Art for art’s (and artists) sake |

Art for art’s (and artists) sake

Stewart Oksenhorn
Sue Tatem's image of the Maroon Bells is among the works featured at the Aspen Artists Cooperative's Maroon Bells Festival of Color on Saturday at Aspen Highlands Village.

When West Townsend first broached the idea of running an artists cooperative as a cornerstone of the new Aspen Highlands Village, the land barons were hesitant. Townsend had his eye on the prominent corner space separating the village entrance from the ski lifts; the lessors, no doubt, had visions of a more luxurious retail establishment for that prime spot.”They didn’t want to rent us the space,” said Townsend, who coaxed an initial one-season lease from the Hines-Highlands company, owner of the commercial property at the village. “It’s a corner space and they thought that was a real prime space.”It’s a year and a half later, and that corner is indeed prime space – thanks to Townsend’s Aspen Artists Cooperative. While Highlands Village struggles to find its feet as a commercial center, the Artists Cooperative (which gets an attractive rental price from Hines-Highlands) is doing business that keeps Townsend – and the 54 artists, all locals, he represents – smiling.

Since the beginning of the summer season, 47 of the 54 artists have sold work. Townsend has averaged three sales a day, or a total of 140-plus pieces sold, on top of the 400 pieces of jewelry sold. Some 250 artists have applied for representation in the gallery (though Townsend notes that a number of those are out-of-towners, who don’t fit his all-local philosophy). Townsend recently signed a deal that will keep the cooperative in his corner for the next three years, and as of the beginning of this year, he gave up his longtime job as bartender and waiter at Mezzaluna restaurant.Plus, the establishment is in an expansion phase. This summer, the cooperative took a one-year lease on a space across the plaza, where Townsend and two other artists – Olivia Daane and Ivan Skoric – have made a working and teaching studio. And negotiations are under way for the cooperative to expand into the space recently vacated by the Metaphor Gallery.In its continuing quest to generate traffic at Highlands – and art anywhere and everywhere – the Artists Cooperative is throwing its first Maroon Bells Festival of Color tomorrow, Saturday, Sept. 18. The event, from noon to 5 p.m., is a multifaceted celebration of local artists, art education and the making of art.

Townsend is expecting some 80 artists, including virtually all of the Cooperative artists, to attend the festival. There will be demonstrations by the likes of woodworker Larry Lefner; Rick Magnuson and Barry Smith will do performance-art pieces. All those attending are encouraged to bring some sort of art project to work on. There will be a 25-foot canvas for children to contribute to.Music will be played by the Lone Pine Bluegrass Band. The Wine Spot, another Highlands Village tenant, will have a wine tasting. There will be a beer garden, and outdoor food vending by Iguana’s, the Thunderbowl Market and Endeavor Internet Cafe.Proceeds from the event will go to the newly established Aspen Artists Cooperative Art Education Fund, which intends to provide a college scholarship and bring teachers to the Cooperative Studio and School.

“I was trying to get an art fair off the ground,” said Townsend, whose contemporary painted totem poles and mixed-media enamel on wood flaglike paintings are among the biggest sellers at the Cooperative. “But I wanted it to be different; I didn’t want it to be like the art fair downtown. I wanted to get as many artists making art out here as I possibly could. The gallery is about diversity, so I wanted as much diversity as I could get in the event.”At the beginning of October, the Cooperative will shut down for the offseason. When it reopens with the start of the ski season, the Cooperative will have an entirely new show with, Townsend hopes, a one-third turnover in the artist roster. With the influx of skiers and Ritz-Carlton visitors, Townsend is cautiously confident that the Aspen Artists Cooperative will continue its strong showing. He’s comfortable, at least, that he’s won the respect of his landlords.”Now they’re treating us like an anchor tenant,” he said.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is


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