July 20, 2006
Judy Haas lives in a 200-square-foot cabin a short way out of Aspen, toward Independence Pass. In the handful of homes she has designed, the 52-year-old lifelong valley resident has never exceeded 2,000 square feet – a modest number anywhere, but especially so in the land of the monster home. Space, or an abundance of it, at least, just isn’t important to Haas; she leads a more satisfied life with small homes and correspondingly small mortgages or rent payments.”It’s my way of being an example in the community, that you can live in small places,” she said.The flip side of Haas’ downsized life is her studio. Located on Hyman Avenue beneath Sandy’s Office Supply, the studio is relatively spacious, probably four times the size of her dwelling. She has occupied it for more than three years. When I walked in one recent morning and scanned the collection of paintings, painted plates, photographs and assemblages that packed the place, Haas noted that she had probably outgrown the space.Room to live in is one thing. Room to create in and to keep all she has created is another for Haas. In fact, Haas owes her livelihood, and by extension much of her life, to finding a space in which to work.
Haas would have been born in Aspen but for the lack of a hospital delivery room in 1953, the year of her birth. Her parents, the late Robert Green, who lived in Montana, and Jackie Wogan, who still lives in Aspen, moved here in the 1940s. As a kid, Haas had artistic talent.”It was something I was born with,” she said. She also had artistic surroundings: at 12, she took private watercolor lessons with Joe Hauser, and she began hanging around with painter and poster artist Tom Benton, working as his studio assistant and helping pull silkscreens. Before she turned 20, Haas had opened Periphery, a frame shop. Although she painted and took classes at Anderson Ranch in lithography, watercolors and color study, she didn’t pursue art as a career.”I had a daughter to support. I felt like I needed to create jobs for myself that gave me immediate income,” said Haas, who taught skiing, worked for John Denver as a property manager and nanny, and waitressed at too many places to mention. “I just didn’t feel I could make a living as an artist.”The big breakthrough was not so much a financial one as a logistical one. In 1984, at the age of 32 and with no background as a professional artist, Haas rented studio space on Seventh Street, along Castle Creek, from Barbara Seidel.”That gave me the opportunity to seriously spend time painting,” said Haas, who creates her paintings from pastels she makes herself. “And through that opportunity to paint more often, people came by the studio to see my work.”The following year, Aspen gallery owner Tom Hayles gave Haas her first professional show. Haas, who had always lived close to nature, in cabins and tepees, turned to the natural world for her subject matter. She wasn’t a fisherwoman, but her parents both fished, so she made a trout painting for each of them and stocked her exhibit with trout images. The U.S. Ambassador to Denmark, impressed with the fish paintings, invited Haas to participate in the Art in the Embassies program. With her first show, a year after getting her first studio, Haas had found her niche.
“They were in demand, and it was the first time I was able to support myself with my artwork,” she said. Haas spent 10 years doing only trout paintings. They were snapped up by countless private collectors, and Haas showed with several local galleries, including the Basalt Gallery and Barney Wyckoff; she also created designs for Patagonia and the Nature Company. Haas finally tried her hand at fishing in the late ’80s, but only because she was about to be included in a group show at the American Museum of Flyfishing in Vermont.Haas’ relationship with her trout has developed to a point of ambivalence. She no longer exhibits her fish paintings; however, she will paint them by commission. And much of her spare time is spent making trout paintings, which she says are for herself and to pass along to her daughter, Jessica Cox.”It taught me the art of my craft,” said Haas of her specialty. “It gave me some national recognition and started my art career.”And I still love painting trout. I’m really good at painting trout. Anybody would love doing something they’re really good at. And it’s my community service – they do well in the auctions, and that’s the contribution I can make.”A short list of the organizations to whom Haas has contributed paintings includes the Roaring Fork Conservancy, the Buddy Program, the Ducky Derby, the Wildwood School and Trout Unlimited. “Many Wonders,” a 1994 piece that was one of the first that mixed trout with botanical images, has been donated to An Art Affair! an exhibit and auction to benefit the Red Brick Council for the Arts. Haas, along with ceramists Paul Soldner and Doug Casebeer, is a featured artist in the auction, which is set for Thursday, July 27, at 5 p.m. at the Red Brick Center for the Arts. Proceeds from the auction will go toward expanded programming and exhibition space at the Red Brick.
Haas occasionally refers to painting trout as her “craft.” But she has also used the experience of perfecting that craft to become a wide-ranging artist. In the mid-’90s, botanical images began making their way into her fish canvases. Eventually, the flowers earned their own place in her paintings. Haas says she was inspired by the trips she began making to Brazil and the Amazon rain forest.”It was just the transference of the feeling of the lushness of organic life in Brazil,” said Haas. “I wouldn’t say they’re botanicals from Brazil, but they have the lushness of that ecosystem.”I had learned my craft from the trout. So when it came time to branch out, it was very easy to take another subject matter and paint it well.”Over the last handful of years, Haas has accelerated the diversity of her art. Several years ago, the Aspen Art Museum’s Roaring Fork Annual show featured Haas’ hand-painted aerial photographic maps of the Roaring Fork Valley region. The vintage photos were given to her by Ruthie Ryan, whose husband Ted had proposed a ski area on Hayden Mountain. Some of the pieces combine old postcards of Aspen Haas has collected with the aerial photos.In 1990, tired of living in tepees, Haas designed and built her first house, on a bighorn sheep preserve along the Fryingpan River. She has since designed houses in Little Annie Basin and is building a house up Independence Pass. She did a redesign of Gretl Uhl’s old Panabode cabin on Hallam Street, which earned an award from the Aspen Historic Preservation Commission.Haas also does documentary photography of her travels in South America, has made giclée prints of her paintings at Digital Art Aspen and monoprints with local printer Craig O’Brien, and makes boxes out of found objects, inspired by the work of Joseph Cornell and Robert Ebendorf, which she has yet to show. Her latest field is lenticular photography, a process that includes multiple images on a single surface; her images are of the cell structure of plants.
A shortage of space to create is no longer a concern. In fact, Haas lived for a while in the cabin she built in Little Annie Basin, and during that time she was scheduled to do a show at the Basalt Gallery. With no studio, and not enough space at home to paint in, Haas searched for a medium that could be accommodated by a few hundred square feet. That was her start in painting designs on bisqueware plates. “I started painting on these plates because I could work on them on my lap,” she said.”I have a very strong creative strain running through my life,” she continued. “I take everything and use it creatively. Someone can suggest something, and I can turn it into something beautiful and worthwhile. It doesn’t matter what medium it is, what its use is, what it’s for. It’s every day. Life is short, a precious gift, and each day is an opportunity to create.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org