Eagle County cowgirl finds a home | VailDaily.com

Eagle County cowgirl finds a home

Kristin Anderson/Vail DailyNatalie De Stefano an artist who recently released her book "What to Know About Dogs," pauses for a moment Friday in her home near McCoy in Eagle County, Colorado

MCCOY ” A dozen miles past State Bridge hang a right at the wildly painted VW Bug. Yes, the one with the mermaid and a blazing sun. Skull Bone Ranch lies at the end of the drive: 40-plus acres of red rock, junipers, elk herds, chickens, horses, dogs, cats and Natalie De Stefano and George Huras.

De Stefano, an artist whose murals can be seen around the county in various restaurants, public buildings and even the Vail Parking Garage, is launching her new book, “What To Know About Dogs.” Printed at the Old Gypsum Printers, the limited-run book is written and illustrated by De Stefano. It’s dedicated to her late dog Tuffy, the original good girl.

“Tuffy was the crazy one,” De Stefano said. “She was mama’s girl, the real life of the party.”

The book is the culmination of decades spent with dogs, sharing space and taking care of them. Page one assures readers, “If you can’t find your dog right away don’t panic. Just look behind you.” And from then on all the observations ring true. What make the book so special, though, are the pen-and-ink drawings on each page. Fine lines and a wry sense of humor imbue each drawing with something between a sigh and a kick in the pants.

De Stefano has already written and illustrated a second book, “What To Know About Cats.” For her “What To Know About Dogs II” she plans on having friends send her pictures of their dogs along with their favorite stories of them.

A year ago De Stefano discovered a lump in her left breast, which tested positive for breast cancer. After surgery she underwent radiation treatment, the effects of which she’s still healing from.

“Something really flew out of me,” she said. “That craziness, that freedom. Now it’s different. Now I want ” I need ” to start not wasting my time. God bless the restaurant industry, but I’d hate to see all of this go to waste.”

“All of this” is illustrated with a sweep of her arms, encompassing the upstairs studio: the warm orange walls hung with tiny drawings, snapshots and ideas-in-progress, the finished canvasses leaning against each other, random artifacts like a painted Styrofoam lingerie model enhanced with a goat’s head and rhinestones, sketch books filled with pages upon pages of intricate drawings.

De Stefano, 51, has been a part-time bartender for decades, and always enjoyed it.

“Before, I was happy working in restaurants, doing all this when I had time,” she said. “But I suppose subconsciously my purpose has changed. To me, I’m still just doing my routine. But maybe I’m seeing a deeper meaning to things. I see deeper into other people. Age changes you, too.”

Hence her newly focused drive to start and finish all the projects that whirl through her brain. She’s already planning a fourth book in her series, “What To Know About Breast Cancer,” the proceeds of which will go to cancer research or the Shaw Cancer Center. It will start with “Get a mammogram,” something she was lax in doing.

Her mother fought breast cancer 15 years ago. She came out for De Stefano’s radiation treatment at the Shaw Cancer Center.

“She couldn’t believe how wonderful the people at Shaw were,” she said.

Guests are allowed to pour their own drinks at Skull Bone, but that’s about it. De Stefano is in charge of everything else, from whipping up a pizza with homemade tomato sauce and elk sausage to making sure there’s plenty of laughter at the table. Raised in New York City by two artists, she’s got a wealth of stories at the ready. But more than that, she’s got a firm grasp on the present. Her in-the-moment aura draws people in, whether she’s bartending or painting, talking or listening.

De Stefano’s parents, Anne and Michael, encouraged her creative bent. Michael was a musician for vaudeville before he began a 40-year-tenure playing violin for Leonard Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic. In his 70s he visited Japan on tour and came back smitten with the country. He took to wearing kimonos and painted the family antiques in an Asian style. Anne’s artistic leanings have been passed down through the generations of her family. She has a whimsical streak. Despite macular degeneration that impedes her vision, she still creates ceramics.

Despite all the stimulation of the Big Apple, the city girl found her way to Colorado and, after a brief period of adjustment (“What? You kill the animals?”), let her inner cowgirl rip. She’s been running free and wild ever since. She and Huras have created a working ranch in McCoy. They’ve kept horses for years, and sell their farm-fresh eggs. Every year Huras wanders into the backyard and gets a deer or elk, which they butcher and put up. Those skulls, and others they’ve found on daily hikes about the property, cover the outside walls and fences of the house.

They’ve learned a rhythm together, De Stefano and Huras.

“When we first lived together, I’d be drawing and he’d be like a little kid,” she said. “I’d hear him creak up the stairs.”

These days, he knows to leave her alone when she’s working. And when she’s done?

“She’s excited, you can tell by her face,” he said.

From the plumbing and electrical wiring to the brand-new deck out front, Huras is an artist in his own right who doesn’t bother with drawings but works out of his head. De Stefano follows behind, painting the nooks and crannies that help create a home.

“I see a space and I think, ‘I’m going to paint today,'” she said. “No one can tell me not to paint on the walls.”

Renditions of herself and Huras keep watch at the bottom of the stairwell, meeting the eyes of all who pass. Painted flowers and vines grow across the walls. And does Huras mind having his creations covered with paint?

“I love it, it hides my bad work,” he said, laughing.

He’s partial to her pen-and-ink drawings.

“I can’t believe she can do that, whip it out so fast,” he said.

Almost every piece of furniture seems to have a story attached. The kitchen cabinets are made from the wood Huras used when the “Perry Mason” film crew was in the area and commissioned him to make motorcycle ramps for river jumps. A freestanding cupboard was lugged from State Bridge to Skull Bone. “It weighs a million pounds, it’s never moving again,” De Stefano said. She, of course, has painted most of its doors.

Her piece de resistance, though, is the centerpiece in the living room right above the enormous wood-burning stove that is so efficient it heats the entire house. For years she simply had no idea what should go on such a prominent spot. Struggling to recover after her cancer operation, it suddenly came to her in a moment of clarity.

“I just knew what I wanted to do,” she said.

Unable to lift her left arm, she stood for hours at the wall, slowly painting. What emerged was the backyard, all red rocks and impish, almost enchanted, trees. Huras is front-and-center, gun slung over his shoulder and a distant look in his eyes. In the background, de Stefano peeks from behind a tree, dressed in a timeless white dress. She might be a ghost; she might just be feeling playful. She’s certainly watching both her man and her world, keeping tabs on both. And she’s an integral part of it, a rare bird who’s found her place, her home.

Special Sections Editor Wren Wertin can be reached at wren@vaildaily.com.

Support Local Journalism