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Creative Industries Riding High in Steamboat Springs

Photo by Noah Wetzel.

The consummate ski town is also a hotbed of creativity. The newly established Steamboat Springs Creative District is catalyzing collaboration and opening a dialogue about the importance of the arts.

Built on the banks of the Yampa River in northwest Colorado, Steamboat Springs is home to about 150 natural springs.

Many locals believe in the restorative properties of the waters. One lithium-rich spring is held in particularly high regard. "Old-timers drink it every day and swear it's good for longevity," says Dagny McKinley, author of The Springs of Steamboat and development coordinator for the Steamboat Springs Arts Council. How's it taste? "It's not terrible." It's also not great, so the usual recipe involves a squirt of fresh lime.


The area around the historic railroad depot -- now the Eleanor Bliss Center for the Arts -- is at the center of this geothermal activity. Upstairs, Kim Keith, executive director of both the council and the Steamboat Springs Creative District, shares the building's story: After the trains stopped coming in the 1960s, the depot was threatened with demolition. "A group of riled-up women banded together and said, 'We're going to save this building and make it an arts center,' and it's been one ever since," she says.

An art class outside the historic depot. Photo courtesy Steamboat Springs Arts Council.

Keith says Steamboat's heritage has long been intertwined with not just hot springs, ski slopes and cowboy charm, but creativity as well. "The arts have been part of the Steamboat community since the first settlers," says Keith. "The early settlers understood the connectedness rural communities needed. Sometimes, you can feel a little isolated."


The Crawford family, the town's founders, brought an organ and painting supplies with them to Steamboat. That involved getting the organ over mountain passes decades before the railroad arrived. "To get it here was an unbelievable feat," says Candice Bannister, executive director of the Tread of Pioneers Museum downtown.


"Lulie Crawford, the founding daughter of Steamboat Springs, was not only a painter, but a writer," says Bannister. Lulie painted wildflowers and wrote diaries of pioneer life in Yampa Valley. Her daughter, Lulita, was also a writer, and she published numerous books, including collections of Lulie's diary entries.


Bannister points out that Steamboat's Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp, founded by Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield in 1913, is the oldest continuously operating performing arts camp in the country. In the beginning, local cowboys would encounter "girls in chiffon" in the woods. "It was such a clash, but it stuck and has become a central part of our identity," says Bannister. "Huge names have come across those stages."


Bannister doesn't see all of this as a coincidence: The town's isolated location in the midst of a vast wilderness is conducive to creativity. The original vision of Perry-Mansfield centered on "bringing art and nature together so both can thrive," she says.


From the top of Steamboat Ski Resort, the view of the great wide open below is "ranchland all around," says Bannister. "Many of those are fourth- and fifth-generation ranches. . . . It gives it a richness and depth some of the I-70 ski towns don't have."


She says there's a collective mindset that prioritizes the preservation of open space and environmental concerns as well as arts and culture. "Everybody puts their money and their time where their mouth is," says Bannister. "It's all rooted in a culturally vibrant place in the middle of nowhere."


Fierce dedication


Steamboat's story is about the West, old and new. It's also a story of strong women like the Crawfords, Charlotte Perry, Portia Mansfield, Eleanor Bliss and many others. "It's this story of women dedicated to arts and culture, and you've still got that," says Bannister. "Fierce dedication -- that's what it is."


That definitely applies to the effort that went into establishing the Steamboat Springs Creative District. After an unsuccessful first application in 2016, the strategic plan was tweaked and Colorado Creative Industries (CCI) certified the creative district in June 2017. "There was more awareness from the city and more willingness to partner with the creative district group," says Keith.

Kim Keith is executive director of the Steamboat Springs Arts Council and the Steamboat Springs Creative District. Photo by Eric Peterson.

CCI's certification was an acknowledgement of the critical mass of creativity. "As the community has evolved, there has been this undercurrent of creatives who live here and work here," says Keith. "There's this collision of snowsports and creativity."


The Steamboat Springs Arts Council, the point organization behind the Steamboat Springs Creative District, is "the umbrella organization for arts and culture in Steamboat," says Keith. It has organized several annual events, including Art in the Park, since the 1970s, and has an annual budget of about $500,000.


For Keith, the creative district all about economic development. "I sit on the Economic Development Council with the city," she explains. "We're really starting to integrate those conversations. We're being invited to the table for community discussions on park planning and master planning."


The creative district also has an advocacy mission. "We go with a unified voice to city council and the state," says Keith. One example: A moratorium on public art, which largely resulted from a less-than-coherent plan, was lifted when the district helped craft a new plan for funding and maintenance in 2017.
Sandy Graves' "Steamboat Legacy" at the Routt County Courthouse. Photo by Eric Peterson.


