We’re Melting: Artist Chris Erickson and Skico want climate change in your face

Inside the making of a bold artistic call to climate action on Aspen Mountain

Aspen Skiing Company’s melted gondola installation at the top of Aspen Mountain on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

You can’t miss it or its message.

As you step of the Silver Queen Gondola at 11,212 or so feet above sea level atop Aspen Mountain, you see a gondola car beside the Sundeck, on a perch above the Castle Creek Valley that is usually the most popular spot for tourist mountain top photos, melting into a pool of blood red.

“The Melted Gondola” art installation, conceived by the Aspen Skiing Co. creative team and made by Carbondale-based artist Chris Erickson, aims to jar skiers and visitors and inspire action on climate change, reminding them of the existential threat global warming poses to snow, winter sports and humanity.

“I would hope that this piece could help move the conversation more towards action, and personal responsibility and corporate responsibility,” Erickson said this week.

By the Skico’s measures, the average temperature here has gone up 3 degrees Fahrenheit since Aspen’s inaugural 1946-47 ski season. Some 30 days of naturally occurring winter have been lost since 1980, according to the company. The scorched gondola car is meant to visualize what is to come.

Skico creative director Mark Carolan approached Erickson earlier this year to work on a winter installation, something in the vein of James Dive and The Glue Society’s “Hot with the Chance of a Late Storm,” a 2006 installation in Australia that depicted a melted ice cream truck on a Sydney sidewalk.

Erickson was a natural choice for the job. He has risen to prominence as a fine artist making sculptural paintings, including climate-themed series and an outdoor installation at activist artist Ajax Axe’s provocative Aspen Space Station on the backside of the mountain last summer. But he also runs a business called Prop that creates custom sculptures and props, mostly for events and private parties.

“It was a perfect, ideal crossroads,” Erickson said. “It’s this convergence of these two disciplines. And the third is the artist activism, this platform that art can provide to make a statement about important societal and cultural issues and challenges.”

Aspen Skiing Company’s melted gondola installation at the top of Aspen Mountain on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

In a practical sense, his work making miraculous custom props meant he was the local expert on finding the right materials and welding techniques to make a melting gondola look like a real melting gondola, and make it to survive in the wintry elements this ski season.

The artwork installation was a far cry from the standard white-glove museum or gallery treatment. Erickson and a Skico team drove the pre-fabricated pieces of “The Melted Gondola” to the top of the mountain on the back of a flatbed truck, then Erickson built a canopy over it with a military parachute and spent four days welding and painting inside of it before the unveiling.

The work is the latest in a year’s-long push for systemic change on climate from the Skico, which has included lobbying in Washington, international ad campaigns sounding the alarm on climate and launching a methane capture project in a former coal mine, along with public art. Previous art initiatives have included massive Solo cup sculpture installations by Paula Crown, the artist and Skico art advisor whose family owns the company, and partnering with local environmental groups on the multi-year “Imagine Climate” public art project.

The company has also long partnered with the nonprofit Protect Our Winters (POW) on climate action from the snow sports community.

“We are encouraging dialogue, support, and most importantly — through our close connection with POW — strong action,” Carolan said in the company’s “Melted Gondola” announcement.

The dialogue isn’t easy, of course, as COP26 earlier this year in Glasgow and the years of climate summits and inaction by world leaders have shown.

But Erickson has decided to engage in recent weeks after “The Melted Gondola” was unveiled, responding to climate deniers on social media directly and talking about solutions.

He found himself defending Skico to critics, a position Erickson did not expect to find himself in before working on the piece. He had been skeptical of the company, questioning whether their efforts were simple green-washing public relations.

“Working with them was a bit of an ethical dilemma for me,” he explained. “And the more I dug into it, the more I really felt they were looking to make a genuine, heartfelt statement about the crisis. They are taking these steps and initiatives to actually do something about it.”

Even if he’s been met with opposition from some and skepticism from others — along with the obligatory trolling — Erickson is committed to being a part of the conversation his work has started.

“I guess the most encouraging part is people talking about it,” he said. “I think action comes through the conversations.”

Skiers unload from the Silver Queen Gondola near the melted gondola installation at the top of Aspen Mountain on Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The installation of “The Melted Gondola” coincided with the release of the Skico’s annual sustainability report, which this year reads as a manual for climate action with examples of how POW and the Skico are attempting to turn the outdoor industry into a political force on climate as well as social justice and equity issues.

“The ski and outdoor industry are enthusiastic, but have not historically wielded large amounts of power the way other industries like oil and gas or big pharma, often do,” Skico vice president of sustainability Auden Schendler said when “The Melted Gondola” was unveiled. “We want to help bring that power to the fight against climate change.”

The report also directly addresses the green-washing concerns, and the often-lobbed criticisms of Skico and Aspen’s climate activism, in a section titled “Hypocrites Unite!”

“The notion that a business like ours that has a large carbon footprint and operates luxury hotels (and where people sometimes, uh, spray champagne on each other) can’t speak out on climate is precisely what the fossil fuel industry wants the public to believe,” it reads, advocating for people not to be silenced because they participate in a fossil fuel economy. “The answer instead is that all of us are obligated to advocate, to lobby, to protest, and to actually implement fixes to the larger system that de-carbonize the whole enchilada. This is terrifying to the folks who created the fossil-based system, which is a good sign.”

Aspen Skiing Company’s melted gondola installation at the top of Aspen Mountain on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

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