NEW, AGAIN: History museum exhibit features Native American prints compliments of longtime Aurora benefactors

Several prints of works originally created by Woodrow “Woody” Wilson Crumbo currently hanging in the east hallway of the Aurora History Museum. The prints have been displayed at the museum twice before, in 1991 and 2010, and they are set to be exhibited in the current showing until spring 2022. Photos provided courtesy of the Aurora History Museum.

For the third time in as many decades, the work of one of Bill and Sue Hensler’s many talented friends is again adorning the walls of Aurora’s former justice center on East Alameda Parkway. 

The newest exhibit at the Aurora History Museum, entitled “Art by ‘Woody’ Crumbo,” features 17 enlarged prints of indigenous dancers originally produced by Potawatomi painter Woodrow “Woody” Wilson Crumbo, a longtime friend of the Henslers while they lived on Jamaica Court in Aurora. 

“He was a fun guy,” Bill Hensler, now 91, said of Crumbo, who he estimated he first met some six decades ago. Crumbo, also a decorated flute player dancer and mineral prospector, died at age 77 in 1989. 

The exhibit that opened in the museum’s east hallway in late August marks the third time Crumbo’s art has been displayed at the facility since the Henslers donated the prints, as well as works from a smattering of other indigenous artists, more than 30 years ago. The same Crumbo prints hung alongside works from the likes of Harrison Begay and J.D. Roybal when the museum first moved to its current location on the city’s municipal campus in 1991, and again in 2010. 

Chris Shackelford, the museum’s curator of exhibits for the past three years, said he decided to pull the works out of the archives when he was thumbing through old collections during one of two, months-long closures spurred by the pandemic last year. 

“I really gravitated toward Woody Crumbo’s art, which features a lot of imagery in motion,” Shackelford said. “ … It is kind of fun to go though and see what’s been up before. I’m not opposed to revisiting older things because we’re constantly growing in this city, so it’s a chance for old guests and new guests to appreciate some things we have within our archives.”

Several of Crumbo’s original pieces are displayed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C. and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. 

The curator said the newest exhibit is intended to be an inroads toward enhancing the museum’s long-term gallery space — bedecked for the past several years with a some 100-year-old trolley car —  with Native American art and artifacts created in the Aurora region far before the town was first dubbed Fletcher in the late 19th century. 

“We really think that is a missing piece in our entire interpretation of the City of Aurora,” Shackelford said. 

Museum staff have been in touch with First Nations leaders in the past year, according to Shackelford, who said the museum will likely sport additional indigenous artifacts by the time the currently displayed pieces come down early next year. 

The Crumbo works are among thousands of pieces the Henslers have donated to museums, galleries and schools across the country in recent years, including a hefty allotment recently granted to Fort Lewis College in Durango. The Henslers, Bill a retired mechanical engineer and Sue a school teacher who worked in Aurora, moved to unincorporated Montezuma County just outside of Dolores in 1992. 

“The main reason we collect is we appreciate the artists, and we appreciate their work,” Bill said. “We just like to support the artist for what they do.”

Bill Hensler said he and his wife have been amassing a prodigious collection of indigenous artwork since the early 1950s, when the couple encountered a painting at an auction in Albuquerque that was created by a friend Bill had met while in the U.S. Army years before. Bill said the friend, a Laguna Pueblo named Roy Koyona, had promised to make him a painting after the pair got out of their respective branches of the military, but Koyona died before the two could reconnect. 

“That’s how it all started,” Hensler said. “That was in 1952.”

Hensler said he and his wife have procured most of their art directly from artists and have known the majority of the creators featured in their collection personally. Several Canadian artists would take up ad hoc residencies at their former Aurora home off of East 11th Avenue, painting by night and selling their works in Denver by day, Bill said.

The couple, who will celebrate their 67th wedding anniversary this fall, said they may stop by the new history museum exhibit when they fly to the metro area for a visit in mid-September. 

However, they’ll be eager to return to their 16-acre estate in southwest Colorado as the temperatures cool, Bill said. 

“We like the quiet, which we didn’t have in Aurora,” he said.  “ … We have deer, bear, mountain lions, and foxes that are friendly as all get out. We’ve counted over 100 different species of birds here. It’s a good place. People from Aurora, when we first came down here, they’d ask: ‘Why in the world did you move down there?’ And they would come down and see us, and they wouldn’t want to leave.”

The Woody Crumbo exhibit is expected to be displayed at the Aurora History Museum until spring 2022. The museum at 15051 E. Alameda Pkwy. is free to the public, open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends. Reservations are recommended and can be made by calling 303-739-6660.