Art from the heart: Awards, recognition come to Indian Hills gallery

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By Virginia Grantier

For the Courier

The pine trees’ white coats were melting one recent February day, and at times the drip-drip-drip seemed the only sound in Indian Hills.

Still, there was a hushed but persistent buzz in the foothills hamlet — a buzz that seems to be growing louder in the art world about a log building across the street from the Indian Hills post office.

In that place — a recently beautified, circa-1920s former general store and soda fountain — the walls are full of Cunninghams and Hudsons, Wests and Milans, Weises and Wynns. These paintings and sculptures, with values ranging from $300 to $20,000, represent about 24 artists. Some are sought-after Southwestern artists; others are Colorado artists; still others are originally from China, Argentina and England. They have paintings in respected galleries and museums around the world.

Mirada, the fine art gallery that opened in late 2009, is getting high praise from everyone, ranging from the Denver Art Museum docents who toured the gallery to recent press coverage and honors: “Best Art Gallery, 2010,” 5280 Magazine; “Best of Denver, 2010,” Westword; and “Art Lover’s Escape,” Denver Life Magazine.

All this at an off-the-beaten-path gallery miles from the big-city art districts in Cherry Creek or LoDo or along Santa Fe Boulevard — a gallery that opened when many others were going out of business.

Mirada owners Steve and Jenni Sonnen remember a lot of “good lucks” said in worried tones, coated in great reservations.

A couple of years later, the gallery of contemporary art is shipping piece after piece out of state and out of the country to private homes and corporations, Steve Sonnen said. The artist credits his innovative and professional approach to marketing for the success — and nearby and far-away customers are responding.

“Mirada is a dream come true for us,” Jenni Sonnen said.

For the gallery’s out-of-the-box Valentine’s Day event on Feb. 18, “Love: Food and Art,” a California customer drove to Mirada with his wife, who didn’t know that during the event — which included a five-course meal at tables throughout the gallery, classical guitar music during the appetizers, candlelight, and the opportunity to buy a piece of art for a loved one — she would be sitting near the piece her husband had already purchased for her.

Following their hearts and never giving up on their dreams are themes running through the life histories of the gallery’s artists and its owners.

Among the stories:

• Russian artist Svetlana Shalygina, 37, now a Newport, Calif., resident, grew up under the Communist regime in a 200-square-foot studio apartment with her sister and factory-worker parents, who could provide only bare essentials. She came to the United States at age 20 with a suitcase and nothing else, hoping she could get art training but then realizing she wouldn’t be able to afford it. So in her free time from various jobs — housekeeper, busing tables, then later hair salon administrator and real estate agent — she experimented artistically on her own to create her artistic vision.

“My vision is based on nostalgic motives involving open spaces of nature from my childhood and the always-intriguing-to-me subtleties of human behavior and emotions which I express using abstract figures often derived from my own life experiences.”

Steve Sonnen came across Shalygina’s work in a Santa Fe gallery.

• Artist Paul Cunningham, who was raised in Colorado, knew since grade school that he would become an artist. Cunningham dropped out of Colorado State University because he wanted to do art his way; he worked odd jobs for years, painting after his workdays. 

“I’m not sitting and watching TV like people,” he said. “I’m not going to movies. I paint night and day.”

It’s only been in the last five years that Cunningham has been able to leave the working world behind and pursue art full-time. Mirada has sold dozens of his works — “major pieces,” including 4-by-5-foot paintings of forest fires. Cunningham said showing at Mirada has been one of his best decisions. “I’ve been in other galleries in Santa Fe that didn’t do near the business of Mirada,” he said.

• Artist Arturo Mallmann, who grew up in a family of businesspeople in Argentina, said it was hard to find a vocation because he wasn’t supposed to be an artist. He studied filmmaking, photography, pursued writing, but realized painting was something he couldn’t resist.

“Translating my emotions into words got to be too mental. Painting for me was a more direct expression of emotions,” Mallmann said.  He started painting at age 30, while married and with two children. “It was always a struggle to spend money on materials. I’d paint at night.” He moved to the U.S., to Los Angeles, at age 35 in 1988 for the bigger art market, and he painted houses and restored furniture. In 2004, he got into galleries in Santa Fe, then in New Orleans and Texas. It’s only been in the last five or six years that his paintings have been selling consistently.

Following his heart

Another follower of the heart is the gallery owner Steve Sonnen, who years ago was an award-winning video producer, photographer and marketer who had made it big in California’s Bay Area amid the dot.com start-up craze. But Sonnen was in line at a California latte stand several years ago when he suddenly came to a momentous decision, and called his wife to tell her: “I’m turning in my notice.”

“She wasn’t totally shocked,” he said. He wasn’t doing what he wanted to do with his life, worked ridiculous hours and, when socializing with friends, it was all shop talk and comparing stock options.

The Sonnens sold their house, put things in storage, bought a pickup and traveled around the country trying to figure out their lives.

Along the way, the two art lovers gathered names of artists they found and loved. When they ended up in Steve’s home state of Colorado and decided to stay, they were focusing on LoDo or Cherry Creek to open a shop, but when Sonnen, raised in Evergreen, happened to drive by the for-sale log building in Indian Hills, which had been a “funky general store” in his youth, he stopped in. It was a marvelous rough-hewn timber building, perfect but for the list of “bads” — bad wiring, and bad insulation from the 1920s and ‘30s consisting of newspapers and horsehair.

“You’re going to think this is crazy,” he said in another phone call to Jenni, who has a master’s degree in business administration and who is, Steve says, the more “fiscally responsible” of the two. They would renovate and then open a home-furnishing store there, but eventually they decided to make their ultimate dream come true and open a gallery.

Jenni Sonnen said the couple still have a piece of art bought when she and Steve were dating, and there’s a painting in their Evergreen house bought for their 10th wedding anniversary.  “It’s wonderful to think that people can come to Mirada and find something unique and truly memorable to mark special events in their lives. We love the idea of bringing something beautiful into people’s lives,” she said.

Or not. Steve Sonnen said he doesn’t care if people don’t buy the art, as long as they come in and appreciate it.

A community gathering place

Sometimes schoolkids are at Mirada sketching a piece as an assignment. Community organizations hold meetings and benefits there, and there have been wedding receptions. Steve said it can be difficult when people’s kids “do laps” around an $8,000 piece. But no problems so far. And some artists want their pieces to be touched.

It was late 2009 when the couple arrived in a heavy snowstorm at the renovated building with their first load of art from the Southwest, valued at about $500,000. They called friends to help move the pieces inside from the U-Haul truck. Especially hard: unloading the 800-pound boulder that was part of one artist’s piece. Success, after much sweat but no injuries — just another plucky chapter in the building of this dream. 

To learn more about all of Mirada’s artists, their work and about the gallery, located at 5490 Parmalee Gulch Road, visit http://www.miradafineart.com.