By Published: May 1, 2019

Rebecca Vaughan didn’t go to college planning to become an artist, yet she’s a successful artist and leader of an art nonprofit

Rebecca Vaughan never envisioned herself one day becoming a successful, Denver-based artist.

Rebecca Vaughan

Rebecca Vaughan. At the top of the page is a photo of the installation "Not Exactly Love Garden." Images courtesy of Rebecca Vaughan.

A Colorado native who was usually more interested in math than the arts, Vaughan began her journey at the University of Colorado Boulder because her adoptive parents often hosted foreign exchange students in their home. Vaughan had a keen interest in studying abroad from a young age, and after living in the Netherlands for one year after high school, chose to study French at CU Boulder, with every intention of going back to Europe to live there.

As one of her electives, Vaughan took a sculpture class with Andrew Connelly, a graduate student at the time. The rest is history. Today, Vaughan splits her time between her role as art director of the arts-focused nonprofit PlatteForum and creating sculptural art and installations that, while successful, she later admits she is rarely pleased with.

For someone who had never taken an art class before and was intrigued by technical tasks, she appreciated the challenge that sculpture presented. It was this sculpture class that convinced Vaughan to stay at CU Boulder as a fine-arts major, eventually graduating with her BFA in sculpture in 1994.

At the time, Vaughan wasted no time getting involved with the BFA program. “Once I fell in love with it, I was deeply embedded in the community.”

She was an assistant for artist Linda Herritt, worked at the CU Art Museum, and never hesitated to seize an opportunity provided by CU Boulder. One such opportunity involved shadowing and learning from CU’s visiting artists, including internationally recognized artist Andrés Serrano, best known for his controversial 1987 photograph “Piss Christ.”

I understand things more by touching them and taking them apart and figuring out how to put them back together.”
—Rebecca Vaughan

But some of Vaughan’s most colorful and influential memories from her time at CU Boulder come from her late professors, Antonette “Toni” Rosato and Garrison Roots. She describes the two as having a good cop/bad cop interaction with their students; Rosato acting as the doting mother and Roots as the “tough love, kick your ass, call-you-on-your-stuff kind of professor.”

This dynamic, as well as the duo’s focus on interdisciplinary studies, shaped her into the inquisitive artist who later got accepted into Carnegie Mellon’s prestigious MFA program, she says.

At Carnegie Mellon, she dove into robotics and history classes, which helped inform her artwork. “I understand things more by touching them and taking them apart and figuring out how to put them back together,” Vaughan says.

This technical drive, combined with a desire to weave topics from history, women’s studies and social justice issues, is what influences her artwork most.

Being a successful, working artist in Denver for more than two decades, Vaughan is intimately familiar with its art community, and brings this knowledge to her second job as artistic director at PlatteForum.

The nonprofit is a youth-development and artist-residency program in Denver where under-resourced youth are able to create art alongside artists in residency. Artists working with PlatteForum range from local to international. In 2017, they hosted Kate Speer, a Denver based dancer with an MFA from CU Boulder. In her role as artistic director, Vaughan takes the same interdisciplinary approach that was instilled in her at CU.

“What I love most about PlatteForum… is actually being around youth and emerging artists.” At the nonprofit, Vaughan is able to help artists and youth find a way to merge art and activism, things that Vaughan says are “very specific to my art work. But when I came to PlatteForum, it felt like I actually had the rubber back on the road.”

It would be easy for Vaughan to immerse herself completely in one role—practicing artist or artistic director. Instead, she balances the two seamlessly while also letting one inform the other. At PlatteForum, where she is the only professional artist on staff, Vaughan sees herself as a representative of Denver’s arts community.

Many artists come to PlatteForum with a vision that they are unsure of how to execute; Vaughan is there to help make their vision a reality. And as a working artist, Vaughan is constantly inspired by the other artists who come through PlatteForum, allowing her to learn about new media and techniques that ultimately help to evolve her work.

Being around so many artist-activists at PlatteForum, Vaughan feels more emboldened as an artist to create work that’s focused on political and personal issues.

One such work is “Not Exactly Love Garden,” an installation from 2012 featured on her website. For the piece, Vaughan ruminated on the term “not exactly” and its possible implications. For Vaughan, the term “not exactly” is a way to be two things at the same time—not completely one, but not completely the other.

She focused on this idea while also exploring the themes of desire and repulsion, which Vaughan often explores in her work as an extension of the years-long search for her biological mother and her questions around being adopted. From this, Vaughan decided to create a “not exactly” garden.  

The pink, ornate shapes on the wall are composed of 130 grow lights, and a lollipop crabapple tree is a stand-in for the human figure. The tree leans towards the grow lights for sustenance, in hopes that it will provide the light needed for its growth and development. Ultimately, however, the grow lights are not enough, and the crabapple tree dies.

With “Not Exactly Love Garden,” Vaughan examines what it means to nurture, or fail at nurturing, while also creating a vibrant and alluring environment.

After a three-year hiatus, Vaughan is ready to get back into creating and exhibiting work. Currently, she’s working on a collaboration with Jennifer Pettus, another CU Boulder graduate, set for summer 2020 at the Arvada Center.

When asked what motivates her to continue creating art, Vaughan makes a shocking admission: “I don’t like my own art.”

When pressed, it becomes clear what Vaughan means. She’s not a masochist, committed to creating art that she doesn’t love for the rest of her life. Rather, she’s a perfectionist constantly on a quest to manipulate materials in a way that synchronizes perfectly with the image and message she has in her mind.

Through laughter, Vaughan admits “I still haven’t matched it up perfectly… but I have had glimpses of it happening.”

These glimpses, the chance to create something that seamlessly synthesizes the materials and the concept, are what keeps Vaughan going.