Vail set in stone |

Vail set in stone

Melanie Wong
Vail, CO Colorado
Kristin Anderson/Vail DailyStone sculptor Karen Heyl works away at a limestone carving Monday at Arrabelle Square in Vail, Colorado

VAIL, Colorado – Most days, rain or shine, Karen Heyl can be seen with power tools in hand, working diligently at Arrabelle Square in Lionshead Village in Vail, Colorado.

At first glance, she might be a worker, perched up on a construction lift, drilling away at the stone wall. Take another look, and you’ll see an artist, carefully whittling away at the smooth surface.

The Cincinnati-based stone carver has been chiseling away at the large, limestone column outside of Rimini for the past month, creating images that aim to depict the flora, fauna and active lifestyle of Vail. Heyl specializes in limestone work in particular, calling the medium “reliable, affordable and durable,” and most of her carvings are “bas relief,” meaning that the images are carved out of a flat surface.

Her pieces range in size from 50-foot murals, such as one she carved for a church, to tile-sized sculptures that could be displayed on a table.

In Arrabelle Square, one panel shows an eagle swooping down into its nest, another shows a ram, deer, bobcat and coyote. Another shows a columbine flower and pine trees and another a bear and several ground animals.

Representing the Vail lifestyle is a carving of a snowboarder, a downhill skier, children ice skating and a kayaker.

Heyl starts each image by tracing the outline of her images with pencil on the smooth, creamy surface of the Indiana limestone slabs.

Then, using small, handheld power tools, she starts working out the shape of the images. She brushed her hand over the loosely-defined face of the child ice skating.

“I love the process of finding form. I don’t care what the form is,” she said. “I never quite know what it’s going to look like until I actually carve it out.”

By the time she’s done – each panel takes about a week to complete – her tools have worked on every inch of the surface. When all the images are finished, the panels on the octagonal column will be visible from whichever direction people enter the square.

While Heyl usually works in her studio and ships her pieces to her locations, she occasionally does on-location work, such as in Vail. She expects to be working on the Arrabelle Square images through August.

Heyl said she knew she wanted to be an artist since the age of 5, when she was doing paintings in kindergarten. However, she didn’t discover stone carving and work professionally until much later in life.

“I went to art school, and I started taking painting, but I got bored,” she said. “Then I was introduced to stone carving and found my niche.”

Stone carving is a rare art in the United States, she said, but she was drawn to the physical process of the art – touching the stone, and the actual drilling work. Even when painting, she especially enjoyed the process of stretching out the canvas.

“I like the physicality of it. I go home at the end of the day, and I’m mentally and physically tired,” she said.

Although being commissioned by a ski resort is a first for Heyl – she’s worked for everything from the Vanderbilt University medical department to a water and sanitation district – she said that Vail’s natural environment is a great backdrop for her work.

“Most of what I do is related to nature,” Heyl said. “I think it is one of the best sources. For example, plants can represent healing properties and growth as well being decorative.”

Heyl’s love of her art is something she said she loves sharing with people – something she gets plenty of chance to do in Lionshead, where curious onlookers are constantly asking her questions like, “Who designs these panels,” “Who carved the other ones,” and “What kind of concrete is that?”

And she’s more than happy to answer all their queries, she said.

“It’s important for people to see how artwork happens,” she said. “If I can inspire one little girl to say, ‘If she’s working with power tools, I can, too.’ Whether they can relate to the image or to the process, I’d just like to inspire someone.”

Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2928 or

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