What are the odds that two artisans from the same mountain town are responsible for producing some of the world’s most prestigious honors? That their businesses should be located not only on the same street in downtown Ridgway (population: 973) but in the same building?
The creative output of Ridgway metalworkers Lisa Issenberg, owner of Kiitellä, and John Billings of Billings Artworks has touched thousands of lives in some of the most elite professions on the planet.
Billings is responsible for the music industry’s highest honor, the Grammy Award, every one of which is individually crafted in the basement of his Ridgway studio.
Issenberg has designed awards for the American Alpine Club and for competitors in many winter alpine sports. Slalom superstar Mikaela Shiffrin of Vail has hoisted at least 10 of Issenberg’s made-in-Ridgway awards overhead in her brief career, and female racing greats Lindsey Vonn, also of Vail, and Bernadette Schild of Austria, Federica Brignone of Italy and Tessa Worley of France have all won Issenberg’s medals, too.
For one of her clients, Squaw Valley, host of the 2017 FIS Ski World Cup races, Issenberg designed stainless steel awards shaped like skis. The skis were modeled after vintage wooden boards with graphics reminiscent of an antique ski poster (a nod to the historic venue).
“Every piece is new, every project is custom,” Issenberg said of her work. “It’s a poor business model.”
It does, however, allow her to tailor each award specifically to the needs of each client, something Issenberg thinks a lot about.
She got her start in Telluride, where she moved after college.
“I guess it was Telluride that influenced me, but mostly it was finding (the nearby small community of) Ophir. I remember having a feeling of home that I’d never experienced,” Issenberg recalled.
“The combination of getting outside, high into the mountains, at first with a camera,” for photographs she fused with metal jewelry, was an initial inspiration.
“Bärbel Hacke at the Telluride Gallery of Fine Art took me in when I was just 21 and sold my work. I’m so grateful,” Issenberg said. Almost three decades later, the gallery still represents her.
As she met more people, her work broadened.
“Mountainfilm asked me to create awards, and that led to work for the Telluride Regional Medical Center, and for the Michael G. Palm Theatre, which to this day is the site of my largest donor wall,” she said. “All the while I was accepting assignments for everything from furniture to metal railings. I said yes to everything. I felt fortunate, but it was a scattered feeling.”
So Issenberg took a break to study industrial design at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute.
“I was out of place there,” she said frankly. “I was an artist. Eventually, somebody told me, ‘Don’t worry about it. Just do what you do.’”
It’s a philosophy she’s followed ever since. Her design today is a fusion of art and a clean aesthetic coupled with a newfound understanding of how industrial processes work.
“Prior to design school, my personal design ‘depth’ felt so limited,” Issenberg said. “I’d come up with one design and not know how to go deeper. It cuts off passion when you can’t go deeper. I learned that whatever the object, no matter how simple,” its permutations are limitless. “It was a world of possibilities that I brought back with me to the mountains.”
Now in Ridgway, she decided to focus solely on creating awards, and today her portfolio includes clients from Marmot to KEEN to Squaw Valley, Lake Placid, the Vail Valley Foundation and more.
“With any project, my design philosophy is multifold,” she said. “My first thought is to learn what is the essence of a place or an event. Everything will be different, whether it’s a snowboard race or a theater. The second is to see what’s essential. It can’t just be a simple, minimal sculpture with no words. Names and titles are part of this. Often there are logos and dates, and sometimes more than that. I want to use only what is absolutely essential, to take all these objects and ask, ‘How can I strip these away, so the essence is what speaks to people?’”
Commissions often come by word-of-mouth. Two years ago, Issenberg designed awards for the U.S. Ski Team Freestyle National Championships in Lake Placid. That is where Jenna Lute, an event manager for the Olympic Regional Development Authority, first spied Issenberg’s designs.
“We’d been using the same medals since the beginning of time,” Lute recalled. “I had no idea we had a choice. Lisa’s awards had a rustic look and the way she layered colors on them was really cool. They were multi-dimensional. So, I reached out to her. I was surprised that it’s just her, a one-owner business. I put through a proposal to our CEO that we use her medals for all our World Cups this year. He really liked her work and said yes.”
Accordingly, Issenberg has designed awards for World Cup bobsled, skeleton, luge, and freestyle aerials and moguls events (in Lake Placid next week).
Earlier this season, her awards went to elite downhill men’s skiers at the World Cup Birds of Prey event in Beaver Creek.
The work “is enormously fulfilling on so many levels, artistically and philosophically,” she said.
Some of the awards she’s proudest of have been given out by organizations such as the Conservation Alliance, “which distributes funds to smaller groups in order to, say, clean up a river, or take down a dam, or protect open space,” and to individuals deeply involved in conservation, like the former Secretary of the Interior.
“Last year, Sally Jewell received one of my awards from the American Alpine Club,” Issenberg said. “She’ll never know me. I’m just tickled I got to create an award for someone I admire and am thankful for.”
THE GRAMMY MAN
For years, John Billings said, the Grammy Awards didn’t particularly move him.
