| AspenTimes.com

Aspen High artist wins state and national prizes, exhibits in Snowmass Village

Axel Livingston is 18 years old, the recipient of some of Colorado’s most prestigious art awards, and can sketch a crazy-looking dog on the fly. A rising artistic talent with a range of career possibilities for his growing skill set, he also easily slips into the role of mentor.

When I met Livingston, an Aspen High School senior, at the Pitkin County Library to discuss his art, his first words were for my tagalong 6-year-old son, whom I introduced as also having artistic tendencies.

“You just gotta keep doing it,” he said to my son, wide-eyed at meeting a real artist.

The advice was perhaps reflective of Livingston’s own mantra. The product of a creative family, including a seamstress grandmother and his “momager” mother, local writer Jillian Livingston, he attended Aspen Community School, known for its emphasis on creativity. Growing up, he was constantly drawing or being creative with his hands.

“Starting off, my art was not very good at all,” he said. “I just kept doing it and doing it. My math sheets, all my books were covered. I just drew whatever I had in my mind.”

In high school, Livingston began researching art and art history on his own. Once he honed in on artists who inspired him — including Jean-Michel Basquiat and Ralph Steadman, the illustrator known for his work with Hunter S. Thompson — he said, “The whole world blew up for me; I knew this is what I wanted to do.”

Attracted by the irreverent style and social commentary of those two artists (and of Hunter Thompson culture in general), Livingston further developed his own technical style, and started using it to bring attention to issues he cares about. Favorite topics include the meat industry, medical ethics and the pharmaceutical drug crisis, which he said affects a lot of his local peers.

“I want to provide more insight, a visual aspect to the problems we’re facing,” he said.

Livingston gives a lot of credit to two art teachers at Aspen High. Stephanie Nixon, the school’s lead art teacher whom he’s studied with all four years, has been supportive and encouraging of whatever he wants to work on, even if it’s in what Livingston calls his signature “creepy” style. In Diane Heath, who taught ceramics last semester and specializes in portfolio development and scholastic competition, he found someone who pushed him outside his comfort zone. Heath convinced him enter the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards contest for Colorado.

“The greatest thing about Axel is he’s not afraid to try all kinds of media — you don’t see that in most high school kids,” said Nixon, who added that she’s also seen his confidence as an artist blossom in the past year. “He’s ahead of his time. He’s not afraid to tackle subjects that may not be pretty, that make you uncomfortable, but somehow he welcomes you in — makes the viewer look a few times at his work.”

In the state Scholastic contest, Livingston won four Gold Key awards for four separate works, one of which also was an American Vision Award nominee. (For the latter, two of the five Colorado nominees for the national award are from Aspen High, whose students won a total of 18 awards in the state contest.) As a result, his works will be judged as part of the national Scholastic competition in March.

These are some of the highest artistic honors teens in the region can achieve, noted Heath, who equated the Scholastic Colorado contest to a state championship in a sport.

“The judges want to see not just skill but what you have to say about your art, and can you say it in a way that hasn’t been seen over and over?” she said. “When I saw his work, I said, ‘My god, this kid has to enter.’ His skill set lies in creating images where each piece has something to say — a social justice or political idea — and he’s not imitating another style. It’s all his.”

Livingston is also a product of his environment. Growing up an artist in Aspen has been both a blessing and a unique perspective on the value of work and relationships. There’s plenty of artistic support in multiple arts-focused nonprofits in the valley; Livingston won a scholarship to an Anderson Ranch program two summer ago. Among peers who’ve been given everything, he’s appreciative of having had to work to pay his own expenses, and this past summer spent six weeks at California College of the Arts in Oakland among a group of like-minded peers.

Back in Aspen, Livingston developed a relationship with the team at Aspen Hatter, which hosted his first art show in September 2019. He was thrilled to sell some pieces, but perhaps more importantly learned to talk about himself and his work in front of potential customers and art patrons.

“All we can do as humans is connect,” said the teen who considered himself anti-social up until recently. “It’s good to push yourself; you never grow if you do stuff you’re comfortable with all the time.”

Aside from deciding where (or if) to go to college next fall, Livingston is developing practical skills to serve him if his career path doesn’t lead straight into the fine arts: graphic design, sewing and filmmaking. Meanwhile, burgeoning PR and social media skills are serving him as he promotes his next event, a one-day show with fellow Aspen High artist Jake Bozza on Saturday at The Collective in Snowmass Village.

No matter what, though, Livingston is committed to his artistic message.

“All I can do is try,” he said. “So I’m trying to bring light to stuff, get people intrigued, provoke thought. I want people to look at my art and have really stimulated conversations.”

That’s even happening with the crazy dog sketch Livingston gave my 6-year-old son, who’s been carrying it around in his backpack showing everyone he knows.

Aspen Laugh Fest: Comedian Dusty Slay on bridging America’s red-blue divide

He may wear a trucker hat and tell jokes in a Southern twang, but Dusty Slay isn’t quite what you’d expect. He’s more of a trailer park Jerry Seinfeld rather than he is a new generation of Jeff Foxworthy.

