The night sky hardly has a corner on jaw-dropping visuals come Fourth of July.
In a tradition on par with rockets and mortars, more than a dozen local and national artists leave their studios to take up residency at art galleries across the Vail Valley. The range of work is staggering — paintings, sketches, sculptures, jewelry, even a few that defy classification — but for art lovers and casual browsers alike, the weekend is a rare glimpse at the creative process.
Fireworks, you’ve met your match.
The abstract industrialist
When Randy Wix sees a doorknob, he wants it to be just about anything but a doorknob.
“I was kind of frustrated with painting when I started art, so I wanted something that was a bit more of a process, a bit more of a craft,” said Wix, whose work will be on display at Galerie Zuger in Vail this weekend. “But I don’t want to just take a doorknob and use it in a piece of art like a doorknob. I want to change it, make it something different than it was to begin with.”
The doorknob metaphor is fitting. Before jumping headlong into an art career, Wix worked in the construction industry, where materials like concrete and sheet metal and, yes, doorknobs were always at his fingertips. But he didn’t just want to build homes, at least in the traditional sense. He’d rather take blue-collar skills and apply them to a work like “Industrial Tokonoma (Green),” made with discarded wood and metal to evoke a traditional tokonoma, the alcove found in many Japanese homes.
“I use all sorts of things — belt grinders, sanders, the welder — and people appreciate that constructed feel,” Wix said. “Starting with the canvas, it’s an entire process, so it’s more like building a house than painting.”
Like any handyman, Wix has spent years collecting materials. At his studio in Pueblo — formerly the mail room of the historic Pueblo Federal Building — the shelves are filled with his version of art supplies: salvaged girders, old roofing, pieces of a light fixture from the nearby Damon Runyon Theater.
And Wix has a deep appreciation for the history of each scrap he finds. No matter the source, paying homage to the original is the heart of his aesthetic.
“Someone may look at these things and say, ‘That’s just a piece of metal,’ when really it’s a glimpse at the history of Pueblo, or the history of a location I visited,” Wix said.
The pop artist
In the local art scene, few names are more well-known than Shen. Her journey from Silicone Valley tagger to Vail-based pop artist is undeniably intriguing — as a teenager, she became one of the first legitimate female graffiti artists in the world — but she’s 25 years removed from that brand of art. She even admits it, paired with a laugh and warm, laid-back honesty.
And yet, the same forces that led Shen to graffiti are still alive in her recent work. She’s something of a performance artist, and when she brings her performance to Horton Fine Art Gallery in Beaver Creek, the crowd will be a slice of home.
“I got indoctrinated very young with painting for large crowds — I thrive on it,” said Shen, who has painted live countless times in the area, most recently at the Blues, Brews & BBQ Festival over Labor Day weekend. “I actually work better with a crowd than in my studio.”
Shen now pairs aerosol with a slew of off-beat materials, from collage and acrylic to airbrush, which she first picked up working at a California amusement park. The result is vibrant and punky, just like her early graffiti, but it’s also deceptively complex. She often begins with pop-culture figures — John Wayne, the Blues Brothers, even Elvis Presley’s BMW 507 — then imbues each with wild, almost otherworldly energy.
It’s the same energy that turns figures into icons, and those icons have paid attention: Shen’s work is owned by everyone from Jack Nicholson to Liza Minelli, and one of her current commission pieces is for Don Cheadle, tied to his upcoming film on Miles Davis. It was a pitch-perfect job for a jazz devotee like Shen.
“Jazz takes you on a journey, just like my paintings do,” Shen said. “I like to let the paintings talk to me and I listen to what they have to say. I’ll even ask questions, if that makes sense, then let my intuition tie it all together.”
The bronze sculptors
For sculptors Martha and Del Pettigrew, few subjects are better for bronze than the wide, untamed wilderness of Colorado.
“I sculpt wildlife I’ve seen in the wild,” said Del Pettigrew, an avid fly-fisherman and lifelong hunter. “If I want to sculpt a grizzly bear, I have to see it out in the wild. It’s about credibility — I saw that animal in three dimensions. I might use a photo to study the ear or nose or foot, something for detail, but it’s more a point of departure.”
Every year for the past decade, the Nebraska-based husband and wife team have sculpted live at Knox Gallery in Beaver Creek over the Fourth of July weekend. This year, Del Pettigrew will work on the armature, or metal framework, for one of his larger pieces, a six-foot-tall tree with a dove’s nest nestled in the branches. It’s a fitting compliment to his body of work, which pulls liberally from hunting and fishing trips, not to mention time spent raising horses with his wife.
Although Martha Pettigrew is also known for animal sculptures — her take on a moose, titled “Ralph Bronze,” is alive with a sort of playful bashfulness — she’s recently been drawn to totem poles. Like her bronze work, the totems are teeming with little quirks and oddities, filtered through an attraction to Native American fables.
“I’m just very interested in the Northwest culture,” Martha Pettigrew said. “I change the designs a bit to suit my style, but they all tell a story about the figures included in them.”
The new professional
Mikael Olson has been painting since he was in elementary school, but in the past year, he’s turned his slice-of-life aesthetic into a career. This weekend, Vail International Gallery hosts his first-ever solo show, featuring pieces inspired by a trip he took to New York City in early May.
“Travel is good for your soul,” Olson said. “I haven’t had much opportunity to travel and paint. Now I’m just grateful to have time to experience all these new things. It’s that beginner’s mindset, when you don’t take anything for granted.”
Although Olson sees himself as a beginner, the Denver-based artist has an expert eye for light and shadow, filtered through a style that flits between abstract and impressionistic. His 18 NYC pieces each tell a story, from a rainy afternoon punctuated with darkened figures in “New York Downpour” to a quiet, unassuming rendition of a big-city street corner in “Columbus Ave.”
“New York is a very urban environment, like a concrete jungle,” Olson said. “You have shafts of light that come from certain areas, and other areas will be totally dark. I wasn’t sure what I’d find around each corner. I’d love to go back — it would be a heightened experience knowing what I know now.”
Like fellow one-name artist Shen, Britten is a fixture in the Vail area. She’s the artist-in-residence at Vail’s C. Anthony Gallery, where her new, wildly eclectic summer collection, fittingly titled “Freedom,” will be on display throughout the weekend.
While Britten doesn’t quite thrive on crowd energy like her local peer — she won’t paint live during the Fourth of July show, simply because she works with so many mediums — her shows tend to draw huge crowds, occasionally for unexpected reasons.
“Some of the pieces are still wet, so the smell of fresh paint abounds in the gallery to lure people in,” Britten laughs. Just days before the premiere, she put the final touches on a massive piece, titled “Liberty,” with billowing patches of purple flowers, rolling fog and multi-hued paint elegantly spread across three panels of metallic canvas. From one angle it looks like an alpine meadow, while from another angle it shimmers like a forgotten dream. The interpretive variety is a testament to the artist’s ever-evolving style — even as she tries to remove herself completely.
“The process to me is so much about discovery that I enjoy finding the unexpected,” Britten said. “It’s almost how someone would look at something when they see it the first time, so I’m just as interested to see how it turns out. That’s the definition of creativity, letting something be what it needs to be with no limits, without my personality getting in the way.”