Locals have taken notice. The Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association named the Steamboat Springs Arts Council "Business of the Year" for 2017. "A nonprofit became Business of the Year," laughs Keith. "It was because of the creative district and the impact that can have on the economics of our rural community."


Keith says she strives for artistic inclusivity. "We want to have a representation of all art forms," she explains. Performing arts "make up such an important part of the tapestry of the district." The local literary community is likewise noteworthy: "Good gravy! We have so many published authors and poets in Steamboat. We have a list of like 70. For a town of 12,000 like Steamboat, that's a lot."


Bridging generations


Textile artist Wendy Kowynia has lived and worked in Old Town Steamboat Springs since 1990. Her studio is located in an old coal shed in her backyard festooned with old keys, watches and mountain-town ephemera. Inside, Kowynia uses a pair of looms to craft her unique work.


"This is my happy place." she says Her art is "textile-based, but it doesn't read like textiles. It's abstract and very contemporary." But her methods are just the opposite: "No machine, no computer. It's ancient technology, and that suits me fine."

Wendy Kowynia outside her coal shed studio. Photo by Eric Peterson.

Kowynia moved from Denver to Steamboat because of her husband's job with the U.S. Forest Service, but it suited her fine. "I always wanted to live in a mountain town," she says. "Being in a place where I can feel nature affects my work. . . . A natural setting is hugely important for me in terms of clearing my mind."


"The flip side of that is we are isolated," she adds, noting that she likes to visit Denver to see what's happening at the galleries and museums. "You have to be stimulated, then it's healthy to retreat."


She's quick to note that there are easier places for working artists to call home than Steamboat. "Rents are ridiculous, and how do you find a place to work? I have worked in a closet and a basement. Now I work in a glorious half-heated shed!"


She says the valley's creatives are a tenacious bunch, noting, "We make it work."


And Kowynia wants to pay it forward by helping the next generation of Steamboat artists. "That's why I'm involved with the arts council," she says. "It was instrumental in my growth as an artist." One thing Kowynia wants to see is more live/work spaces and shared studios, pointing to SAW in Carbondale and Artspace in Loveland as models.


She sees a community's support of artists as a placemaking initiative. "Artists create a place," Kowynia says. "It can't be manufactured. . . . We have a tremendous cultural heritage, but that can be swept away by a tidal wave of growth."


But she's optimistic that won't happen and the certification of the Steamboat Springs Creative District is a prime reason why. CCI's Creative District program "is the most impactful thing with arts and culture I've seen in my lifetime," she notes. "Now we have a voice for all of us. . . . There are so many things the city does that can have a creative element if somebody advocates for us."


Sista Luna, a paper artist and painter, moved from Denver to Steamboat with her soon-to-be husband in 2014. They wanted to live in the mountains, but it wasn't all about the great outdoors. "I don't ski or snowboard," says Luna. "Steamboat has a community to itself outside of the resort. There's all these gems here outside of skiing."


Luna crafts paper "affirmation stars” that look like stars until you unravel them to reveal an affirmation handwritten on the inside, like, "Even when it feels like the worst, you are incredible."


Luna says the stars have been beneficial to her personally. "I have a history of panic attacks and anxiety," she says. "Affirmations can be a tool to shift your mindset. [Opening a star] helps me and I hope that for some people who open them, it helps them as well."

The stars have evolved into a full-blown enterprise for Luna. "It has its own life now," she says. Besides "fairs and that hustle," she sells bags and jars full of her stars on Etsy.


"For me, art and craft are different," she adds. "The stars are craft, but they pay the bills. . . . People receive them and then they want to give them."

Sista Luna displays one of her affirmation stars. Photo by Eric Peterson.

Luna's artistic passions are drawing and painting, and she now likes to take her old works and slice and dice them into sculptures and other new pieces in an act of "artistic alchemy." Part of that is because she has a lot of oversized works from her days at Colorado College; Luna graduated with an art degree in 2010. "When you're at art school, the resources are boundless. Then you're 30 and your mom says, 'Get your stuff out of the basement."


The loss of collegial community is a big reason why Luna co-founded a local nonprofit organization for young artists, Young Bloods Collective, with fellow artist Brie Kole in 2016. It now has about 40 dues-paying members from Steamboat and other communities in Routt County. "To make better work, you need to be around other artists," says Luna. At school, she notes, "It's on a platter for you. In the real world, you've got to make it yourself."


And Young Bloods Collective has definitely been doing that. In its first full year, it produced SPEAK, an hour-long spoken performance by local women staged in Steamboat as well of the neighboring towns of Oak Creek and Hayden; curated a ever-changing gallery on the walls of the Smokehouse barbecue restaurant; and hosted monthly meetups for local artists to critique each other's work.


"It's an opportunity to talk about art and talk about your art," says Luna of the meetups. "Art is a conversation, and you won't know what the other half of that conversation is if you don't talk about your art."


