‘An absolute treasure:’ Remembering Jack Curfman

Jack Curfman
Jack Curfman

Jack Curfman, a legendary teacher and art director who was so respected that one of Colorado State University’s most prominent art galleries bears his name, has died at his home in Fort Collins. He was 95.

Curfman, for whom the Curfman Gallery at the Lory Student Center is named, was a teacher in both the College of Health and Human Sciences and the College of Liberal Arts during a remarkable career that spanned 51 years. He was still a familiar campus presence long after his retirement, organizing campus gallery exhibits with his remarkable gift for design and presentation.

“Jack was an absolute treasure,” said Linda Carlson, longtime design educator and curator of CSU’s Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising. “Aside from my husband, who always loved me and supported me in my career, Jack was in great measure the reason for my success. He held my hand, he asked the right questions that helped me explore, taught me how to hold a hammer and make a saw do what it’s supposed to do. He could take my ideas for an exhibit and make it happen – with absolutely no money to work with! Jack was truly extraordinary.”

Curfman, who grew up in Missouri, served in the Army’s 10th Armored Division in World War II before coming to CSU to study physical science in 1949. One year later he was recruited by Clara Hatton (namesake of CSU’s Hatton Gallery) to join the faculty in the Division of Home Economics, now the College of Health and Human Sciences.

Curfman taught art and design in what is now the College of Liberal Arts before permanently landing in interior design with CHHS. He was a master of utilizing space and design to present the work – art, clothing, sculpture, etc. – in the best possible way.

“Jack loved the element of surprise,” Carlson said. “He would put together an exhibit in such a way that the visitor would walk around a corner and, wow! There would be the showcase piece. He was remarkable.”

He was so respected that a number of international artists and designers sought his counsel for their exhibits. Mr. Blackwell, the renowned clothing designer, became a great friend and visited CSU several times to work with Curfman, and artists like Andy Warhol raved about his presentation skills.

“We were in the middle of the country – nowhere in the design and art world,” Carlson said. “Jack gave us credibility, and really put our programs on the map.”

 A beloved teacher

Jack Curfman with Linda Carlson, longtime design educator and curator of CSU’s Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising.

Curfman, though, was much more than a gifted designer. He was a beloved teacher who helped countless students launch their careers, and he was a dear friend to most anyone lucky enough to meet him.

Brian Dunbar, professor emeritus of design and director of the Institute for the Built Environment, was immediately befriended by Curfman after joining CSU’s art faculty in 1982. Curfman, with no family of his own, basically adopted Karen Dunbar, Brian’s wife and current vice president for planned giving at CSU, and their family.

“Jack loved that element of surprise not only in design but in real life,” Brian Dunbar said. “He became like a grandfather to our two boys, and he gave them gifts for every birthday and Christmas. He would love to wait until Christmas night, long after the excitement of the day had died down, and then come to the house. He took great delight in watching the boys open their presents.”

Dunbar said Curfman’s ultimate surprise came after Karen gave birth to their first son, Gabe. Karen’s parents were arriving from Michigan to help with the baby and went to the hospital to see her.

Jack Curfman with Brian Dunbar, professor emeritus of design and director of the Institute for the Built Environment.

“They were told they had to wait because ‘the grandfather was in with Karen,’” Dunbar said, laughing. “Somehow, Jack had talked his way into the recovery room and had even brought flowers. He really was like a member of the family.”

Curfman spent countless hours creating the gallery that now bears his name, making sure that student and faculty creations were presented in their most positive light. He was a familiar sight at the Lory Student Center long after retiring in 2001.

“Jack was an incredibly gifted and talented individual, with such a gentle soul, and so meaningful and influential for so many of us in the Lory Student Center over the years,” said Mike Ellis, assistant vice president of Student Affairs and executive director of the LSC.

During his teaching career (1950-2001) It was not unusual to find Curfman in his office or in the design studio at 2 a.m., grading papers or helping students complete projects before a deadline. Among his many skills was the ability to design homes, many in Fort Collins.

Phil Risbeck, a University Distinguished Professor in graphic design who met Curfman in 1965 when he joined the CSU faculty, called his friend “truly a Renaissance man on campus. Jack was involved directly with teaching, curriculum development, and outreach, and was respected by students, as well as by department, university and community colleagues statewide.”

Mostly, though, he will be remembered a gentle, kind soul, blessed with extraordinary talent and the desire to share it with the world. True to form, he was a generous supporter of student scholarships, including one in his name, the Jack Curfman Creative and Visual Design Scholarship. Curfman was honored as part of the College of Health and Human Sciences Legacies Project. Several videos and more information about Curfman’s life are posted to his Legacies honoree page.