Rural Art Symposium Activates Community

INSPIRED: Art at Work Symposium took place last summer in Paonia, Colorado; a three day meeting of minds and hearts, organized and hosted by Elsewhere Studios, an artist residency program and non-profit, 501 (c) 3 organization.

The extravaganza was open to the public and a culmination of the INSPIRED: Art at Work Project, funded in part by an Arts in Society grant. Both visiting and local artists were brought together to create socially engaged projects and generate conversation, connection and action.

Thank you to Deirdre Morrison for sharing the following reflections on the event, highlighting the impact of the participating artists.


Elsewhere Studios created INSPIRED: Art at Work Project began by working closely with scientists, and policy-makers, and five local partner organizations, Citizens for a Healthy Community, Western Slope Conservation Center, Farm and Food Alliance, Solar Energy International, and North Fork Valley Creative Coalition, local, national and international artists created socially-engaged works that explored and addressed selected environmental, cultural, social, and economic issues. The tagline for the project sums up the goals, “Action for prosperity, protection and perseverance”; by working together, we can better address the range of complex and challenging issues that are most vital to preserving the natural world, the quality of life and sense of place in North Fork Valley of western Colorado.

The planning process and inspiration for this symposium is explained on the Elsewhere Studios website as such: Artists and community members defined several topics to explore, including increased aridity, water concerns, the health of the local watershed, plastics pollution, and shared perspectives on increasing economic prosperity in the valley, post-coal. The project was designed to promote dialog among the diverse elements of our community. Throughout the two months, local citizens have had multiple opportunities to participate in the project. The artists worked to help us tell our stories, bridging artistic disciplines and activism. The artworks are the catalysts for significant exchange of ideas, values, and future dreams. Working together to create a work of art is a community-building endeavor, like placing bricks side-by-side to create a walkway all can walk upon. In the artistic process of making or performing—barriers often disintegrate and friends are made while working together.

Read the full program for INSPIRED: Art at Work here. Learn more about the Visiting Artists at INPIRED: Art at Work on our previous blog post.

Bridging Divides, Opening Conversations

Elsewhere Studios is proud to share that our culminating Inspired: Art at Work (August 24-26th, 2018) was a great success. With about 140 attendees, presentations from four artist projects, 11 volunteers, 8 presenters, and 2 panel discussions, it was a rich and informative weekend. We are still gathering feedback from audience and participants, but this message represents some of what we are hearing: "Thank you for organizing this phenomenal gathering. The speakers were very strong and I walked away inspired and informed. There were some technical difficulties, but overall the experience was tremendously communal and deeply moving."

First in our line up was documentary film-maker Clara Pena, with her short film “Of Apples and Anthracite”. Clara's production crew was composed of four local students studying advanced digital media and graphic design at Montrose High School, her father, who is a native of North Fork Valley, and a retired judge. In addition, local educators Matt Jenkins and John Steele, of Montrose High School, brought their writing and editing skills, and helped with interviewing subjects of the film.

Colorado based documentarian Clara Pena’s new documentary 'Of Anthracite & Apples', traces the economic and environmental challenges North Fork Valley through interviews with local residents.

Colorado based documentarian Clara Pena’s new documentary 'Of Anthracite & Apples', traces the economic and environmental challenges North Fork Valley through interviews with local residents.

Pena's film is composed of a series of interviews with those who are long-time residents of the North Fork Valley, mostly ranchers and farmers, and folks who have sustained their families with work in the local coal mines. Newcomers are included as well, primarily organic farmers, entrepreneurs, and creatives. The film is an exploration of the changing face of the local economy, and an investigation of the new opportunities for prosperity might look like here, with the coal industry likely to phase out in the next few years.

Excerpt from the documentary, “Of Apples and Anthracite”, directed by Clara Pena.

We need to understand that we should be able to capture natural resources, just like we do for grass, they do coal and they want to do gas and oil. I think we have some very intelligent people in this country, that the technology will make gas, and oil and coal and ranching work together. If we can understand and get through the conflicts. Everybody can’t just be in agriculture, there’s no doubt, and not everybody can be in gas and oil, but we need to work together. - 5th generation cattle rancher, Jess Campbell, Campbell & Sons

A key area of dialogue explored in the film is the impending oil and gas drilling (and fracking) facilitated by new leases approved by Bureau of Land Management, impacting nearly 3000 acres of land, upland from the Paonia reservoir. Some locals feel that this point of resource extraction is part of the populace's rights, while others are deeply concerned for water and recreational resources, within this flourishing organic agriculture community. The documentary also touches on how the North Fork Valley’s 'sense of place' is shifting, with the influx of web-based entrepreneurship, since the introduction of high speed internet in 2015. Another factor in the area’s growth are rising costs of housing throughout the Front Range of Colorado, driving families to this less affluent, extremely scenic space for resettlement.

If you are interested in screening “Of Apples and Anthracite”, please contact Elsewhere Studios via email at info (at) elsewherestudios (dot) org.