Slay shapes sharp observational humor about everyday foibles and his Alabama upbringing. The comedian, who will co-headline the Aspen Laugh Festival on Friday night with Taylor Tomlinson and Adam Ray, has figured out that he can joke about poverty and trailer park life with love and without doing lame, classist humor. In recent years, as the U.S. has grown more divided between red and blue factions, Slay has been a rare bridge between them.

“I have people from all political sides that come to my shows and I don’t want that kind of stuff to keep us from laughing together,” he said in a phone interview from home in Nashville.

Slay’s national profile has risen over the last few years with features on Comedy Central, Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel and in headlining spots at clubs around the country.

He developed his comic chops working out of Charleston, South Carolina — a liberal city in a conservative state — which he thinks helped him thread the needle of our culturally fraught and politically divided moment. He can get laughs from good ol’ boys or from cosmopolitan crowds or anything in between. Slay is unafraid to offend, he said, but doesn’t want anybody to leave his show feeling worse than when they arrived.

“I decided a long time ago that I wouldn’t do comedy that’s going to hurt your feelings,” he explained. “So no matter what you’re bringing to the show there is nothing in my act that’s going to hurt your feelings. I feel like being offended is a choice, but your feelings you can’t control.”

He can make jokes out of his hardscrabble childhood, he’s found, because he loved that childhood. It comes from a fond place, he said.

“Growing up, I was in a two-bedroom trailer with my mom and two sisters and their boyfriends,” Slay said. “We packed that house and had a good time. We watched NASCAR and watched wresting and we did the stereotypical redneck stuff, but we loved it. I still like living in the South and I like the people I live around.”

The past few years have been a show business breakthrough for Slay, but for the country music-loving kid, no gig will ever be as big as his debut at the Grand Ole Opry in 2019.

“It was comparable to the feeling I had being on the ‘Tonight Show’ for the first time,” Slay said. “At the Opry I did eight minutes onstage the first time and you would have throught I just headlined Madison Square Garden given the way I felt. … It was amazing.”

Slay is doing two Laugh Fest shows this weekend, co-headlining the main stage Friday and then doing a free show Saturday at the Limelight Snowmass with Joe Praino. The festival environment is a welcome change of pace for the comic, used to hopping around the U.S. from solo gig to solo gig.

“I love to talk about comedy, so I love festivals,” he said, noting how festivals offer the rare chance for comics to sit still and hang out for a few days together. “After awhile I feel like comics are about the only people I can relate to. You sit with comics and say, ‘Have you done this club?’ ‘Have you done this?’ You can talk forever.”

Slay crossed paths with fellow Laugh Fest headliner Norm Macdonald five years ago, when the then-unknown Slay was a contestant on “Last Comic Standing” and Macdonald was a judge (along with Keenan Ivory Wayans and Roseanne Barr).

Slay didn’t make it far in the reality show contest.

“Norm was the only one who had anything positive to say,” he recalled with a laugh. “I’m a much better comic now than I was in 2015 and I’m glad I didn’t go any further.”

Sharing a festival bill with Macdonald, he said, is an honor: “My friends are excited I’m on a poster with Norm Macdonald. Nobody beats Norm Macdonald.”

Along with his hat, long hair and glasses — “A lot of people tell me I look like Forrest Gump after he ran for a long time” he has quipped — a few seemingly simple gestures have become stage signatures for Slay: a short and friendly hand wave he uses to punctuate jokes and the phrase “We’re having a good time,” which developed out of his early days playing to grumpy crowds in stale rooms.

“I played a lot of bad gigs where I’d go up in front of 15 people and none of them looked happy,” he recalled. “I’d take the mic and go, ‘All right, who’s pumped?’ It would get people to laugh a bit because clearly nobody was pumped. That evolved into ‘We’re having a good time.’”

But it’s actually more than a verbal tic or personal slogan, he said.

“It’s my job to make it fun,” Slay said. “People make the mistake of going onstage and bashing an audience because the energy isn’t where they want it to be. But I think it’s my job to get the energy up.”

Slay has played Denver’s ComedyWorks and elsewhere around Colorado in the past few years as his national profile has expanded, but he’s never before performed in Aspen.

Slay is not a skier. He didn’t rule out giving it a try while in Aspen, but didn’t sound confident about his alpine skills.

“I used to say, ‘I don’t have health insurance, so I don’t want to do any extreme sports,’” he said. “Now I do have health insurance but it’s not that good and I’m so bad at things that move under my feet.”


Yayoi Kusama, Atsuko Tanaka and Jennifer Bartlett in ‘Fallout’ at Aspen’s Boesky Gallery

With a handful of paintings and two sculptures, the Marianne Boesky Gallery has brought to Aspen one of the most important and pleasurable shows of the winter cultural season. The sparse selection in this jewel-box space features work by three 20th-century luminaries: Atsuko Tanaka, Yayoi Kusama and Jennifer Bartlett. The experience of viewing these works comes also with an invitation to consider the compelling historical circumstances of their making.