Luna says the cost of living is a big challenge in Steamboat as the median home price nears $500,000. "A lot of people work multiple jobs," she says. "I work at a Pilates-yoga studio and nanny occasionally."


But she says it's also a tight-knit community, and that's a big plus for artists. "If you put in some effort, there will be some response," says Luna. "People know each other, and they want to support you."


"Clearly, there's this collective shift in this little valley to want to support creative endeavors now," she says of the CCI certification. "I've already seen it grow, and I'm excited to see it continue to grow."


Luna hopes to build on the success of Young Blood Collective to develop an artist residency program in Yampa Valley, offering Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village as a model. "It's like camp for artists," she says.

Creative orbits


The original creative district application focused on Steamboat's downtown, but the final district boundaries allows for satellite locations, the first two being Perry-Mansfield and Strings Music Festival's campus on the east side of town. "We thought we would be remiss to have just a walkable district," says Keith. "That works really well in an urban setting." In Steamboat, however, many organizations share venues, and performances occur all over the valley. It follows, says Keith, that "[w]e just break the rules a little."


And with cultural institutions like these, who can blame them?


"We are this national treasure that happens to be in Steamboat Springs," says Nancy Engelken, executive director of Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp.

According the the camp's website, founders Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield had a reputation as the "mad ladies of Steamboat" when they taught their first dance classes in 1913 "close to creatures and mountains and out-of-doors." Says Engelken: "What they wanted to provide here was a place for creativity and inspiration from nature where there could be advances in performing arts."


It's still the same today. With students ranging in age from seven to their early twenties, the 76-acre camp 2.5 miles north of downtown has has a who's who from the worlds of dance and drama cross its stages, including Agnes de Mille, Joan Van Ark, John Cage, Jessica Biel and Dustin Hoffman. "It is widely credited that modern dance was invented here," says Engelken.

Photo courtesy Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp.

Dancers study acting, actors study dancing, and there's an equestrian program to boot. "That interdisciplinary approach is critical," says Engelken. The goal is "well-rounded artists and well-rounded people."


Community involvement is another priority: The camp brings in local students on field trips, stages about 20 public performances each summer (tickets are $20 or less) and are the finale for the town's Fourth of July Parade every year.


As a satellite of the creative district, Perry-Mansfield can be part of "a stronger marketing message that unites all of the arts groups," says Engelken. "One of the main priorities of Perry-Mansfield is to make sure performing arts are accessible. It goes above and beyond just the arts, but touches on the foundations of the community."


Strings is another anchor of Steamboat's cultural scene. Launched on the deck of a restaurant in 1988, it's since grown to one of the top chamber music programs in the region.

Strings' campus is a satellite of the Steamboat Springs Creative District. Photo courtesy Strings Music Festival.

Elissa Greene joined the festival's staff in 2007 and has served as executive director since 2015. As a cellist, she participated in the camp when she was younger. "I grew up here in the summers," she says. "My great uncle was one of the founders. My mom was the first camp cook and my dad was the concert commentator."


Strings moved to its current seven-acre site below the ski area in 2004, building a year-round performance venue with 569 seats there in 2008. Beyond its 25 evening concerts, the festival also produced more than 60 free events for the community in 2017.


It's the community involvement that made it a natural satellite. "The creative district has really embraced us," says Greene. "It creates a sense of collaboration and cooperation between all of us. We're all nonprofits and we're all short-staffed. It's hard for us to step back and say, 'We're all in this together.' The creative district allows us to do that in an intentional way."

Another benefit: "It puts us on the map -- literally."


The next frontier


Copper Ridge, the mixed-use/industrial area west of downtown, is a target for another satellite. "You have all these creatives and shared spaces," says Keith. "It's an ecosystem. There are these creative entrepreneurs feeding off of each other."


Julie Anderson and her husband, Greg Grasso, are two of them. They were among the first creatives to settle in Copper Ridge in 2004, when they bought a warehouse and converted it into a live/work space, with Anderson's ceramics studio in one unit and a shop for Grasso's work with glass and stone in another, and called it Warehome Studios. In 2015, they bought the adjacent warehouse and expanded it to include a ceramics classroom and gallery.

Julie Anderson oversees a ceramics class at Warehome Studios. Photo by Jay Hirschfeld.

The population of creatives in Copper Ridge has risen tenfold in Grasso and Anderson's time there. "Now they're developing [new units] specifically for live/work," says Anderson. Only they're more expensive than they were in 2004: "They've doubled in price in that time."


But it's still a more affordable place for an artist to live and work than downtown. "To be on Main Street in Steamboat is super expensive," says Anderson. "There's no way we could be doing what we're doing there."


She sees a creative community coalescing in Copper Ridge, catalyzed in part by Storm Peak Brewing and Butcherknife Brewing opening in the area in recent years. "When the breweries started going, that was huge," she says.


