Aspen Times Weekly: An Artist in the Wild |

Aspen Times Weekly: An Artist in the Wild

by Andrew Travers
Jason Kishell is the latest Wilderness Workshop artist-in-wilderness.
Courtesy photo |

Digging for bugs, scanning the mountain landscape for fallen forest debris, sketching. It’s all in a day’s work for Wilderness Workshop artist-in-resdience Jason Kishell.

The Houston-based ceramicist is the latest artist to come to town through the Carbondale conservation watchdog’s residency program. Kishell, 38, is holed up in Woody Creek for 10 days through Aug. 8. While he’s here, Kishell plans to collect samples of invertebrates and pine wood borers in the local forest – the insects that he brings to life in playful and mischievous mugs, cups, goblets and other vessels that double as sculpture.

“I’m really going to be exploring over my time in Aspen,” he says. “Doing a lot of hiking to get as much information as possible.”

Kishell’s humorous treatment of nature in his work begins with a leave-no-trace research process that dovetails with the Workshop’s conservation mission. He’s currently chipping away at a body of work he calls “F.O.G.” (for “found on ground”) that depicts the animated things he stumbles upon on the forest floor.

“I don’t capture and kill anything,” he said. “There are plenty of things that nature leaves for us.”

A Colorado native, Kishell was born and raised in Denver. He’s been shocked, he says, whenever he’s returns to the mountains since settling in Texas.

“It’s heartbreaking every time I go back and drive I-70 into the mountains and see all the development and how humans have encroached on the wilderness,” he says.

That perspective is part of what excited him when he saw a call for applications for the local artist-in-wilderness program.

Founded in 2008 to honor legendary wilderness advocate and watercolorist Dottie Fox, the Artist in Wilderness program has since brought national artists working in a variety of media to ranches and remote cabins in and around the Roaring Fork Valley. Participants are chosen by a jury of artists and collectors.

“Art and wilderness have quite a lot in common if you just open your eyes,” Wilderness Workshop boardmember Mary Dominick-Coomer told the Aspen Times last year. “Art is all around us. The initial idea was, ‘Why not have an artist in the wilderness and capture their impressions?’”

Artists are free to do what they like with their time in the wild. The nonprofit requires participating artists to donate one piece of work to be auctioned off for Wilderness Workshop’s benefit and requires them to license additional works for Wilderness Workshop materials, such as notecards and posters.

The auction is both a fundraiser and a form of outreach aimed at enticing art collectors — who might not otherwise interact with a wilderness advocacy group like Wilderness Workshop — to see the value of protecting public lands.

Despite his sober assessment of the need for wild lands conservation, Kishell’s signature in his ceramics work is humor. A look through his portfolio shows under-glazed mugs with pairs of lips smiling and sticking out their tongues, friendly looking beetles on the sides of jugs, a strung-out bird giving you a side-eye. He also makes small coffins for bugs. It’s fun, often funny, always original stuff.

“It’s one of the things that comes out of my work without me realizing it,” says Kishell. “Often it’s not intentional. Often I try to be serous, and it comes out funny.”

Kishell’s unique take on humor in ceramics was featured in Brigitte Martin’s 2012 book “Humor in Craft,” a deep dive on comedy in art. His guiding principle in his work, he says, comes from surrealist painter Dorothea Tanning, who wrote: “Art is the raft onto which we climb to save our sanity.”

If that means entertaining people with bugs on mugs in an effort to make them think about larger conservation issues, Kishell says, then so be it.