Each of these artists began their careers in different places and under different influences. Tanaka and Kusama shared a childhood experience of wartime Japan, but Tanaka remained there after the war and joined its avant-garde while Kusama spent her formative years in the orbit of Andy Warhol and the Pop scene of New York. Bartlett was a bit younger, by about 10 years. She came of age under the reign of Minimalism, and in particular its practice at Yale where she attended graduate school. And yet, the six paintings in this show together make a fortuitous, coherent grouping, with the two Kusama sculptures chiming in with a cheeky humor.

This show has for its curatorial motive the presentation of three artistic responses to national disaster, World War II for Tanaka and Kusama, and 9/11 for Bartlett. This ends up working well, despite their divergent strategies. The eldest of the group, Kusama (born in 1929), had by her own account experienced nothing but misery as a child, working in a factory during the war and living with parents who could not understand her compulsive art making. Finding post-war Japan too conservative and stifling, Kusama landed in New York in 1958 where her impulse for staging public events, many with overt sexual content, fit in with the Happenings movement of Alan Kaprow and Warhol’s Factory. But while Warhol and the popsters would direct their artistic interest toward mass culture, Kusama always worked from the imperative to externalize what she experienced psychologically. She has always used her artistic practice to manage an intractable terror that the war imprinted on her mind. The motifs of the polkadots and other obsessive patterning, some inspired by the motion of water, some taken directly from recurrent hallucinations, helped direct her consciousness toward more metaphysical, spiritual realms where she could see the possibility of beauty and love for humanity. The “Infinity Net” of this show exemplifies what is for her the never-ending project of holding back the darkness.

Tanaka was able to find in Japan an artistic milieu in which she could pursue her art without fetters. She fell in with the Gutai movement, a collective of artists based in Osaka. Inspired by the highly individualistic expression and ethos of American Abstract Expressionism, the Gutai artists broke from the cultural values of imperial Japan that had enforced social conformity, traditional artistic forms, and collective over individual interest. In rejecting these constraints, the Gutai artists declared themselves to be unique creative forces. The three Tanaka paintings here reflect the movement’s emphasis on a direct, tactile engagement with materials. We can see in the circular forms and the networks of lines connecting them just how she went about painting these works. As in much of Abstract Expressionism, the finished marks record the actions of the artist and her presence. It is as if she has just finished the piece and stepped to the side so that we can see it. These are declarations of her singular creative capacity.

The two Bartlett paintings are somewhat the outliers in this grouping. Having internalized the grid as a student at Yale, Bartlett has made use of it throughout her career. It appears again in the two paintings of this show, both executed in the post-9/11 moment. The grid maps on these pieces a compositional structure not found in the Tanaka or Kusama. With it, Bartlett places one foot in the rationalizing, systematizing vision of her minimalist background. In the tradition of Donald Judd or Carl Andre, the grid is a means of intellectualizing her subject; it distances her own person from the artwork. With these regular, ordered squares, Bartlett references a world that exists independent of artistic creativity, as if she was building her expression on the scaffold of a geometric given.

But that is only half her stance and the one least weighted. Like those of her show companions, these are warm, painterly pictures. Her presence as a mark maker, as an artistic persona, comes through in how she fills out the grid with a repetition of gestures, just as bees fill each cell of a comb with life. These paintings are the products not of mathematics, but of sentience. In “Firemen,” the variegated patterning of circles approaches objective representation, perhaps of the World Trade Center but certainly of an urban environment. Or, if the perception of scale is reduced from the architectural to the human, the vertical flesh-tone shapes read as figures, perhaps those referenced in the title. And in “Red Yellow Blue,” the imprecise free-hand circles, solid and concentric, mostly disregard the discipline of the grid lines. In agreeing with the rest of the show, these Bartlett paintings fall on the side of the sensual and not the intellectual.

Circles, with all their evocative power and symbolic potential, run through all these works except one. Any attempt to interpret them would be too reductive, too much an imposition of canned paradigms. One way to think about them, however, is by considering the sole piece in the show without circles, Kusama’s “Shoe.” This work dates from the early ’70s and belongs to a larger series in which Kusama sought to externalize a fear that plagued her mind since childhood. When only a toddler, she had accidentally witnessed a sex scene. The experience left the artist with a visceral horror of the penis. She carried this terror into her adult life, but had the wisdom to objectify and humorize it by creating room-sized installations filled with soft penis shapes. Here in “Shoe,” one might be tempted to say, the feminine cavity is filled with these sweet-potato phalli. The inclusion of this piece in the show invites a juxtaposition of a masculine to a feminine principle, but for me that interpretation is too pat, too facile. Kusama’s object itself doesn’t support a yin-yang binary. Her penises are flaccid, floppy, caricatured and hardly ready to penetrate this collectivity of circles. This disarmament of the penis is, after all, what Kusama’s project is all about. In her rendering, the threat is neutralized. They become comic, soft forms from which she could make a couch, which she did. This unconventional representation of the phallus suggests that we ought to be equally circumspect about what to say about the circles.

A straight-off-the-street experience of this show would not convey to the viewer legacies of disaster. These works are too exuberant, too unabashed in a cultivation of beauty, too humorous, too confident in the assertion of artistic identities. They are not meditations on those events, but triumphal answers to them.

