Strings of peace: Challenge America displays veterans’ guitars at Red Brick Center |

Strings of peace: Challenge America displays veterans’ guitars at Red Brick Center

34 guitars designed by artists and made for veteran musicians are on display through May 13


What: Guitars for Challenge America

Where: Red Brick Center for the Arts

When: Through May 13, opening reception Wednesday, April 20, 4-7 p.m.

More info:

When the Basalt-based veterans’ nonprofit Challenge America last fall put out a call for artists to decorate guitars for U.S. military veterans in its music therapy programs, more than 30 local artists stepped up.

“It was more of a success than I anticipated,” Challenge America executive director Dallas Blaney said this week. “And now our music therapy programs are growing exponentially. So I put out another call this spring for more artists, and the response has been incredible.”

For round two, another group of artists have crafted nearly three dozen more works of guitar art, which are now on display at the Red Brick Center for the Arts before they go to veterans.

The program aims to provide tools of healing for vets, and guitar art has turned out to be a unique medium for Aspen-area artists and has proven to be fertile creative ground for artists who have found seemingly countless ways to decorate a guitar.

Kathy Palma used intricate beadwork on the guitar body to create a colorful mountainscape with an eagle in the foreground. Joel Estavez made wood-burning designs. Lazure-style painter Charles Andrade used a stars-and-stripes motif to cover the body. Christina Barringer created an abstract pattern of black-and-white dots. Andrew Hawley used text art, with the names of folk singers like Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan covering the guitar and the chorus of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” on the neck. Ben Sherman drew wildlife with an indelible marker.

There are, in all, 34 new guitar creations that will be on view, rotating as the show runs through May 13. They’re not on sale, as work typically is at the Red Brick.

“We wanted to recognize the artists and celebrate their talents and their generosity,” Blaney said.

Before the pandemic, one of the core programs of Challenge America’s veterans-focused mission was a series of music therapy retreats for vets, bringing groups to Nashville at Amy Grant’s farm, in Cleveland at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in the woods here in Colorado.

At the start of each session, they would give a guitar to each veteran, often decorated by artisans at the HeartStrings Foundation. Last year when the pandemic shut down the HeartStrings’ guitar-decorating workshops, Blaney and his team looked to the local arts community for support.

Blaney has been gratified by the response, partnering with the Aspen Art Museum and the Art Base to host guitar-decorating workshops in the fall, displaying decorated guitars at the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago and now at the Red Brick.

One of the more powerful aspects of the program, Blaney said, has been that veterans now choose a guitar to learn on, with the handcrafted artwork a signal of support for them.

“Veterans get to choose the guitar that speaks most to them,” Blaney explained. “And then they feel that sense of connection, and sense of support from these artists who are outside their community that they’ve never met — these strangers who donate their time and talent to create a guitar to support them.”

A guitar hangs in the Red Brick Center for the Arts as part of the Challenge America Guitar Project decorated by artist Ben Sherman on Thursday, April 14, 2022. (Kelsey BrunnerThe Aspen Times)

For this spring’s creations, Challenge America had the artists write personal notes to the veterans about the guitar designs.

The Red Brick show was inspired, in part, by the fact that most of the veterans keep their guitars mounted prominently and proudly on their own walls at home, Blaney said.

“It’s a piece of art in their home,” Blaney said. “They see it every day and they’re reminded every day about the program. And they’re reminded to pick up the guitar and use it when they need it.”

The music retreats went online during the pandemic and are likely to stay there primarily, Blaney said, as Challenge America has found the virtual programs are a key way to reach veterans in rural areas — like western Colorado — where they are more prone to isolation.

“One in three veterans in the country lives in a rural area, and they’re underserved by most programs,” Blaney said. “So this is really beneficial to them.”

Demand for the music retreats has grown and Blaney is expanding, with new support from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, to expand them. That growth has come in tandem with the first year of the free vets-only Challenge America Veteran Arts Community (CAVARTS), a private social media ecosystem.

Since CAVARTS launched in March 2021, it has grown into a community of 3,200 veterans in all 50 states and 15 foreign countries. It includes forums for discussion, art exhibition and instruction in everything from leatherwork and crochet to creative writing, acting and comedy along with visual art.

“It’s really turned into a national hub of veteran art and artists,” Blaney said. “We started out to build out an online community just to help keep these veterans that we were working with on music therapy retreats connected to each other. But we quickly decided, ‘Hey, why don’t we just grow this and invite all veteran artists in?’ So that’s what we’ve been doing.”

The Challenge American exhibition is running in conjunction with the Red Brick’s student art exhibition — tantalizingly titled “The Greatest Show on Earth!” — showcasing work by students at Aspen Country Day School, Aspen Community School, Aspen Elementary School and Aspen Middle School (see sidebar). Both shows are on view now, with a reception May 20.

Red Brick opens 2022 student art show

Hot air balloons made from papier-mâché hang in the Red Brick Center for the Arts in the student art show in Aspen on Thursday, April 14, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The walls of the Red Brick Center for the Arts’ hallway gallery are filled with colorful and diverse works of art by local artists as young as kindergarten and as old as eighth grade.

The annual tradition, celebrating local talent and the art educators who foster it, is a dense and rewarding collection that ranges from elementary school student watercolors to an arresting collection of eighth-grader self-portraits.

The work is up now and open to visitors, in conjunction with an exhibition of artist-decorated guitars for the Basalt-based veterans nonprofit Challenge America. The Red Brick will celebrate both exhibitions with a reception on Wednesday, April 20 from 4-7 p.m.

The show kicks off Aspen’s springtime celebration of young people in the arts including the Aspen High School musical production of “Into the Woods” (opening April 21 at the Aspen District Theatre), and the annual original productions at the Aspen Community School Spring Musical (April 28 and 29 at the Wheeler Opera House) and Aspen Country Day School’s eighth-grade play (May 20 and 21).