By Published: June 5, 2019

Thirty years after retirement, Frank Sampson is steadily creating work in his studio behind his home in Boulder; creating art is not just something he does—it’s part of his spiritual makeup

In today’s art world of oversized dog balloons and anonymous political graffiti, you would be hard pressed to find something that can still shock its viewers. But Frank Sampson’s artwork is able to do just that.

Frank Sampson

Artist Frank Sampson withsome of his artwork. Photo by Marysia Lopez. At top of the page is a portion of "Animals in Reflection," courtesy of the Sandra Phillips Gallery.

Unlike many contemporary artists, the 91-year-old University of Colorado Boulder art professor emeritus doesn’t shock his audience with explicit imagery or taboo themes. It’s his masterful execution of a painterly style, in which each brush or palette stroke is vibrant and visible, combined with a fresh exploration of fantastical characters and subject matter, that makes Sampson’s work stand out.

Though Sampson is now one of the most prolific artists that Boulder calls its own, his early life was a far cry from the galleries and museums his work now frequents.

Growing up on a farm in North Dakota in the 1930s, Sampson didn’t experience much in the way of art appreciation. But from an early age, he showed a keen interest in his mother’s book of Renaissance paintings, often copying the artwork.

Sampson also recalls getting wrapped up in his mother’s wild storytelling. The artist’s mother enjoyed spontaneously creating lengthy, outlandish tales often featuring animals as main characters. Sampson reminisces fondly on this aspect of his childhood, claiming his mother was “almost hypnotic with her storytelling.”

Instilled with a love of storytelling and European Renaissance paintings, Sampson eventually left the farm he grew up on to study history and art at Concordia College in Minnesota. In 1952, he received his MFA from University of Iowa. While there, Sampson studied art history alongside studio art. Despite his professors’ urging him to get a PhD and become an art history professor, Sampson decided that he loved the studio above all else and decided to be an artist.

After receiving his MFA, Sampson had little time to celebrate—he was drafted into the Army during the Korean War. Luckily, Sampson was stationed in Germany (rather than Korea), allowing him to explore other parts of Europe and see the very paintings he admired while growing up.

A few years after completing his service, Sampson received a Fulbright grant to create artwork in Belgium, where he was placed in a private home with his own studio. In Belgium, home to some of Sampson’s most beloved Flemish Renaissance artists, his love of painting was reinforced.

When asked how he got into teaching art, Sampson admits that he was skeptical of it at first. The adage “Those who can’t do, teach” made the artist feel a little hesitant when a close friend working at CU Boulder recommended that Sampson come teach for a year to take over for a professor on leave.

When Sampson first arrived in 1964, CU Boulder’s fine art program had no central building for classes. Because classes were dispersed throughout campus, Sampson says it was difficult to feel a sense of unity.

In the late 1960s, they got their own building and began focusing on attracting guest artists, including well-known and celebrated English painter David Hockney. Sampson says these additions helped make it a more viable program and a close-knit community.

Soon, Sampson’s skepticism dissipated as he found that teaching art was not just a great way to make a living, but also a great way to feel challenged artistically.

“I learned a lot from my students… they had natural instincts that were wonderful,” explains Sampson. He found himself having to think through processes such as line work and tonality a lot more to teach them to his students, something he felt benefited his artwork in the end.

Thirty years after retirement, Sampson is still steadily creating work in the studio behind his home in Boulder. For Sampson, creating art is not just something he does—it’s part of his spiritual makeup and tied to his sense of wellbeing.

Sampson feels that creating paintings, while therapeutic, is a little like taking a gamble. Sampson explains, “If you’re in a good mood and the forces are working with you, the gamble works out.”  

While the colors and tones he works with have changed slightly over the years, his work has largely stayed within the same style. This unique style is often referred to as “magic realism.”

painting of animals

"Dark Waters" by Frank Sampson. Image courtesy of the Sandra Phillips Gallery.

The term refers to Sampson’s union of realism and fantasy. Sampson’s anthropomorphic portrayal of animals, often placed in the same scene as humans, gives his art a certain magical mysticism while the thick brushstrokes impart a blurred, dream-like quality. At the same time, the figures and settings in Sampson’s work are portrayed realistically in a stylistic sense, rarely straying into the abstract realm.

Sampson’s masterful incorporation of dark, rich colors in densely populated compositions demonstrates his love of Flemish Renaissance artists such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Though the colors and tones of his paintings give off a brooding moodiness, this is quickly transformed by the inclusion of lions, bears, elephants and other animals that seem to be plucked straight out of a storybook.

While Sampson will first credit his mother’s storytelling as an artistic influence, he also credits his childhood fascination with Native American folklore. Fables and literary characters from other regions were also influential, including Northwest Europe’s Reynard the Fox and Italy’s Punchinello, who sometimes make appearances in his work.

Sandra Phillips, director and owner of Sandra Phillips Gallery in Denver, has been representing Sampson for more than a decade and is one of his greatest admirers. To keep up with the demand from her visitors, Phillips plans one solo show per year for Sampson’s work.

When explaining why she loves representing Sampson’s work at the gallery, Phillips says, “It’s wonderful to be showing an artist that visitors really spend time with… The surfaces (of his paintings) are so lush and beautiful. No one paints like Frank Sampson.”

To see Sampson’s work, you can find it on display in Boulder at Bedell & Co., a fine antiques shop on Pearl Street. His work is regularly exhibited in Denver at Sandra Phillips Gallery and is part of the permanent collection at Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art. Later this summer, Sampson will get to realize his dream of showing work in his home state with a solo show at North Dakota Museum of Art.