ASPEN - Residents and guests of Aspen-Snowmass this summer might be a bit surprised by the look of local fire and rescue vehicles.
That's because four public safety agencies in the upper Roaring Fork Valley are transforming their vehicles - and some of their buildings - into operational works of art.
Portraits of Hope is an organization through which young hospital patients and students paint murals that become high-profile works of art, which provides creative therapy for the patients and educates young people about civic responsibility. Four primary-response agencies in the upper Roaring Fork Valley have agreed to let some of their ambulances, trucks, stations and off-road vehicles be the organization's next project.
"I just can't see anything but good out of it," said Chief Steve Sowles, of the Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District, who was instrumental in getting the project off the ground, according to his peers. "My entire career I've been an out-of-the-box fire chief. I try to do things that are a little bit different, that bring the right kind of attention for the things that we do."
The artwork, a flower pattern, is painted on panels that will be applied temporarily to equipment owned by Snowmass Fire, the Aspen Volunteer Fire District, the Aspen Ambulance District and Mountain Rescue Aspen. The process begins early next year, and all the vehicles and buildings will be transformed by mid-June.
Sowles said in some places, transforming emergency vehicles this way might be confusing, but here where there's one main road between the communities, people will see them enough that it doesn't represent a risk. It also doesn't damage the equipment.
"I think it will be really kind of fun," Sowles said.
Primary-response vehicles will have to stay in a certain color spectrum so that they will still be recognizable. But other equipment will be very colorful.
"My white Expedition - I want them to do an autumn color scheme," Sowles said. "The fire stations are going to be really off the wall."
Founded by brothers Ed and Bernie Massey in 1995, Portraits of Hope has produced numerous large-scale public art projects throughout the country and world, including most recently the New York City taxi fleet in 2007 and the lifeguard towers of Los Angeles County in 2009-10.
The work that they do originated as providing an opportunity for children in hospitals to relax and participate in something they can be proud of. It now also has an educational aspect, as the nonprofit typically gets involved with schools and after-school programs in communities to talk about social issues and civic responsibility.
Children in hospitals in Los Angeles and Denver - some of whom could be from this area - will be working on the Aspen-Snowmass project. Portraits of Hope will be partnering with Roaring Fork Valley schools and other organizations that want to get involved, as well.
"We'll work with every group in this area that would like to get involved," said Bernie Massey, who has a background in public policy. "Our projects are about unifying communities and regions."
Members of the participating agencies will be involved with that educational programming, as well.
"We're fully committed to the project," said Jeff Edelson, director of operations at Mountain Rescue. "We haven't talked about the details, but we'll have some sort of interaction within the schools."
Three of the volunteer organization's primary-response vehicles and four of its off-road vehicles will be covered with the artwork, Edelson said.
"I absolutely covet any chance I get to promote civic engagement at any level," said Aspen Fire Chief Willard Clapper in a Portraits of Hope questionnaire. "This is the primary reason that I was excited about (Portraits of Hope) and its program. Just painting trucks and buildings is nice, but getting people to become involved is the critical piece for me."
During about four months early next year, about 2,000 to 3,000 young people and adults will participate in program sessions in schools and hospitals and paint panels. The Masseys hope to set up panels in a public place for locals and visitors to pitch in on this spring.
"I really like the idea of involving the local hospitals and the local schools," said Jim Richardson, director of the Aspen Ambulance District. "I ended up reaching out to Children's Hospital of Colorado and Denver Health Medical Center. ... A lot of the artwork will be done in state."
Richardson hopes the district can bring some vehicles to Denver so the patients can see the finished product or offer field trips to Aspen for the kids who are healthy enough. He's also hoping to leave the artwork on the district's most visible vehicles through the X Games in 2014.
According to the Masseys, this will be the first time in the country and maybe the world that fire and rescue fleet vehicles will be transformed into operational works of art.
And it's no accident that Portraits of Hope chose the fire and rescue agencies. When kids in hospitals are asked who their heroes are, first responders always come up, the Masseys said.
"Kids already value the profession so much," Bernie Massey said. "Let's see if we can do a project that can highlight the work that they do."
Most Portraits of Hope projects are put up in large urban centers, but the international reputation and resort identity of Aspen make it highly visible to the public. Its size makes it easier for entire fleets of emergency vehicles to be transformed and to be seen.
"By us doing this community and this area, ... this will be an incentive for leaders to get their kids involved," said Ed Massey, a fine artist. "This will be photographed and seen in all corners of the world."
Mountain Rescue is looking to expand its educational outreach, and getting its name out there is key to accomplishing that.
"I see (the project) as a way to generate awareness of what we do," Edelson said.
For many kids, especially those who spend their childhoods in and out of hospitals, they might never have an opportunity to contribute to something so high-profile as Portraits of Hope, Ed Massey said.
"This is the first major achievement of many of their lives," Bernie Massey said.
"Very few kids, in fact very few adults, have painted something of that size," Ed Massey said.
Portraits of Hope relies largely on grassroots support to get its projects off the ground. To learn more or to get involved, visit www.portraitsofhope.org.