On Friday night, Longmont residents shuffled somberly into the Firehouse Art Center at the opening reception of 84-year-old Tony Umile’s posthumous art exhibition of his life’s work.
Paying respects to the beloved longtime Longmont artist wasn’t easily managed by attendees, almost as if they were loved ones dragging their feet down the funeral aisle. But the mood quickly changed to welled-up joy and hugs as art lovers gazed at the array of Umile’s fascinating photographs.
Umile’s artwork was conscientiously displayed on the walls with each piece placed to complement the next. The lighting and atmosphere of the gallery created a sense of admiration and affection for Umile’s eye for photography.
Umile was a Brooklyn-born photographer who experimented with pinhole and in-camera double exposure techniques. He was a well-known community member and regular at the Java Stop café where he had passionate conversations with friends about news and art. He was a founding member of the Muse Gallery and the Longmont Studio Tour.
“I first met him when I was working at the Longmont Museum,” said Elaine Waterman, executive director of the Firehouse Art Center. “He was a big part of the art scene and would always go to all the openings. And then when I came here (Firehouse Art Center), he was actually a volunteer here.”
Umile’s self-portraits and images of Italy, San Francisco and New York reveal the layers and complexity of being human across culture and across time. Umile was struck by a car in Longmont in August and passed away from injuries sustained. Those who met him benefited from his adventurous spirit, loving heart and gregarious personality.
Umile was so prolific that fellow artists Angela Beloian and Joanne Kirves, who curated the exhibition, were instantly overwhelmed when they first went through Tony’s studio. They quickly realized they would only be able to display a glimpse of his full body of work.
“Tony was probably one of the first people I met when I moved to Longmont almost 24 years ago,” Kirves said. “At his memorial service, it was fascinating to see people that I knew where I was like, ‘How did you know Tony?’ ‘Well, I went into Java Stop and we started talking, and I did photography, and he did photography.’”
Beloian’s and Kirves’ goal was to capture how he expressed himself through the lens with his unique styles and his use of experimental techniques. They wanted the community to capture the full scope of his photography career, from his start with traditional color landscapes and portraits, to his entrance into the world of black and white photography.
“I met Tony, I want to say it was the late 90s,” Beloian said. “We were both coming along on Longmont Studio Tour together when it was first started. In 2001, my husband and son, who was one year old, and I moved to Rome for a year. Tony came to visit us and that's when he took a lot of the photos of Italy that are downstairs in the gallery.”
Running until April 9, “Tony Umile: A Retrospective” offers a peek into Umile's creative output and serves as a reminder of the immense loss that the Longmont art world has suffered with his passing. While debates about posthumous shows will endure, there can be no denying the impression that Umile's artwork has had on the Longmont residents who have been exposed to it.
“Tony always felt that it was unfortunate that an artist’s work is celebrated post-mortem,” Beloian said. “I wish that he were here to see all of his work in this gallery space because I think it really deserves to be seen. It's unfortunate that it's happening after his passing, but I'm glad it's happening and I'm trusting that he's seen it.”
There will be a curator community talk with Angela Beloian and Joanne Kirves, who will be joined by Julie Cardinal and Maureen Ruddy Burkhart, on March 19 from 3-4 p.m. The community is invited to share short stories about Umile at the end of the talk and there will also be a curator tour afterward from 4-5 p.m.
“We all wish he was here to see it because he had so much work and he never really had a chance to see it all together like this,” Kirves added. “It feels really good. Yeah, it does. It feels like he's here. I think he would be very happy with the show. His personality is definitely here.”