An alternative vision for mine soars with underground eagle | AspenTimes.com

An alternative vision for mine soars with underground eagle

Jeremy Russell and Robert Congdon don’t see dollar signs when they pull alabaster out of a mine up Avalanche Creek in the Crystal River Valley. They see an eagle instead.

They are teaming to carve a massive bird with a 42-foot wingspan and a 6-ton head and neck out of a thick vein of black, white and gray alabaster swirled together deep under the flank of Mount Sopris.

Russell calls the shots as the artist of the duo. He handles all the intricate sculpting with hand tools. Congdon handles a 22-ton piece of machinery known as a short-wall miner ? sort of a rotary saw with carbide teeth that moves along on tank treads ? to rough out the majestic bird.

The eagle is more than an unusual piece of art underground. It is the linchpin in the dream the two men share for the mine ? an alternative to industrial-strength, hard-rock mining.

Congdon decided he didn’t want to simply yank out the estimated 46 million tons of alabaster in the mine and ship it off to various markets for art, tile and interior stone masonry.

Alabaster is a rock that, to a layman, is a cross between marble and gypsum. Sculptors love it because it is soft enough to work with. Once buffed and polished it’s popular for interior stone masonry. Unlike marble, it cannot be used outside because it will fall prey to the elements.

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Congdon, a former coal miner for Mid-Continent Resources around Redstone and Thompson Creek, discovered the rich deposit of alabaster about eight years ago up Avalanche Creek. He holds an unpatented mining claim on the site, which means he owns the mineral rights but not the land.

Russell is an El Jebel artist who nearly died in a car accident in July 1996. He concentrated on painting and sketches before the accident but discovered a talent for sculpting after the crash. He hooked up with Congdon after a friend who worked with the miner brought him a piece of alabaster.

Russell’s first sculpting with that rock was so good that Congdon invited him to his workshop, where Russell had access to blocks of alabaster. His sculpting has since taken off.

Despite their different backgrounds, the two men share a vision for the future of the alabaster mine.

“Robert had this crazy dream that he was throwing around,” said Russell. Congdon envisioned turning the mine into an artist colony and tourist attraction where people could come and watch sculptors and other artists working on pieces in the mine.

Russell was the first artist Congdon invited. “When I got up there and saw the inside of the mine it blew my mind,” said Russell. “There’s no limit to what kind of artwork you could do with it.”

Russell immediately saw in his mind’s eye an eagle coming out of one wall of the mine, a cavelike horizontal shaft that’s been sunk about 200 feet into the mountain. There was an intrusion that was perfect to sculpt the eagle’s head into, he said.

The head will come from the ceiling. The talons come up from the floor. The spread wings will span 42 feet.

Congdon had the faith to let Russell start pursuing his vision last year. They had a couple of false starts when Congdon chewed up too much alabaster with the short-wall miner.

But their work this year has the eagle taking shape. The head and beak are emerging. It’s apparent where the wings will unfold.

Work must stop for the winter on Nov. 15. Congdon’s permit from the U.S. Forest Service only allows mining operations for six months of the year.

The eagle will be roughed out by next summer and completed in two to three years. By then, Congdon hopes to have other artists pursuing their dreams in the mine. He plans to host other artists next summer, each with a honeycomb where they can pursue their work.

Congdon hopes to offer limited tours in June, allowing people to have more interactive relationships with the artists. Eventually he hopes to provide a viewing gallery that is separated from the artists by glass. He also plans to provide an underground gallery that showcases the works of the artists.

So far, he’s heard overwhelming support for the idea from Forest Service and Pitkin County officials as well as representatives of the citizens caucus in the Crystal River Valley. That gives him hope that the artists’ colony plan, like the eagle, will be ready to soar by 2004.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]

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