Expressing the Emotionality of Environmental Contamination

Local movement artists Tanya Blacklight and Christine Palafox created a series of on-site dances titled “Per(fumes) of Prayer: Reclaiming Shock and Sorrow”, using ritual movement aspects to explore feelings of grief, anxiety, anger, stewardship, inspired by collective concerns for fracking and industrial development in our rural home. Within the theme line of 'maiden-mother-crone,' the dancers filmed in orchards, cracked salt flats, in lush meadows, within the river, and more--highlighting vulnerabilities of ecosystems, and the incredible abundance present here.

Our goal with this project is to express equal amounts of power and sorrow, for it is from that wonderful fuel that change is alchemically made, with witnesses and participants both to walk away, having experienced and seen our collective shock and reclamation, inspired to change our reality. This piece is eco art activism, in response to the environmental and public health concerns posed by the approval of 146 fracking wells upstream from our water sources in our Valley.
— Tanya Blacklight
Per(fumes) of Prayer, a movement piece created by Visiting Artists, Tanya Blacklight and Christine Palafox

Per(fumes) of Prayer, a movement piece created by Visiting Artists, Tanya Blacklight and Christine Palafox

The debut screening of the documentary film about this project brought over 50 additional attendees to The Paradise Theater as part of INSPIRED: Art at Work Symposium; many of whom had agreed to be interviewed, or were in some way involved with production, and would otherwise be unlikely to attend an ‘art event’.

Finding Creative Solutions for Plastic Waste

Visiting Artist John Melvin, created a sculpture built of irrigation drip tape, seeking to highlight plastics consumption and pollution in the North Fork Valley, and the lack of USDA standards for use or recycling of the material. Due to sediment build up on irrigation drip tape, it must be replaced on farms about once a year. Melvin reached out to local farms, and gathered their drip tape, talking with them about their use of it, and what they do with it after it is no longer usable. Many farmers pay garbage tipping fees to dispose of it, while others bury the material to avoid said fees.

Discarded irrigation tape from local farms was repurposed into a sculpture by Visiting Artist John Melvin, highlighting the need to create more avenues for recycling and reusing this material

Discarded irrigation tape from local farms was repurposed into a sculpture by Visiting Artist John Melvin, highlighting the need to create more avenues for recycling and reusing this material

After speaking with local farmers, Melvin reached out to to plastics recyclers in the area, and located a company that was willing to pick up a truckload of the baled drip tape, with weight minimums, every other year, for FREE. The next step was approaching local offices and agencies of Delta County, and asking for a space for farmers to bale and drop off their material for recycling. The county agreed, though this negotiation is still in process. One hopeful outcome from this socially engaged project, created through conversation and connection, is that several tons of plastic waste recycled over the next years - materials which would otherwise go to landfill.

Water is Life


Visiting Visual Artist and independent researcher Anna MacLeod came here all the way from Ireland to create work designed to foster dialogue in the community on climate change - a very tangible issue in the North Fork Valley, as 2018 had been an exceptionally dry year here on Colorado’s Western Slope. Macleod’s work also investigates the course of water resources forecast to change, due to aridification.

MacLeod designed two murals during her stay, one which demonstrated simple low-tech models and techniques for gathering and reusing water, applicable for various places in the world, including desert climates. Another mural demonstrated the many ways any household can make use of the gently used water from our home, known as greywater, which was only recently made a legal practice in Colorado in 2015. Both murals may move forward in the future, with local volunteers looped into the design process, and Macleod will be working remotely to gain the needed approvals. She also sewed and gifted a fabric art piece with the words “Harvest the Rain” to local Paonia High School students and their environmental sciences teacher.

HARVEST THE RAIN reads a hand sewn banner created by Visiting Artist Anna MacLeod [photo courtesy of  Elsewhere Studios Instagram ]

HARVEST THE RAIN reads a hand sewn banner created by Visiting Artist Anna MacLeod [photo courtesy of Elsewhere Studios Instagram]

Gratitude for Community Support

We are so grateful to all the volunteers, visitors, and passionate art makers who helped make our inaugural symposium a success. We had bumps in the road, and difficulties connecting some aspects of these projects across rural community divisions, yet we are nourished by the affirmative feedback from much of our audience, and know that we have helped some people consider issues in new ways.

Learn More

Elsewhere Studios plans to continue creating space for these critical conversations to happen, and to supporting connections and collaboration between artists and communties. Elsewhere hosts a wide variety programs and events, including short and long term artist residencies (at sliding-scale costs). You can get involved by visiting their website and following them on Instagram and Facebook.


In August 2016, Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, Hemera Foundation, Colorado Creative Industries, and RedLine Contemporary Art Center joined forces to launch a new collaborative grantmaking program: Arts in Society

The purpose of Arts in Society is to foster cross-sector work through the arts, by supporting the integration of arts and culture into multiple disciplines critical to the health and well-being of Coloradans.

The Arts in Society grant program funds projects that engage arts organizations and individual artists as partners in illuminating and finding solutions to a wide array of civic and social challenges faced by our communities. Learn more by visiting our website and following Arts in Society on Instagram and Facebook.

This blog post has been edited for clarity by Arts in Society Marketing Intern Sarah Slater.