Timothy Brown writes on visual art and literature. He welcomes comments at timbrown4171@gmail.com.

Aspen Words Literary Prize names five 2020 finalists

The shortlist for the Aspen Words Literary Prize includes “Opioid, Indiana” by Brian Allen Carr, “Patsy” by Nicole Dennis-Benn, ”The Beekeeper of Aleppo” by Christy Lefteri, “Lost Children Archive“ by Valeria Luiselli and “Lot” by Bryan Washington.

The five books are finalists for Aspen Words’ $35,000 annual award for a work of fiction “that illuminates vital contemporary issues.”

Endowed for Aspen Words by an anonymous donor, the award is in its third year. The previous winners were Tayari Jones’ “An American Marriage” and Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West.”

One of the 2020 finalists, Bryan Washington, is a debut author, while Brian Allen Carr, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Christy Lefteri and Valeria Luiselli have all published previous books to critical acclaim. The finalists, culled from a longlist of 16 books, were selected by a five-member jury including Alexander Chee, Amy Garmer, Saeed Jones, Helen Obermeyer and Esmeralda Santiago.

The shortlisted titles address social issues such as drug addiction, homophobia, immigration and income inequality.

“Fiction has a way of mirroring real life,” head judge Esmeralda Santiago said in Wednesday morning’s announcement. “Whether from an exciting newcomer or experienced and celebrated authors, the issues raised in these books add to our understanding of contemporary life. Most surprising for me as a reader was the humor in the midst of serious situations affecting the lives of a catalogue of always engaging, well-drawn and diverse characters trying to be their best selves.”

The 2020 winner will be announced live at an awards ceremony in New York City at The Morgan Library on Thursday, April 16. The finalists will participate in a conversation moderated by Mary Louise Kelly, co-host of NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

The Pitkin County Library in Aspen will simulcast the ceremony live and host a community party for the event. In late spring, Aspen Words, in partnership with library, will distribute free copies of the winning book for a community read program, to feature a valley-wide book club gathering, panel discussions and other activities.

Tickets for the Morgan Library event are available at aspenwords.org.

The jury’s citation for Carr’s “Opioid, Indiana” reads: “The timing of Brian Allen Carr’s exquisite novel, ‘Opioid, Indiana,’ is not a surprise. What is surprising is the redemption we feel in reading it. Opioid, Indiana, a fictitious town, is struggling for relevance and is decimated by addiction. We observe the activity of the residents through the acute observations of Riggle, a discarded, uneducated teen. Over the course of one week, we find the town and our protagonist are familiar, funny and lovable lost souls. Carr’s novel raises our empathy for all the young adults living on the street and gives us hope that they, like Riggle, will somehow transcend and survive.”

Of Dennis-Benn’s “Patsy,” the jury wrote, “’Patsy’ is a novel about an undocumented immigrant’s yearning to build a new life in the United States while connected by family and culture to Jamaica. Beneath the surface, it is a deeply affecting reflection on motherhood and the price women pay to define their own choices, desires and purpose in life. Dennis-Benn’s exquisite dialogue makes you want to read out loud, hearing its rhythm and tone, and her vividly drawn settings make it easy to enter Patsy’s world. ‘Patsy’ is a novel as determined, honest and necessary as its protagonist.”

The citation for Lefteri’s “The Beekeeper of Aleppo” says, “With the first sentence, ‘I am afraid of my wife’s eyes,’ we enter a world too visible for the protagonists who can’t, nevertheless, turn away. How do human beings process the horror around them, the senseless violence, the loss of what we hold dearest? Is it possible to ever feel safe, to love, to appreciate beauty? Christy Lefteri asks these questions of her characters, and ultimately, of us. We see wars on our screens and cross paths with the survivors in new lives in our neighborhoods, but we don’t see them. Lefteri brings us closer so we can, without fear.”

The jury’s note for Luiselli’s “Lost Children Archive” states it is “informed, to powerful effect, by the author’s ongoing commitment to meditating on the seemingly infinite predicaments America’s immigration and refugee policy has brought to the fore. What I found so special about this book, though, was the unexpected route and experimental form the author uses to work through what all of this means for children and the very concept of ‘family.’”

And of Bryan Washington’s “Lot,” they wrote: “Few writers have done for their city what Washington has done for Houston, which is to say, to articulate how a new generation of citizens are living, loving and struggling there with both the legacies of their shared past and the new possibilities of the present. But in writing an interconnected short story collection about it, he has also mapped how climate change, income inequality, homophobia, anti-blackness and anti-immigrant fervor are shaping our present, in what becomes a 21st century picaresque, by the end— almost, even, an oracle.”

Norm Macdonald back in Aspen for Laugh Fest show on Thursday

Just about every stand-up comic who comes through Aspen feels obliged to ridicule the resort a little bit. Usually they offer a lame and lazy few lines about Aspen’s lack of oxygen and abundance of billionaires.

But every once in awhile, these obligatory jokes do score.

Maybe the best example of an outsider’s Aspen jokes came from Norm Macdonald, during a 2014 set at Belly Up. In his signature deadpan, Macdonald — sparking a lighter and mouthing a cigarette he never quite lit throughout his set — went through the litany of common sense deterrents to human life in Aspen, from the thin air to the common black bear home invasions, and buttoned it up hilariously with how absurd the home prices are.

