From rough and tumble
RED CLIFF ” Some people consider Red Cliff just a rusty old town left over from Colorado mining days. There is an eclectic bunch, however, who see past all that and find inspiration in every corner of the quirky place.
Red Cliff is an artists’ community, but it didn’t always house the creative type. Named for the surrounding red quartzite cliffs, Red Cliff was born in 1879 as a permanent miners’ camp for settlers striking carbonate ore in Leadville. It was also home to some of the miners working in Gilman, a mining town perched atop Battle Mountain above Red Cliff. It also served temporarily as the first Eagle County seat.
“When the mining industry ended, families moved away,” said Red Cliff postmistress Diana Cisneros, who was born in Gilman. “There was big long gap when nothing was happening.”
Around the 1980s, Cisneros said, a younger generation started moving in, renting and buying the old mining homes. Nestled in the beautiful, tight little valley, Red Cliff offered a cheaper alternative to living in Vail, yet still relatively close to the ski resort.
“Red Cliff changed right then,” she said. “With them came new interest, and the community developed out of that.”
One of those youngsters was Sydney Summers, one of the first artists to move to Red Cliff. The painter lived there for 25 years before moving to Denver.
“Ours was the first house that had been sold for a long, long time,” Summers said. “Red Cliff had a terrible reputation as a rough town. We heard people were shooting each other and fighting, but we were looking for a reasonable place to live. Vail was really costly, and we had a new business.”
Artists began to multiply, attracted to each other’s sympathetic ears and ideas, as well as the less expensive cost of living ” not to mention the peace and quiet of a town at the end of the road. It was also extremely hard to find studio space without any code restrictions anywhere else in the valley.
“I didn’t want to live in a place where I couldn’t hang my laundry outside or where someone was telling me what color I can’t paint my house,” said painter Barb Bomier, who moved to Red Cliff 18 years ago. “Artists see through to things that other people don’t. I love old rusty stuff. I love tin roofs. I love peeling paint.”
Joan Norris, a painter, has been taking her Colorado Mountain College art classes to Red Cliff for years because of the abundant inspiration.
“There’s so much texture, so for a painter it’s just wonderful,” said Norris, who owns a home studio and gallery in Red Cliff with her husband, a photographer, Jim Lamont. Norris first arrived in Red Cliff in the ’80s.
Red Cliff is still enticing artists. Woodworker and studio furniture maker Scott Burgess just bought a house in Red Cliff because of its artist community. Economics of land, he said, also played a major role.
“Behind every successful woodworker, there is a woman with a real job,” Burgess joked. Burgess creates contemporary hand-made furniture with exotic woods. He does mostly commission work. “Woodworking is a labor of love. You’re never going to make a lot of money,” he said.
Being around other artists helps with his craft, too. When apprenticing, Burgess said, he learned more at the lunch table from other artists than he did from his mentor at times. Mango’s Mountain Grill, he said, is like his new lunch table.
Things are changing in Red Cliff, and Mango’s is the first sign. The eatery in Red Cliff was razed a couple of years ago and just reopened two levels larger Aug. 23. Red Cliff is also getting a 14-room hotel and convenience store. A definite improvement, but some artists feel a bit nostalgic over the lost buildings.
Norris said she’s keeping a lot of her old paintings of Red Cliff because with all the changes they are becoming historical.
“I have paintings of a barn I painted half crumbled and now it’s totally gone,” Norris said. “The history is very special to me. That’s what is really important to keep the character.”
These artists and more (a total of 14) are participating in their ninth annual studio tour Saturday and Sunday. Artists open up their historic homes and studios to guests and sell their artwork. All mediums are represented from oil to pottery to glass to mixed media.
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Lindsey Vonn no longer has a home in Vail, but a big piece of her heart will always remain here.