“I’d been around them my whole life,” he explained. “I made them for 10 years before I even went to the show. They didn’t mean a whole lot back then.”
Billings, a native of Southern California, had apprenticed since 1976 with then-Grammy maker Bob Graves (his best friend’s dad). The earliest award he remembers was for crooner Frank Sinatra. But Billings is a rock ’n’ roll man, as you can quickly tell from a tour through his studio, where his portraits of Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and others are on display. “I paint dead rock stars,” Billings said drolly.
These days, Billings attends the Grammys every year:
“It’s kind of like the culmination after working all year in the shop,” he said.
On Monday, he’ll load 330 of the familiar, 8.5-inch-high, five-pound gramophone-shaped awards — neatly packaged in rectangular boxes — into his “big ass” Ford F-150 truck-and-trailer and head out to Los Angeles for the ceremonies that are set for Feb. 10. Just one singer-songwriter has moved Billings so much over the years that it brought him to tears watching the star receive a lifetime achievement Grammy Award: Bob Dylan.
“That’s when I felt connected. I got it,” he said. “I thought, ‘Wow. I made something that lifted up that person,’ and I was lifted along with it.”
Billings’ team of four assistants has been crafting Grammy Awards all year. “We work in batches of 30,” he said, “grinding and sanding and filling and polishing.”
The awards are made of a specially trademarked metal, a zinc-and-aluminum-alloy he named himself.
“I got the idea while I was watching the Oscars,” he said with a smile. “Someone asked what the award was made of, and the reply was Britannium. I looked it up … Britannium is tin. I decided I’d name the Grammy’s metal Grammium.”
Billings is more than a crafter of Grammy Awards — in truth, he’s a master mold-maker. “There are only two of us left in the country who do it,” he said.
He’s continually surprised, and challenged, by assignments he receives from clients. A recent, mysterious arrival involved an assignment to produce a mold for an executive desk lamp.
“They wanted 5,000 of them,” he said. “I did some digging around.”
Turns out the shape belonged to “the Dragon, v. 2,” as Billings put it — the second version of the Dragon spacecraft. The client was Elon Musk.
Over the years, Billings has been asked to create lights for the movie “Titanic,” which required him to procure, and study, an actual light removed from the sunken ocean liner. And he’s had to repair a trophy won by aviatrix Amelia Earhart at an air show, which subsequently shattered.
“It took me two months to put it back together,” he said. “It stood 3-feet-high. It’s in an aerospace museum in San Diego.
“Holding a piece of the Titanic — the real Titanic — in your hands,” he said, his eyes wide with wonder. “Or an award held by Amelia Earhart … ”
And then there are the Latin Grammy Awards, of which Billings’ team produced 240 this year. He also makes the John R. Wooden Award, bestowed annually upon an NCAA player who best represents the five “disciplines” of basketball: dribbling, shooting, rebounding, passing and guarding.
“One award goes to the player, one goes to the college,” Billings said. “And we always make a third, because somebody always breaks one.”
His shop produces a duck-shaped hood ornament featured in the Sam Peckinpah movie “Convoy” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof.” (“I’ve never spent a penny for advertising,” Billings said. “Every trucker has to have one.”)
His most recent award is the “perpetual trophy,” created for San Juan Skijoring at the Ouray County Fairgrounds this weekend.
He’s also working on a freelance project — a series of whimsical, sculpted crows mounted around town, near Taco del Gnar, atop a water tower, perched on a bicycle. The corvids are as subtle and surreptitious — hiding in plain sight — as the Alley Poetry series co-created by Billings’ good friend, the late Ridgway sculptor Michael McCullough. Billings continues to support the annual sculpting contest in McCullough’s name.
“I like to help where I can,” he said simply, “and I love this community.”
He described the same feeling of belonging Lisa Issenberg felt when she arrived in Ophir.
“I went, ‘I found it!” he said, of first seeing Ridgway. “I’d been looking so hard to get out of LA This felt like home.”
“I’m not surprised” two prominent awards-makers would call Ridgway home, said Margaret Hunt, director of Colorado Creative Industries, a division of the state’s economic development sector. “It’s interesting, because when we tracked employment, about 12 percent of Ridgway’s citizens are employed in the creative sector. That is really high. I think people are drawn to the quality of life there and creative people see it. The visual beauty resonates.”
Mayor John Clark, himself a creative — he’s the former owner of Ridgway Art Glass — called Billings’ and Issenberg’s complementary successes “sort of the classic example of how Ridgway has evolved over the years and where we are now, for sure. There’s Lisa, who had this idea that she could create awards, and she’s hit it out of the ballpark. In contrast to John, who in his eyes, more than anything, is a master mold-maker. He’s more old-school, and started work as an apprentice, and has created this sort of powerhouse, and his side stuff is really cool, and he has a solid crew of guys working with him.
“There’s just something in the air or the water here that nourishes the creative juices, I guess,” Clark summed up. “And one of the cool things is we can’t really put our fingers on it. Creativity is mysterious in a lot of ways, and I wouldn’t want it not to be.”