Macdonald returns to Aspen on Thursday night for a sold-out headlining spot at the Wheeler Opera House’s Aspen Laugh Festival. It opened Tuesday with the annual Colorado Comedy Night and runs through Saturday at the Wheeler and other venues, including the festival’s first event in Snowmass Village and a closing-night performance by “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah.

In the years since Macdonald was fired from “Saturday Night Live” in 1998, he’s hit the road for stand-up shows between acting gigs in movies like “Dirty Work” and in a string of short-lived situation comedies and TV shows like “Norm” and “A Minute with Stan Hooper.” He’s blunt about why he keeps coming back to stand-up.

“It’s the only one I’m good at,” he said during a previous swing through Aspen, where he’s performed since the old HBO Comedy Fest days and where he is known to drop in to skate at local rinks during his visits.

In 2018 he premiered the first 10 episodes of “Norm Macdonald Has a Show,” a sort of anti-talk show deconstruction of the form that opened with David Spade, Macdonald and sidekick Adam Eget talking for 20 minutes about how Macdonald didn’t know how to do a talk show.

On the second episode, when guest Drew Barrymore doesn’t get Macdonald’s Dracula joke, Macdonald says with a wide smile: “I love when people don’t get it,” which is the closest thing you’ll hear to a Norm Macdonald mission statement. He doesn’t care if he gets the laugh, and that’s what’s made him timeless.

Many argue that he is the best “Weekend Update” anchor “Saturday Night Live” has had, and he made a case for himself as a great late-night style host with the Netflix series. But to hear him tell it, he’s a one- or two-trick pony made for doing stand-up and riffing as a guest of Conan O’Brien and David Letterman.

“I’m pretty good at being a guest on shows, but stand-up is the only one that I’m good at,” he said. “The other ones I just stumbled into from stand-up.”

His classic impressions of Burt Reynolds and Bob Dole on “Saturday Night Live” notwithstanding, he admits he’s not an actor.

“Stand-up is not good training for an actor,” he said. “If you do Second City or Groundlings or something, it trains you to be an actor. But stand-up would only train you to do, like, a soliloquy. It’s weird. … You’re just talking to yourself for an hour.”

His stand-up tends to be pretty dark, with its comedic possibilities turned up by Macdonald’s matter-of-fact delivery and what he calls his “weird voice,” a style that defined his “Weekend Update” years and has recently somehow carried bits as grim-seeming as one about his grandfather’s suicide.

On “Weekend Update,” Macdonald memorably used non-sequiturs and random references — David Hasselhoff, for instance, and Frank Stallone — to pepper the segment. That free-association-as-comedy style has been widely influential, most readily seen in shows like “Family Guy.”

The surrealist approach to the faux news desk, he said, was simply a result of the glut of talk shows in the ’90s: “It was because on ‘Update,’ it had already been done 100 times by the time I did it. There were like 20 talk shows, and all these monologues, so every joke had been done all week long, until on Saturday it would have been stupid to do. How are you going to do a joke about what happened on Monday? … So I said, ‘Let’s just do weird jokes.’ Even our political jokes weren’t really political. They were weird.”


‘Born to Run’ author Christopher McDougall in Aspen

Few books have been as ubiquitous on Aspen bookshelves over the past decade as Christopher McDougall’s 2009 narrative nonfiction blockbuster “Born to Run.”

It sparked the barefoot running craze and shined a fascinating light on Mexico’s Tarahumara tribe and its running traditions, while announcing McDougall as a must-read participatory journalist and oddball sportswriter.

But, McDougall said, he nearly cut out the “Born to Run” chapter that gained the most attention for the book, that sparked a revolution in running — and in footwear — and fueled the ongoing debate about the merits of going barefoot.

“I was teeter-tottering between cutting it or leaving it in,” McDougall, who will give a talk at the Winter Words author series Tuesday night, recalled in a recent phone interview from his home in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, “because it’s the only chapter that’s not part of the narrative. It’s this side trip into the laboratory. I wasn’t sure it fit, but I’m glad I left it in.”

The rest of the book centers around the author’s immersion with the Tarahumara and his injury-prone running life, but he breaks off to tackle the latest science, delineating a series of “painful truths” and making a case for running shoes as a cause of injury and barefoot running as the faster, safer option.

McDougall’s latest book “Running with Sherman,” published in October, makes an argument for forging relationships with animals. In it, McDougall adopts an outcast donkey from one of his Amish neighbors and embarks on an unpredictable adventure of rehabilitating the donkey, which becomes his jogging partner along with a rag-tag crew of humans, eventually coming to Colorado to compete in the annual Burro Days races in Fairplay.

He didn’t think initially that Sherman the donkey would carry his next book. But as he learned about the animal’s need to be useful, and the long history of human-animal partnerships, his narrative began taking shape.

“That’s when it dawned on me that this was something broader and deeper,” he said. “This is something that has been natural to humans for generations but it’s lost on us, and we are trying to grope our way back. That’s when I figured there is a story bigger than just running with a donkey.”

