters for nickels and dimes.
After Welch’s father accepted a job transfer in 1971, the family moved to Louisville, Colorado, where he completed grades four through 12 and met his future wife Gina Varra (B.A., ’84). It wasn’t until people started taking note of his talent that Welch realized fine art was a career option for him.
CSU’s graphic design program in the Department of Art and Art History attracted Welch to Fort Collins, where Phil Risbeck, professor emeritus and former head of the program, became Welch’s mentor. “Phil was my inspiration for getting into the design world. I remember my first day in his class and having the realization that design is an art form. He really opened my eyes.” Welch liked the program so much that he stayed an extra year to take more classes.
Although Welch had an abundance of talent, rather than pursue a career as a fine artist and risk becoming the cliché of a starving artist, he opted instead for commercial art, which led him into publishing and advertising agencies.
After graduation, he and Gina were married and moved to Des Moines, Iowa where Welch began designing books and magazines for Better Homes & Gardens. Three years later, he and Gina returned to Louisville and Welch began working at ad agencies in Denver. In the late 1980s, he decided to go into business for himself and opened the Welch Creative Group in downtown Denver.
A Moment of Epiphany
Welch’s firm was successful at managing brands and producing annual reports and collateral materials for dozens of clients in the healthcare, education, and environment industries. “I loved every minute of my agency; it was a wonderful chapter in my life,” he said.
But in 2014, “I was sitting in my office one day and I thought, ‘If not now, when?’ For almost 30 years I had put my fine art on hold, and I also wanted to teach, so I said to myself, ‘Let’s just do something different,’ and I just leaped.”
He sold the business and turned a vacant bedroom of one of his and Gina’s three adult children into a studio and got back to painting and drawing. For years, he had been guest lecturing at CSU and other institutions along the Front Range. “I really took to teaching and enjoyed it,” Welch said. CSU’s Department of Art and Art History asked him to teach design courses and he also taught at Regis University.
And while he was sharing his ad agency experience in the classroom, he was photographing subjects that inspired him and bringing them to life on canvas with oil paints, pastels, graphite, and charcoal. “I was painting for myself and letting my fine art clientele develop organically.”
Welch embraces diversity in his art and mediums, and eschews limiting himself to painting only wildlife or landscapes. “I look for the subtle splendor in things,” he said. “I like to push myself to find new approaches to familiar subjects, so that I feel rewarded at the end of the piece. A little discomfort, a little friction helps me move forward.”
“When you run an agency,” he continued, “you develop a certain level of discipline – you have clients and deadlines – and that has just enhanced my abilities as a fine artist. I set up my time and work to a schedule including deadlines. I manage four to five commissioned projects at a time, and then I have my stable of personal projects I’m working on, so I can shift gears whenever I want to.”
Coming Full Circle
In 2021, Welch’s longtime friend, professional photographer, and CSU alumnus Tim O’Hara, co-founded Ashes to Art, to raise support for the victims of the Cameron Peak Fire, the largest wildfire in the state’s history. Event organizers solicited nearly 100 pieces of donated artwork from artists across the country to be auctioned online. O’Hara retrieved ash and charcoal from the burned landscape and gave it to Welch and other artists to use in creating pieces for the auction.
“I’ve drawn with a lot of charcoal, but never charcoal from the forest floor after a devastating fire,” Welch said. The mule deer buck he drew was purchased by a firefighter in California. “He sent me a picture of it on his wall because it meant so much to him.”
Projects like that have only strengthened Welch’s connection to CSU. He and Phil Risbeck see each other a few times a year, and he and Gina are now lifetime members of the Alumni Association. “CSU changed my life,” Welch said. “As a young man who didn’t know where I was going to go or what I was going to do, I found a vocation. I met Phil, who was a friend and mentor to me. I loved everything about it. The department helped me get my first job and kept bringing me back as a guest lecturer, which opened the door for me to go into higher education. CSU is very near and dear to me.”
For the past four years, Welch has served as the program director for the multimedia graphic design program at the Front Range Community College in Longmont, where he teaches and oversees eight faculty members.
“There are days I miss my ad agency, but I have no regrets,” said Welch. “I wanted to be an artist and teacher, and that’s what I’m doing.”
Visit www.blakewelchfineart.com to see more of Blake Welch’s artwork.