In October, 2020, I was invited to join my painting mentors on a trip to Ouray, CO. There were many reasons this trip was notable, both professionally and personally.
First of all, it was such an honor to be included in this group of painters. They traditionally head to the mountains in the fall. I had heard of this trip and seen the photos of paintings for many years. Every time I saw the field studies they did, my mouth watered. I had fears that Covid would de-rail the trip, but I felt very safe; we ate outdoors, painted outdoors, and had our own cars. We were good to go!
Each day brought a new wonder. We traveled rough roads into narrow valleys and studied the forms of rocks that make up these massive mountains. The weather was perfect, the aspen leaves at their apex of beauty, and the wind was low. Here are some of my paintings from those glorious days:
Ralph had mentioned that the road might get a little “four-wheelie” as he glanced at my car in the parking lot of the motel that morning. I had an AWD Acura, plus many years of 4×4 experience driving up Spring Creek road to my parents’ tipi site. I said, “it will be fine,” in a hurry to start painting.
It wasn’t until I stopped in a cloud of dust at the foot of those mountains that I realized I might have bitten off more than I could chew. Knowing that it’s always easier to go up a rough road than down, I worried my return to town might be challenging. I had bottomed out a couple times and was a bit surprised not to see a puddle of fluid under my car by lunch time. Needless to say, I painted that day like it was my last.
When I inched back down to Ouray, successfully avoiding the rocks and keeping my oil pan hole-free, I breathed a sigh of relief. The guys and I all agreed: I need a Rubicon!
The next day took us to the iconic Mt. Wilson, otherwise known as “the Coors Mountains.” If you grab a can, you can compare it with my painting and see how I did.
Besides the beautiful mountain, the aspen trees were just perfect that day. I can still feel the golden light soaking into me from that day.
That afternoon, we went our separate ways. Mitch and Matt decided to enjoy their agile vehicle, and they went over Ophir Pass. I believe Ralph and Skip took a nap. Since it was my last night, I went to Last Dollar Ranch and painted one more while the sun went down.
And who do you think drove up?! It was my dear friends, Dave Santillanes and Heather Burton! They were on a painting trip in Telluride and driving around, looking for material. We all pulled out our paints and enjoyed a beautiful evening in the Colorado Mountains. They even helped their sweet daughter to make her own painting.
The smoke from the wildfires in CA finally blew in at the end of our trip. It muddied the skies and made us all feel OK that we had to leave. We realized just how lucky we were that week.
If you’d like a different view of the adventures of painting these mountains, you can check out the Retrospective now on display at the Steamboat Art Museum. It features the work of Dan, Skip, Matt and Ralph over the past 30 years. Here’s a link to that show: https://steamboatartmuseum.org/four-directions-common-paths/
Family History Tour
One significant thread throughout the trip was my family history in the area. As I roamed around in the mountains, I pictured my great-grandmother, Fannie, riding in wagons and on horses. Did she visit her friends in the high mining towns? In the town of Ouray, where they lived, I could feel her yearning for the sun in the winter months. And as I thought of the big city of Denver, where she would honeymoon with a young attorney that she met in Montrose named Ben Griffith. Grandpa Griffith would thereafter be elected Colorado Attorney General, and they moved to Denver where she would hold her place in society. I marveled at how far she had gone in her life.
My great grandmother, Fannie Finch, was born in Del Norte, CO but was raised in Ouray. In the nearby town of Montrose, Chief Ouray lived with his wife, Chipeta. According to family lore, Chipeta and her band agreed to babysit Fannie when Fannie’s mother was away on an errand for some days, when Fannie was a very young child. Chipeta then took Fannie with her when the band moved into the high country. After a search party went out with Fannie’s mother, they found Fannie in good health and dressed as a Ute child, with clothes made for her by Chipeta, including the moccasins which are in possession of one of her grandsons, pictured here, with a note of verification by Fannie’s young sister, Maggie. The family maintains that the relations between the Utes and the settlers were entirely friendly, after the last war started by Colorow ended in 1880, and that Chipeta was a long time friend.
As I was leaving Ouray, I stopped in the graveyard. I found the listing for Fannie’s Grandfather, Andrew Jackson Finch, who had died in a bobsledding accident. I saw the grassy spot where he must lie, but there is no headstone. The view is clear of the valley, and the big trees shade the peaceful knoll.
Overall, the trip to Ouray was incredible. I sure hope I get invited back. And I hope I have a Jeep by then!
I recorded a brief video of myself in Ouray, as I pondered the fates that brought me there for this trip. You can view it by clicking here
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