The Wyly pursues ‘Art of Living’ |

The Wyly pursues ‘Art of Living’

Stewart Oksenhorn
Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly

The Wyly Community Art Center is in a state of moving forward. Founded 12 years ago as part of the Compass educational complex at the Woody Creek campus of the Aspen Community School, the Wyly relocated two years ago to downtown Basalt. The riverside space the organization currently occupies is rented, at a discount; it is in the earliest conceptual stages of looking for a home that it will own. The board of directors was reconfigured this year and restocked with almost all new members.All of this movement has got Deb Jones, the only executive director the organization has known, thinking about what purposes and principles underlie the Wyly. She has been reflecting on the words of Philip Yenawine, a founder of the Aspen Art Museum.”We know that art is like sleep and love – we have to have it in our lives,” said Jones, quoting Yenawine. “The Art Center is doing really well; it’s supported. And that’s because of passion – this interior desire humans have to do something. We saw that all around us – the teachers flocking in, they do that because they’re passionate about it. The students – it’s an important part of their lives. And the supporters – they do it because they’re passionate.”Jones and the Wyly’s board of directors decided to tap that essential ingredient, passion, for their annual fundraiser. The event, set for Sunday, Oct. 7, at 5:30 p.m. at the Roaring Fork Club in Basalt, has been dubbed “Art of Living: Share Your Passion,” and is built around giving people an opportunity to provide the things they love to do. The centerpiece of the evening is a live auction that doesn’t include the usual “items” – art works, dinners, vacations – but people sharing their favorite activities.For instance, Mark Whitley, a science teacher at Aspen High School with a devout interest in astronomy, is offering a Star Party, in which he will lead participants in a survey of the night sky. The Starlets – including Jones – will provide a dinner revolving around the theme of the number nine, in honor of the planets in our solar system (the former planet Pluto included). Anne Chapman, the director of the Wyly board and a ski instructor, will guide a group of five in a ski day on Aspen Mountain, with lunch at the Aspen Mountain Club, plus an assortment of ski-shop gift certificates.Aspen Film’s Laura Thielen and George Eldred will provide Lights, Camera, Action – a crash course in learning to talk about film, with cinema-themed treats. The Garden Portrait Party will have professional photographers instructing a team in portrait photography, with a first-rate lunch provided by chefs Thea Bent and Joseph Muñoz, formerly of Basalt’s Dogwood Grill. And Jones herself is donating her specialty – a Visual Journaling workshop for eight – with a lunch from Café Bernard.Additional live auction items revolve around glass-blowing, golf, food and wine, and cross-country skiing. The auction will be conducted by Hunter O’Hanian, president of the Anderson Ranch Arts Center.

“We didn’t want it to be the regular live auction,” said Jones. “We said, why don’t we auction off people and their passions? We have 10 people, people we all know pretty well, offering the one thing they love to do in life.”The event will also include a jazz combo led by vocalist Jeannie Walla, dinner and the “Badge of Passion” art project, in which attendees will create their own ornate name tags for the evening. Local musician Dan Sadowsky will serve as MC. Since its move to Basalt, the Wyly Community Art Center has held an annual fundraiser which has emphasized the artistic process. For the Stepping Out event, all participants made decorative shoes; for last year’s Seeing Is Believing, it was eyeglasses. The events didn’t bring in a lot of money; Jones refers to them as “friend-raisers.”For this year’s event, the admission price has been bumped up to $150 in an effort to start filling the organization’s purse for its future plans. Jones is ambivalent about the change in direction, but points out that the Wyly already offers plenty of free community events.It’s easy to see the source of Jones’ wariness; she falls firmly on the creative side, rather than the numbers side, of things. Her position as executive director has made her familiar with the financial end of the arts; she is quick to note that among the states, Colorado is near the bottom in terms of funding the arts. But she’d rather talk about a topic like Liz Frazier, who teaches life drawing at the Wyly.”She loves teaching life drawing more than life itself,” said Jones. “We want teachers to come to us and say, I want to teach macramé. That’s the passion – people saying, I want to spend time with people, I want to give them this, I can teach them.”

Such from-the-top passions drive a busy organization. Jones said that the Wyly served some 3,300 students over the last year, and that the Art Center takes as broad a view of its constituency as possible. There are classes for seniors, and there is the Toddler’s Express, for kids age 18 months to 4 years, accompanied by their parents. There are after-school programs for youth at risk, workshops for professional artists, and an apprenticeship program that allows teenagers to have a hand in running the Wyly. There are classes in collage, basket-weaving, photography and journaling. The organization owns an etching press, but isn’t able to use it currently, for lack of space. Jones can also point to herself as an embodiment of the creative drive on which the Wyly is built. She was a nut for art as a kid; her mother, a draftsman, had her and her older sister make oil-painting copies of New Yorker magazine covers, which her mom would sell.”I was needing to do it, feeling it was important to who I was,” she said. “I do feel it’s important to who I am. I felt it was important for me to be around it when I was young I felt I always needed to be around mentors.”Following her graduation from the Massachusetts College of Art, Jones came directly to the Roaring Fork Valley. For 20 years, she led the art program at the Aspen Community School, where her students included the grandchildren of Charles and Dee Wyly, benefactors of the Wyly Community Art Center.Those 32 years of teaching art have left Jones with a desire to spend more time focusing on her own collage and journal art. But they also gave her the feeling that she has done important work, connecting people to their creative instincts.”I think art is essential to our cultures, in communicating who we are as a people, as a culture,” she said. “There’s no culture that tries to do without it. It’s something we always need more of.

“I’ve never been able to steer around wanting to teach. You’ve got to keep pushing it. As much as the government keeps pulling back, it’s important that we keep fighting for expanding and increasing arts education.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is