By Deb Olsen
by Harriet Freiberger
A beautician, after closing up shop, joins her dance group. An accountant pens a novel. One rancher, on cold winter nights after cattle have been fed, carves intricate designs on leather chaps. Another paints imprints of the valley’s flowers. A truck driver writes songs. A waiter writes a play. A storekeeper acts a role on stage. An attorney adds her melodious soprano to a community chorale. The arts color this valley, revealing its culture just as rivers and mountains define its place.
“No matter where you are, you are surrounded by art, sometimes more conscious of it than at other times,” says Robert Carpenter, president of the Steamboat Springs Arts Council. Now 30 years old, the arts council is housed in the old train depot, which served as a link between the valley’s inhabitants and the rest of the world in 1909. Today the building forms a connection of a different sort, one that unites people for the purpose of encouraging creativity.
“Our task is to nourish, sustain and enable the arts to thrive,” says arts council executive director Nancy Kramer. And thrive they have – visual arts and crafts, music, theater, literature and dance represent a shared appreciation of the imaginative spirit that permeates this community. The arts council’s beginnings go back to Eleanor Bliss. When the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad deeded its unused depot to the city, Eleanor led a group of citizens in a discussion of its preservation and possible future use.
The city leased the depot - such as it was - to the newly incorporated arts council in 1972. Getting the building into some kind of functional shape required all the energy of its early members. Piles of debris had to be removed. In spring, a bucket brigade of volunteers bailed a foot and a half of water out of the basement.
But soon Steamboat Dance Theater and the Repertory Players were under SSAC’s “umbrella,” and Karin Comeau’s Rocky Mountain Dance students were enjoying a newly refinished wooden floor in the baggage room. “The depot was the reason I came to Steamboat Springs,” Karin says. “There was a lot of art here. You couldn’t buy shoes and there wasn’t much asphalt, but those of us who found this Camelot-like place wanted to come here and live, and we nurtured each other.” In 1980, safety concerns necessitated city condemnation of the building.
Board Member Emeritus Karolynn Lestrud, who served as one of SSAC’s early presidents, tells what followed: “When we were shut down, that pushed enormous participation in the arts by the entire town,” recalls Lestrud. Marching in the July 4 parade that year, supporters in yellow T-shirts carried the message: “Save the Depot.”
“We grew because the community was ready and also because we had a long-range plan. Eleanor Bliss recognized the importance of bringing in business people so that SSAC could be a good steward of donated dollars. Her forward thinking began a relationship with the city that has been built to its present high level of support. Now we are perceived as one of Colorado’s top arts communities,” Karolynn explains, with obvious pride.
This summer, several events highlight the arts council’s 30th anniversary. Opening the season at the Depot will be KEN HOLDER’S LEWIS AND CLARK EXHIBITION (May 20-July 21). Ken’s artistic recreation of the historic exploration is the result of a five-year project. His panoramic watercolors reveal the landscape where Lewis and Clark traveled. Also, the artist will discuss his work and the inspiration of Stephen Ambrose’s book, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West.
Following the Lewis and Clark exhibit, the Depot will be filled with a multimedia display: OUR VALLEY, celebrating 30 years of art in Steamboat Springs (July 26 - Sept. 15). Invitations were extended “under strict criteria to the most influential and strongest artists that Steamboat has produced. The show features recent work by individuals who have been influential in developing visual arts in this community through SSAC,” says curator Susan Oehme.
The anniversary celebration continues with the 29th annual ART IN THE PARK, (July 13-14). Artists and artisans from throughout the United States share their talent during this outdoor spectrum. The African Dance Ensemble, We’re Not Clowns, musicians and actors perform on the park’s several platforms.
Also at Art in the Park, local children are performing in a production based on The Lion King through the ARTS IMMERSION PROGRAM, a collaboration between the arts council and its affiliate, Strings in the Mountains. Director and choreographer Robin Getter is working with Wendy Smith Nicholson of the Children’s Dance Works and Kay Wagner of the Steamboat Community Players for four weeks to produce the show.
“The process is equally important to the actual presentation – the arts and crafts that go into creation of costumes and stage designs, as well as coordination of singing, acting and dance,” Robin says.
During the week following Art in the Park, two performances are scheduled in the Strings tent. With both live and recorded music, youngsters will act in their puppet roles in costumes they made themselves. “The opportunity to appear on that stage where so many famous individuals have performed will be exciting in itself,” says Betse Grassby, Strings executive director and founder.
Now in its 15th season, Strings is an internationally recognized summer music festival that attracts more than 26,000 people annually and reaches 2,700 children through its spring student outreach program. “Though the heart of Strings is still classical, our challenge is to try and meet different needs. Music as an art form takes many different paths. We search out ways to be part of this community,” says Strings President Kay Clagett.
As does the arts council, which is placing contemporary outdoor sculpture all along Steamboat’s Core Trail as a part of the 2002 PUBLIC ART project. The People’s Choice Award at summer’s end determines which of the 15 temporary exhibits will be purchased through a contribution from the Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp.
In South Routt County, the second annual STEAMBOAT ART AND CULTURAL TOUR–FROM STAGECOACH TO THE FLAT TOPS ( Aug.17) connects guests with artists and historical aspects of the early West.
In Strawberry Park, PERRY MANSFIELD PERFORMING ARTS CAMP, the oldest arts organization in northwest Colorado, offers a 10-week program to 400 students, ages 8 through adult. Generally considered in the dance world to be a birthplace of modern dance, the 89-year-old camp adds its colorful and innovative sparks to the valley.
The arts council is an ongoing creation with 25 groups and organizations now within its frame. Nationally recognized in its own right, the affiliate-sponsored LITERARY SOJOURN (Sept. 14) enters its 10th year of attracting an overflowing audience to meet with authors.
Finally, culminating its summer season, a gala BEAUX ART BALL applauds the arts council’s success. The old train depot, now Eleanor Bliss Center for the Arts, presents physical evidence of an amazing confluence. Rising from the valley’s individuals, its energy flows, like the Yampa River, through its seasons and years, and yes, its colors, too.