Curiosity about the unknown, rather than expertise, has propelled McDougall’s writing throughout his career. He has a gift for bringing readers along on his fumbling path from ignorance to discovery.

“If I’d written any of my books from a position of real knowledge, the books would have been weak,” he said. “It was about coming in as a student.”

He wasn’t a runner before writing “Born to Run,” he noted.

“If I was more experienced or I had opinions on running shoes, it might have been scoldy and tired,” he said. “But instead I’m coming in from a position where I’m not sure, I’m trying to understand.”

McDougall developed that skill in his years as a foreign correspondent with The Associated Press, when he was reporting from Europe and from war zones in Rwanda and Angola.

“The number one job requirement was you were always trying to get to know a different culture while something dramatic was going on and you usually had limited knowledge of the language and culture,” he explained.

“It all starts when you find one person who is interested in mentoring you a little bit,” he said of his process in diving into these lesser-known sports. “Ninety-nine percent of it is to show up, shut your mouth and do your best. You show up with a lot of humility. You take your bruises.”

Since “Born to Run” he has become a consummate tour guide into the subcultures of uncelebrated sports. He’s yet to tackle skiing and snowsports at length. Though he’s made several trips to Aspen with his brother to run trails in the summer, McDougall has never before visited in the winter and is not a skier.

He’s currently in the early stages of a book about body surfing, following people who body surf massive waves in hazardous conditions with none of the fame, prizes and sponsorships available to surfers who use boards. The sport, he found, has a history going back thousands of years in the Pacific Islands.

It appears an ideal match for the author who has made riveting narratives out of parkour, burro racing and barefoot running.

“There seems to be an endless supply of people doing amazing things, but they are not on television, not getting Nike sponsorships,” he said. “So much of what we consume is filtered through just a few sports like football, baseball and basketball. There is so much else going on out there that to me is way more impressive and participatory.”

Given McDougall’s affinity for first-person narratives and fish-out-of water outsider stories, it’s unsurprising that Hunter S. Thompson — the Woody Creeker and groundbreaking gonzo journalist — was an outsize influence on McDougall.

As a sophomore in college in 1982, McDougall sent a handwritten letter to Thompson through the Woody Creek post office. He’d read all of Thompson’s work, and studied Thompson’s collection “The Great Shark Hunt” several times cover to cover in those days, planting seeds for how McDougall would approach participatory journalism.

“I drank that stuff up,” he said of Thompson’s early work in conventional journalism and trailblazing gonzo pieces like “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” “You can watch him become this person who is writing authentically and idiosyncratically, and not at all of the past.”


Yayoi Kusama’s infinity Mirror Room closing early at Aspen Art Museum

The Aspen Art Museum will close its Yayoi Kusama Infinity Mirror Room 11 weeks early due to a building code violation that arose from the installation blocking elevator access.

The last day of the exhibition in the museum’s second-floor corridor will be Feb. 23. Museum and city of Aspen officials have been working together on resolving the code issue since early January, and decided last week to close it ahead of its planned May 10 end date.

“It is the determination of both parties that fulfilling the artwork’s need for natural light and appropriate space and code requirements cannot be achieved equitably within the museum’s layout at this time,” reads a statement prepared by the museum.

The much-hyped Aspen installation brought the global art and social media sensation of Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms to the museum. An estimated 5,000-plus visitors have gone inside the immersive work, titled “Where the Lights in My Heart Go,” since it opened to the public Dec. 19.

The box measures just under 10 feet high and wide. Its reflective stainless steel exterior and mirrored interior walls are punctured with small holes that let light in to create Kusama’s signature optical effect. While the viewer is inside — an experience limited to 90 seconds — the light reflections cause the illusion of floating in an infinite celestial space.

Installed on the north end of the museum’s second-floor corridor, the artwork blocks the entrance to the museum’s elevator. Since the Kusama opening, museum staff has used its freight elevator for handicapped access to the second floor.

Soon after the art opening, a city building department staffer noted the location blocking the only public entrance to the museum’s elevator on the second floor, said city chief building official Mike Metheny.

The blockage is in violation of the International Building Code, to which the city of Aspen adheres. Under the code, the elevator must be accessible and the area in front of its entrance must be clear.

City building officials turned to the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, which oversees elevator inspection and permitting for the region, to learn whether using the freight elevator was a legal resolution. Council determined it was not.

“The AAM regrets any inconvenience resulting from its early closure,” the museum statement says.

When the Kusama installation was announced last year, it was expected to be installed in the museum’s open-air rooftop sculpture garden. The piece had previously been exhibited outdoors, including at the deCordova Sculpture Park in Massachusetts. However, late concerns arose about doing so in the high alpine climate in wintertime. The semi-enclosed portion of the rooftop space was not a viable alternative, as Kusama’s United Kingdom-based installation team found the box would not fit under the trusses of the ceiling there.

Museum officials decided to install it in the second-floor corridor in early December, said museum chief operating officer Luis Yllanes.

Metheny said the museum has appropriately addressed the issue since it came to their attention.

