The Vail Valley Art Guild's ranch project captures a bygone way of life in Eagle County | VailDaily.com

The Vail Valley Art Guild’s ranch project captures a bygone way of life

Joann Carhart Levy worked in pastels while she visited ranches.
Special to the Daily

Driving down the Derby Creek loop road in northwestern Eagle County, the black Honda pickup stops in the middle of the road – totally safe when you know you won’t see another car for miles – and the driver, Raymond Bleesz, whips out a camera. Somehow, a cow had slipped through the barbed wire fence keeping her in her ranch, and the blue tag on her ear meant someone would come looking for her.

An escaped cow waiting by the fence for her ranch owner to bring her back in the pasture.
Casey Russell | crussell@vaildaily.com

Bleesz, who’s on the board of the Vail Valley Art Guild, is one of 70 artists and photographers spent the past year driving out to the more obscure parts of Eagle County. Bringing paints, pastels, pencils and professional cameras with them, the artists and photographers captured the architecture of the ranches, conveying a distinct sense of history. Their work is on display at Colorado Mountain College in Edwards, and a public reception from 5:30-8 p.m. on Friday will allow guests to meet the artists and ask questions about the work.

“It’s stuck in time, some of these ranches,” said Beth Levine, a practicing architect and a board member of the VVAG. “I think that’s what became important to the painters and photographers: these buildings, these old trucks, the old ranching way. Our opportunity to get on these ranches and truly paint.”

On the ranch properties themselves, things like shiny crossover vehicles and satellite dishes are out of place. These ranches practice a way of life that’s no longer a common, shared experience among many – it’s anachronistic, bygone. But driving up to these properties from route 131 and down on the historic Colorado River Road, they’re not the ones out of place. The lack of cell service and sparse signs of human occupancy are reminders to all who enter that they are guests in a historic, proud world.

At certain plateaus and high points on the Colorado River Road, there are views of ranches. This view looks over Nottingham Ranch.
Casey Russell | crussell@vaildaily.com

The project started when Joann Carhart Levy, also a board member of the VVAG, realized that Eagle County’s ranches were slowly fading away. As owners get older, taking care of the ranch naturally gets more difficult. Many of their kids don’t want to take over the ranch, so they end up selling parcels of land. Wealthy investors from big cities on the East Coast buy up ranches and create a tourist destination out of it – a very different business model than what built the county.

The Ranch Project captures 16 different ranches in Eagle County, including traditional ranches like Gates Ranch and Nottingham Ranch as well as tourist ranches like 4 Eagle Ranch. No more than 10 artists visited a ranch, and in total, 70 artists and photographers made work for the project. To accompany the art, Carhart Levy wrote short pieces capturing the history of each ranch. The histories are on display at CMC as well. In the coming year, the VVAG hopes to add some new ranches to its repertoire next year. Levine talked about making a book with all the art and histories.

“These ranchers are very private. They were very nervous when we first came,” Carhart Levy said. “But now they’ve become our best friends, they love us and we love them.”

As a gesture of gratitude and respect, Levine would bring some of her homemade preserves to the ranchers. She’s been canning and making jam for years, and part of the reason why she became invested in the ranch project was because of the same connection to food. In the old days, preserving food was how farmers and ranchers made harvests and products last through the winter, which was doubly important when snow covered the one road into town and made it impossible to leave the ranch.

Once they were on the ranch, the owner would give them a tour of the property and point out important buildings and what their functions were. Some ranches were so big that it took all day just to see the whole place, and they’d have to come back at a later date to actually start their pieces.

On the ranches, modern technology seems out of place.
Casey Russell | crussell@vaildaily.com

The ranchers would walk by and observe. They didn’t understand why a bunch of artists would want to paint their house or their barns. But then they saw the finished pieces.

“It was really cool to watch them just look at it. They were in awe. At first, they thought Joann’s idea was a little nutty. ‘What, you want to bring artists here?’ But then, when they saw us and they saw some of the paintings right there on their place…” Levine trailed off.

One moment that stuck with Levine was when she was sketching at the Gates Ranch. Kip Gates, the fifth-generation owner, walked over to Levine and she asked him what he wanted her to draw. He answered, “my house.” So Levine sketched it.

“I think it was really cool for these people to see the respect we had for what we were about to draw,” she said.

If you go …

What: The ranch project exhibit reception

When: Friday, Sept. 20, 5:30-8 p.m.

Where: Colorado Mountain College, Edwards

Cost: Free

More information: Visit vailvalleyartguild.com or call 970-470-4416