Lessons from Lawley
Sixteen years ago, Thomas Lawley knew the job was for him. When he gathered with the board of directors of Carbondale Mountain Fair, interviewing for the job of Mountain Fair director, Lawley told the board members as much.”I remember sitting down and telling the board, `You don’t know me, but this job was made for me,'” recalled Lawley.At the time, in 1987, Lawley wasn’t sure the Mountain Fair board was as convinced as he was of his destiny. Most significantly, Lawley was an anonymous figure in Carbondale. Moreover, he was applying for a position that had long been the domain of someone well-connected to Mountain Fair’s roots as a hippie community event.”Nobody there knew me,” said Lawley. “I was new to town, and the director of Mountain Fair had always been someone actively involved in the hippie community.”Lawley had the hippie qualifications. Before moving to Carbondale, Lawley had lived for 16 years in the counterculture enclave of Paonia. Prior to that, Lawley had spent a year at the University of California-Berkeley, where he witnessed from the inside one of the strongest revolutionary scenes the 1960s produced. “It was pretty amazing. Very political, a great scene, a great place to get an education,” said Lawley of 1969 in Berkeley. But Lawley, who had grown up in urban Atlantic City and Camden, N.J., was seeking a different sort of counterculture existence. “I really had this thing of wanting to drop out and go to the country. That was the big thing at the time, to move up to the country. So five of us bought a Volkswagen bus and came to Colorado, because someone told us it was pretty there.”Lawley also arrived in Carbondale with credentials as an event organizer. His years in Paonia had seen a transformation from society dropout to genuine family man, with a wife, children and even a job selling real estate. When his daughter started attending an alternative school in Paonia, Lawley began putting on dances, concerts and auctions to raise funds for the school. He enjoyed the work, and seemed to have a talent for it. So when Lawley, his artist/herbalist/nutritionist wife Paula and their two daughters moved to Carbondale – primarily so their youngest daughter could attend the Colorado Rocky Mountain School – and Lawley saw an ad for director of Mountain Fair, he hastened to apply.”When we came here, we just did odd jobs. We were thinking, what the hell are we going to do?” he said. “One day, we were trying to visualize what we wanted to do, and I had the thought that what I liked to do is put on events and concerts. And almost immediately, like the next day, I saw the classified ad for director of Mountain Fair.”Lawley did, indeed, convince the Mountain Fair board that he was the man for the job. And the following year, when the director of the Carbondale Council on Arts and Humanities resigned, Lawley convinced the CCAH board – whose organization is separate from, but closely linked to, Mountain Fair – that he was the man for that job as well. Thus began Lawley’s 16-year tenure as head of Carbondale’s two leading cultural organizations.Wondering what’s nextNow, after 16 years, the job is no longer for him. Lawley still enjoys putting on events; his eyes still light up when talking about the headlining musicians for the upcoming Mountain Fair.But the time has simply come for Lawley, who announced his resignation from his twin positions in March. Carbondale, he says, has changed, and has grown bigger than the small town he had become comfortable with. The 56-year-old Lawley recently became a grandparent for the first time, and he and Paula are contemplating a move to be closer to their daughter and grandchild. And there is a desire in Lawley not to overstay his welcome. “In the nonprofit world, you can stay too long. I wanted to leave while I still had people laughing,” said Lawley, whose staff has ranged in size over the years from zero to one.Perhaps most significant is that the job of director of CCAH is about to undergo radical change. For several years, Lawley has been consumed with the task of building an arts center for Carbondale, to be owned by CCAH. Now, the Carbondale Arts Center has land – a 2.7-acre parcel on the south side of Carbondale formerly known as the North Face property – as well as plans, models and a near-complete set of construction documents for a 15,000-square-foot facility with two performance spaces, an exhibition gallery, offices and meeting rooms. More than $800,000 has been pledged for the project, and the plan is not to begin building until $2.5 million has been raised. Which means that the director of CCAH will be largely concerned with fund-raising matters for the foreseeable future. Though Lawley has devoted great energy to bringing the Carbondale Arts Center to its current status, he doesn’t have much attachment to presiding over its eventual opening.”It’s real slow,” he said of the fund-raising process. “It’s a real bad time to be trying to raise this kind of money. We don’t know when the breaking-ground date is.”