• Littleton artist and activist rita derjue.

Littleton’s arts community, as well as the town’s older structures, lost a champion with the death of painter rita derjue on June 15. Her husband, Carle Zimmerman, said she passed away peacefully in her sleep following a period with some health problems.

The couple moved to Littleton in 1963, when Carle Zimmerman accepted a position with the Marathon Oil Research Center and derjue immediately began painting her surroundings with strong brush strokes and often vibrant color.

Her home studio was in a distinctive stone house with a view to the west, and the artist/activist protected Littleton’s view of the Rockies fiercely — adamantly opposing billboards and things that would clutter the view we celebrate from Littleton’s old courthouse and Main Street.

derjue was born in 1934 in Warwick, Rhode Island, and graduated from Rhode Island School of Design, followed by several years of art study in Munich and traveling/painting elsewhere in Europe. She said she met Carle Zimmerman in the course of a trip to Spain. He had been accepted for graduate study at Cornell University, they married and she enrolled in a master’s degree program at Cornell and taught.

At Cornell, she was able to experiment with then-new acrylic paints, as well as meet well-known New York City artists who would visit the campus.

Art study in Mexico also enhanced derjue’s painterly skills and a stay in San Miguel raised appreciation for historic buildings.

Son Andrew and daughter Heidi joined the family in Colorado.

For many summers, derjue returned to New England to teach art students there and renew family ties.

The love of travel stayed with her and a selection of her work might include structures, water and mountains in Switzerland, in Mexico or in China … As recently as January of this year, derjue exhibited artwork in “now and then: paintings from 1960 to 2020” at Bemis Public Library in Littleton.

The couple enjoyed a second home in Como, near the historic stone roundhouse of the former Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad and I enjoyed memories triggered by an article about her in the October 1980 American Artist magazine, headed with a lovely painting of South Park as seen from Como, where the interview took place … She said: “I love the openness and empty space. It makes me feel free. The changes man has made to this place are not very important. The important things are the skies and the light on the mountains. Until we came to Colorado, I never paid much attention to skies. Everywhere else they were mostly grey. But here they change so quickly. And the light with cloud shadows moving over the mountains! … This is my getting away place.”

She was a teacher of artists, but also of schoolchildren in the area and adult students at Arapahoe Community College and elsewhere.

derjue used her paintings in the political arena as well. She became interested in the Roxborough area, south of Littleton, and joined forces with Littleton Independent Editor Hous Waring and other environmentalists to get the spectacular area designated as a state park instead of being developed with homes …

Historic buildings in the city of Littleton also caught her attention and were recorded with brushes and color — sometimes before they fell to a bulldozer and sometimes in time to generate interest in preservation.

Littleton City Council members became accustomed to hearing derjue’s opinion regarding what should be done about the now well-preserved Main Street and the downtown area generally, at a point when there were many empty windows and maintenance was often deferred. (Carle served as a council member for a period.)

The prolific painter established her reputation as an artist with “more than 100 exhibitions in galleries and museums along the Front Range,” said curator Sally Perisho in remarks in a catalog prefacing a 25-year retrospective, “one artist’s passion,” held at the Littleton Museum in 2005. “derjue paints a sweeping canvas that stretches from Asia to America.” The exhibit, she observed, spans half a century, represents a celebration of one of Colorado’s most endearing and important artists.” derjue continued to produce large canvases, small watercolors and a range of works in sizes in-between until very recently.

With a mural at Littleton’s Bemis Library and paintings placed in numerous area homes, her vision of mountains, buildings, town and countryside — and an occasional contented cow — her spirited view will remain.

Plans for a celebration of derjue’s life will be considered in the future.

Sonya Ellingboe has been writing about area arts and entertainment and sometimes local history since 1986. She has lived in Littleton since 1956 and has four adult children and nine grandchildren — plus...