If you take a ride on the gondola in the coming months from Mountain Village to Telluride and glance down at the carpet of green hillside beneath your floating car, you may see a message spelled out in looping, pink letters.
“We are in this together,” reads the large-scale neon sculpture, each word rolling towards you like the beginning of a “Star Wars” film as the gondola car is pulled forward. These five simple words, when strung together like beads on a strand, may elicit a head nod of appreciation, a recognition of a shared world and the unifying commonality of the human experience, or it may provoke an arching of one eyebrow as you suddenly reflect on the social inequities that afford a much easier path to some in navigating the human experience.
That’s very much the point of the artwork, according to sculpture artist Tavares Strachan.
“‘We are in this together’ is a jumping off point for discussion and introspection,” Strachan explained. “It's an invitation to the viewer to ask themselves whether the statement strikes them as true. I see the artwork itself as a reminder of the limits and possibility of community. The artwork is meant to draw attention to the struggles within our society. We are all in this together is a call to action; it's meant to spur a difficult discussion. Are we in this together? I welcome this dialogue, and I look forward to participating in it.”
Strachan, who was born and raised in the Bahamas and now splits his time between New York City and Nassau, first envisioned the idea for the site-specific sculpture years ago, long before the pandemic and nationwide protests over racial injustice erupted across the country. Having visited Telluride several times and observed how social issues such as affordable housing, food security and immigration existed in the region as elsewhere in the world, Strachan imagined a piece of public art that would spark conversation between differing viewpoints, something he feels is now more important than ever given the co-opting of the phrase by everyone from Donald Trump to corporations.
“It's been eerie to see this project suddenly mirror current events,” Strachan said. “When I chose this phrase, and began to ideate this artwork, ‘we are in this together’ wasn't something you heard from advertisements and posters across America. It's telling that with the nation in crisis people have been drawn to this phrase as a source of comfort and solidarity.”
The sculpture will be fabricated by Strachan before being installed on 10-foot-tall steel frames on the grassy slope beneath the gondola below the mid-station. The site above Mountain Village was chosen specifically for its low impact to the surrounding environment and its high visibility via free public transportation. The use of traditional neon technology — wherein a small amount of neon gas is encased in a glass tube which reflects a diffuse, colorful light — is intended to create a message visible from the gondola but not be a detriment to wildlife or pollute the dark night skies. The sculpture’s light will shut off after gondola operating hours and during offseasons, and has received a conditional-use permit from the Town of Mountain Village for an 18-month display period, after which the piece will be removed and the land returned to its previous state.
“During the design review, we had to address the light impact,” said Elaine Demas, vice president initiatives at the Telluride Foundation, through which anonymous private donors have sponsored the project. “A lighting expert, who was a member of the design team, explained how neon emits light. It doesn’t emit an enormous amount of light.”
She explained that it is designed to be visible from above, but would not, for example, be visible while skiing down an adjacent ski run. Additionally, the sculpture will be powered by renewable energy purchased through the San Miguel Power Association.
While Demas could not disclose the total cost of the project, she noted that funding has come entirely from private donors, who she emphasized have also contributed for many years to the Foundation’s Good Neighbor Fund and many other nonprofits throughout the community. Last year, the planning committee invited community members from various sectors to a private presentation to solicit community input on the project. Though the initial timeline of the project was abruptly disrupted at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the project’s committee is once more moving forward with plans to begin the installation and hopes that the completed artwork may be ready to unveil as soon as September, though uncertainties remain due to complications stemming from the pandemic.
Despite the cursive pink phrase forming the most visible part of the artwork, both the artist and local planning committee members emphasized that the neon message is really just “the tip of the iceberg,” as Tavares put it, with extensive educational programming in the works that will take place throughout the installation’s life.
Judy Kohin, executive director of the Ah Haa School for the Arts, has spearheaded the art school’s involvement in developing the accompanying programs, which will include material for both adults and children, including day trips from the area’s schools to spend the day exploring the meanings of the phrase via writing and art workshops. Plans are also in the works to include a lecture series featuring local experts to explore the social elements of the community regarding topics such as housing, food, education, climate and immigration, among other events and workshops.
Ultimately, Kohin said, the artwork and accompanying programs aim to facilitate the kind of “Ah Haa!” moment for which the art school was named.
“The idea is to give people the opportunity to see things in a new light,” she said, “to discuss things they haven’t thought about or talked about before, or felt uncomfortable talking about. That, for me, is the goal; for everyone, for every child, to think about things in a new way. Art is transformative, and that’s what I think this piece will do on many levels.”