“They have been nothing but responsive and professional in their handling of the situation,” Metheny said. “The museum and the city worked very well together and were able to reach a resolution.”

Kusama, 90, has been making variations of her mirror rooms since the 1960s, but they’ve become a worldwide phenomenon through Instagram in recent years as visitors have sought selfies inside of Kusama’s creations. The New York Times, in November, called Kusama’s rooms “the art world’s equivalent of Star Wars premieres.”

Fans have waited in hours-long lines to experience Infinity Rooms in major cities like New York and Los Angeles. At the Aspen Art Museum, wait times never stretched that long, though “Where the Lights in My Heart Go” drew steady and enthusiastic crowds.

“We are pleased to have shared ‘Where the Lights in My Heart Go’ with well-over 5,000 AAM visitors since December 2019,” the museum statement reads, “grateful to the city of Aspen for their professionalism in working with us to reach this decision, and thankful to our AAM visitors for their ongoing support.”


Aspen Words brings four poets into Roaring Fork Valley schools for annual program

Poets have been barnstorming schools throughout the Roaring Valley since Feb. 3, leading some 100 workshops and 10 school assemblies with students from Aspen to Glenwood Springs.

The annual Poets in Schools program, run by Aspen Words, will culminates in Friday night’s Youth Poetry Slam at the Third Street Center in Carbondale, where middle and high school students from the Roaring Fork Valley will perform their own spoken word poetry.

The four teaching poets who’ve led the annual spoken word project are former Philadelphia poet laureate and Aspen Words writer-in-residence Yolanda Wisher, Denver’s Meta Sarmiento and Toluwanimi Oluwafunmilayo Obiwole and Albuquerque-based poet Mercedez Holtry.

On Tuesday night at Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar in Aspen, the young foursome performed their own work for a crowd of more than 30 and discussed their experiences in local schools.

Holtry, a poet, community organizer and Chicana activist who is in her sixth year teaching here through the Aspen Words poetry project, said the work is about inspiring young people to speak out through poetry.

“I’m happy to be alive and to be speaking these poems and hopefully impacting these kids in a way that teaches them they too are strong and have voices that absolutely f-ing matter,” she told the crowd of adults. “If that’s not the goal of this project, I don’t know what is.”

Obiwole, who served as Denver’s inaugural Youth Poet Laureate in 2015-16, also co-directs the acclaimed collective Slam Nuba. Her 2020 visit to Aspen’s schools comes on the heels of the Trump Administration expanding its travel ban to her native Nigeria.

At the Hooch event, she performed work inspired by the ban and spoke about how devastating the ban has been to her family both in the U.S. and Nigeria.

“I am very directly affected by it, having immediate and close family here who are not documented and don’t have any choice but to go back because they no longer have any path to citizenship,” she explained, later adding: “Despite that, I still remember the dreams that I have in this country.”

Sarmiento, a poet and rapper born and raised in Guam, performed personal works about his cultural identity and alienation from both his birthplace and his home in Colorado.

This is his second time working with the Aspen Words school program.

“My experience so far has been like a roller coaster,” Sarmiento told the crowd. “Really physically, emotionally exhausting.”

But it’s been rewarding, he said, recalling an experience with a student in Glenwood Springs who broke down crying as he spoke with her about confronting her fear of performing publicly. She told him, he recalled, “For the first time I feel relieved about my own insecurities because somebody in the room understands.”

He added: “That’s the reason I get into classrooms.”


Road Trip Alert: WinterWonderGrass in Steamboat Springs

Until moving to the mountains, my understanding was that the only type of people who listened to bluegrass was the dad at Boy Scout camp picking a banjo and singing “The Beverly Hillbillies” theme song around the campfire. But now, thanks to Mumford and Sons (I think), everyone is obsessed with the genre. Some lumberjack messing around with a mandolin or, worse, a ukulele has become my generation’s version of the guy playing a guitar during the toga party in “Animal House.”

So to expand my cow-dotted horizons and get some use out of the Ikon benefits that came with this year’s Premier Pass, I’ll be traveling to Steamboat Springs for the WinterWonderGrass festival Feb. 21 to 23, and report my findings back to you personally.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. Doesn’t all bluegrass sound … basically the same? Give me a couple of weeks to figure out how to play instruments and sing and I can pretty much replicate it, know what I’m saying? I’m a man of education, so researching this year’s lineup on Spotify unveiled everything from country-western lite to “Deliverance” redneck. The live albums are the best, with lyrics about drinking coffee and feelin’ blue and whatnot, while some guy screams “yeeeeeEEEAAAHHH!” over and over in the front row.

So I’m going to learn and then, by proxy, teach. Here’s what I hope to discover:

Who are the people who have a Grateful Dead-esque obsession with bluegrass?

If you Shazam a concert, will it pull up the name of the song? I’m going to need some help.

How far away is Steamboat, anyway? Can I survive waking up at 6 a.m., and then driving there in a snowstorm?

Do the tingles from the hot springs come from the minerals bubbling in the water, or other people discreetly peeing?

Will I find another bag of drugs on the ground? Will I try to find its rightful owner?