Anderson has plans to develop an art walk with RED Contemporary Gallery and Oehme Graphics, the breweries, and maybe bike manufacturer MOOTS. To make Copper Ridge an official satellite of the Steamboat Springs Creative District., she's inventorying the creative people and businesses in the area in order get buy-in and collectively craft a strategic plan.


"It's a matter of finding the time to herd the cats," she says. "It's getting people together and realizing there's strength in numbers."

Cowboys ride on Lincoln Avenue during Steamboat's Winter Carnival in 2016. Photo by Shannon Lukens.

Graphic design by Matt Megyesi.

This story is part of a series about Colorado's Certified Creative Districts. Support for this series is provided by Colorado Creative Industries.
Q&A with Sandy Graves, sculptor
Q&A with Sandy Graves, sculptor

After growing up in Nebraska and studying at Colorado State University, Sandy Graves moved to Steamboat Springs in 1993. After working a day job in arts education, she started focusing on her art full-time in 2008. Graves has garnered a national following for her instantly recognizaable bronze sculptures of animals, which are at once contemporary and distinctly Western.


Confluence Denver: How long have you been in Steamboat and why did you move here?


Sandy Graves: I graduated from CSU with a sculpture degree and I came to Steamboat to teach at the Lowell Whiteman School, which is now the Steamboat Mountain School. I taught there for 16 years while sculpting. I basically sculpted myself out of a teaching career when I could no longer do both.


CD: What do you like about Steamboat?


SG: The community. It's a small, close community. The incredible surroundings. The closeness to nature.


CD: What's the arts scene like and how has it changed in your time here?


SG: There have always been people in this community who have been very supportive of the arts. I would say, in the last five years, there's been more of a push to make Steamboat more of an arts destination.


CD: What's driving that change?


SG: I think it's the artists. I think we have somewhat of a special community in that it's touristy and has a lot of second homeowners, there's expendable income people can and do put into the arts supporting things like the Chief Theater, the orchestra, Strings and Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts Camp. All of those things require non-artists to support them, and we have that in our second homeowners and first homeowners, the locals. We are not an impoverished community. People have expendable income and they want to bring culture to this special place.


A lot of what Kim's doing at the art council is really going for these things that take a lot of time and effort, and pushing them into the forefront of the news in the community. She gets the word out. I think she's very committed and excited about the possibilities.


CD: Tell me about your work.


SG: The negative spaces in the bronze give a traditionally heavy and solid medium room for emotion. It's just a totally different feel in bronze. I elongate pieces. I exaggerate forms to bring about an emotional aspect.


Many times, I think animals do have very emotional elements you can see. You can see if they're happy, if they're afraid, if they're tired. So I try to bring out the emotion of the animal, the energy of it. Then sometimes I cross over, blending the human emotion into the animal world, because that creates a connection between the human and the animal. The more you see yourself in your dog, the tighter that connection is.


I do a lot of equines. I grew up around horses as a little girl, so what do you do: You draw horses. That's an easy connection for me. When I got into the other Rocky Mountain wildlife, it's just an expression of where I am, what I'm doing and what's happening in my daily life.

Photo courtesy Sandy Graves.


CD: What is your market? What is the local art market like in Steamboat?


SG: I am represented in 15 galleries across the United States and Canada. I'm in Santa Fe, Napa and Sonoma, Sedona, Jackson Hole, Park City, Steamboat, Boulder, and a gallery in Maine, and a gallery in Provincetown, and galleries in Canada. I also do museum shows nationwide. I think the fact that my work is, for bronze, so recognizable and definable, I've gained a lot of fans out there.


The fine art market in Steamboat is always growing. The quality has been getting better the whole time I've been here. People who love beauty and the aesthetic in our lives are drawn to this place. So it's not surprising to me that we do have a humber of really talented artists for a town of 12,000 people.


I think my career has been strongly influenced by the people here who support the arts. I'm certain I wouldn't have gotten off the ground as quickly as I did without the true patrons that I have in this town. There's a number of people in this town who want to be part of an artist's story and want to be involved.


CD: What are the challenges for young artists in Steamboat?


SG: I think anybody trying to start a business in a place like this has to be a little bit crazy. Everything's stacked against you, except for the availability of a strong arts community and as strong system of supporters of the arts. You still have to get their attention.


Then you're kind of in a bubble. I don't have many contemporaries, not in my medium. I really have to leave Steamboat to talk to somebody about what they're doing in their foundries. That's been my biggest challenge: For the last 20-something years, I've been shielded from what's going on in the arts world.


CD: Moving forward, what are the opportunities for Steamboat's creative community?

SG: Really drawing visitors to out area for the purpose of the arts. To draw more artists to the community, to really put Steamboat on the map as a creative district where people can come to enjoy some of the best arts in Colorado. We've already got it. It's a gem of a place.