[Building the Arts Center] wasn’t my driving mission. But in the course of events, of schlepping things and storing them, it became the consensus of the board that we needed our own space. That way we could do more art shows, more presentations, with a lot less hassle.”It is those art shows and presentations that Lawley has made his driving mission these past 16 years. Lawley instituted the Coffeehouse Series of concerts in 1991, and has brought such musicians as Tim & Mollie O’Brien, Steve Forbert, Dan Bern and Tony Furtado to intimate, candlelit venues. Bigger concerts have featured Leo Kottke and Richie Havens. In 1995, Lawley asked Carbondale stage director Lon Winston to create a local theater company; thus was born Thunder River Theatre, a respected community theater group in which CCAH acts as producer. Lawley turned the Performances in the Park from a shabby series that featured storytellers and the like into a concert series that has presented Peter Rowan, Robert Earl Keen and John Gorka. Lawley took the long-running Valley Visual Arts Show, which had wandered from galleries to storefronts to the Days Inn, and found a proper home for it at Kahhak Fine Art, a Main Street art gallery. CCAH’s public art project has purchased or commissioned nine pieces of art – murals, sculpture, a sun dial – displayed around Carbondale.Under Lawley, CCAH has also served as a community resource that stretched beyond its own projects. In the mid-’90s, CCAH gave seed money to the group that founded the Glenwood Springs-based Symphony in the Valley and continued to help fund the classical music organization. CCAH has helped fund programs for the Carbondale Clay Center and community radio station KDNK, and gave financial, technical and logistical aid to the Latino Festival in the Mountains. Even in places completely independent of CCAH, like Steve’s Guitars, Lawley sees some of the influence of the arts council and its focus on arts as a community endeavor.”I think it’s the heart of the community,” said Lawley of CCAH and Mountain Fair together. “Mountain Fair affects people’s entire conception of what Carbondale is. People always ask about Mountain Fair: Is this the government? Is it a municipal event? And it’s not. It’s just private citizens.”Lawley takes pride in the way CCAH’s presentations and programs reflect the local citizenry. As Carbondale’s Latino population has grown, Lawley has programmed more Latino-oriented musical acts at Mountain Fair. And there is always space for local performers on CCAH stages: This year’s Mountain Fair will feature local acts Little Blue and Frank Martin along with national touring bands the JGB and Smokestack. And the younger musicians get turns at Mountain Fair: Tracy McLain’s Guitar Group and the Earthbeat Choir both are regular features at Mountain Fair. “I like to think I’ve worked with every local band that’s been in existence for at least a few years,” said Lawley. “We should feature local people whenever we can. And also bring in some people who most folks would never see if we didn’t bring them in.”Lawley seems to get more pleasure out of the smaller things CCAH does. I asked him about the highlights from his tenure as director, and Lawley could have mentioned presenting such groups as String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon at Mountain Fair. Instead, his initial response was the CCAH scholarship program, which provides $1,000 grants to Carbondale-area people who want to pursue arts projects and education. Lawley details such success stories as Jeni Ptacek, who used her grant to study ballet in France and returned to establish the Crystal River Ballet School; and Andy Hackbarth, who used his CCAH scholarship to buy a classical guitar, and is now a senior in the music department at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The future is uncertain for Lawley, whose resignation will be effective sometime after this year’s Mountain Fair. Possibilities include doing independent productions in Carbondale; moving near Santa Fe, where his daughter lives; or convincing his daughter and her family to join him in some small, quiet town. Lawley feels much as he did 16 years ago, wondering what lies ahead and optimistic that the right opportunity will present itself. “I’m still open to what happens next,” he said. “It’s kind of like how I was when I moved here. Something’s coming. I just don’t know what it is yet.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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