Can I party all night and then make it to my 9 a.m. snowboard tour the next morning? Who do they think I am?

And is Mumford and Sons actually bluegrass?

So now you have something to look forward to: An introverted indie rock/dream pop enthusiast’s expedition into thousands of people dressed in flannel and woolen caps, new terminology like “strings” and a bunch of bands with names that reference fishing.

Plus, there are food trucks and beer tastings. Put a drink in my hand and I can happily watch paint dry — the voices in my head make good enough company.

“There is nothing better than the freedom to explore new landscapes, new communities and new friendships. There’s magic that happens when women, men and kids from around the world gather for the alchemy of music and mountains,” says a statement on the WinterWonderGrass website. For that quote I didn’t even have to call anybody (which is too scary).

The festival is sold out, but hit me up if you’re planning on heading over there and I’ll let you hold me aloft while I crowd surf. Otherwise, pick up The Aspen Times in two weeks for my full, albeit hazy, recollection as well as all-new jokes about washboards and chapped harmonica lips.


Chris Erickson, ‘a painter trapped in a sculptor’s mind,’ at Straight Line Studio in Snowmass

Gallerists and artists Kelly Peters and Teal Wilson continue to vitalize the cultural scene of Snowmass Base Village with visual art, weekly workshops and exhibitions at their Straight Line Studio. The gallery will open a show of new paintings by Carbondale-based artist Chris Erickson on Saturday.

Erickson has developed his own vernacular of abstract painting out of a thorough education in fine and commercial arts. After graduating with a BFA from Fort Lewis College in 1994, he studied graphic design and illustration at Platt College in Denver, and then worked in advertising after 2000. His work for the Straight Line show reflects a graphic design punchiness, reminiscent of the late Matisse cut-outs. His shapes are solid, unmodulated colors. They strike the eye with the efficiency required in the commercial world of visual communication, but their compositions are complex and ambiguous.

Erickson is adept at making these works function on different pictorial registers. The solidity of the forms, and the lack of a light source within the painting emphasize the flatness of the picture plane. On the other hand, these shapes overlap; some recede and some come forward, and they bend and take on volumetric form to create three-dimensional space. Their solidity is sculptural. One can imagine their translation into steel plates.

“I’m a painter trapped in a sculptor’s mind,” he said.

Erickson’s impulse to work in three dimensions is expressed in those works on wood panel which he cuts into irregular shapes. These are a departure from the rectangle of his stretched canvas, though the canvases too have a sculptural quality in the depth of the stretcher bars, which stand the pieces off the wall, and in the fact that Erickson chooses to paint the sides of those bars, which draw the eye around to the pieces’ third dimension.

The more time one spends with these, the more they move from abstraction towards objectivity. Erickson uses subtle cues to intimate a sense not just of space, but of exterior space and even landscape. He will often use darker, warmer hues at the bottom of the composition and cooler, lighter ones at the top — just enough to trigger a sense of earth and sky. There is often a compositional indication through the middle of the pieces that might reference a horizon line. And some of the elements replicate the gestural movement of foliage and trees, or even gesticulating bodies.

There also is an experiential movement in these pieces from what might be initially perceived as a careful, manufactured finish to an awareness of the handcrafted-ness of the painting. Erickson knows how to make highly finished objects, but looking closer reveals the brushstroke, the presence of his hand, and the artful imprecision in the drawing of the forms, all of which suggest that he is landing on the side of representing a tangible reality rather than a conceptual idea. These works are acrylic paints on canvas or wood, applied with a brush, and not something that could be achieved with an inkjet printer or in a spray booth.

Artists with a sculptural sensibility are rarely also colorists. Erickson is an exception. He sets himself the useful constraint of limiting himself to using no more than 18 colors, just as a poet exercises his creativity within the prescribed meter of a sonnet. This parameter facilitates several things. First, it creates continuity across the pieces and unifies the body of work. More important, it allows Erickson to experiment in creating what he calls “color chords,” those ineffable relationships that arise when hues come into each other’s company. Sometimes the tonal effect is brash, sometimes harmonious, sometimes playful, but never really discordant, try as I might to find in the paintings an unpleasant clash.

Erickson allows himself to enjoy this palette, and there is a palpable good mood in these pieces, not just in his color sense, but also in the dynamic gesture of shapes. These paintings project an outlook, one that is careful but affirmative, exuberant but not silly. This much is discernible from the paintings themselves.

What is not obvious is that they are a means through which Erickson processes the enormous quantity of media stimuli to which he, and we, are daily subjected. In what he describes as a process of distillation, Erickson uses his art-making to winnow theses masses of information, discarding the nonsensical, toxic chaff and retaining the valuable, truthful kernels. It is his means of imposing a livable order on chaos. In an alchemical conversion of this distillate of good into shape and color, Erickson produces artworks that are fundamentally optimistic. It’s a refreshing outlook in this time when sophisticated contemporary art seems obliged to reflect a general gloom, not that one isn’t tempted to be gloomy at this moment. Erickson reminds us, however, there is also good reason to celebrate.

Timothy Brown writes on visual art and literature. He welcomes comments at timbrown4171@gmail.com.