Creative heat

A handmade costume by Poe Nicodemus at the Telluride AIDS Benefit’s 2019 Fashion Gala. (Image courtesy of Matt Kroll/Life Feeling Photography)

January may be the coldest month in the San Juans, but a look at the calendar in this newspaper will tell you otherwise: From an artistic and cultural perspective, this has to be one of the hottest times of year.

We’re not talking literal fire, though to take but one example, the Telluride Fire Festival certainly qualifies: The nonprofit, which is inspired by Burning Man and staged its sixth annual fest in December, recently announced it has received financial assistance for fiscal year 2020 from Colorado Creates, Colorado Creative Industries’ largest grant program.

The award will help keep the fest’s flames alive another year, artistically as well as literally: A big part of fire fest’s mission is to attract acrobats and fire artists to the box canyon each December by offering them financial compensation and (just as important) exposing them to a wider audience.

Telluride and Ridgway are two of 23 state-certified Creative Districts, special places teeming with galleries, live music, and the passion to supply more of the same to both locals and visitors. There are two other Creative Districts on the Western Slope: in Downtown Grand Junction, which boasts the newly renovated Avalon Theatre and dozens of outdoor sculptures, and the Town of Mancos, with its several galleries, artist demonstrations and (emblematic for the Old West) a historic opera house.  

For rural communities, the arts aren’t just beautiful, provocative and expressive — they’re also an economic catalyst. As a report by the National Governors’ Association pointed out in Medium magazine, “rural counties that are home to performing arts organizations experienced population growth three times faster and higher household incomes (up to $6,000 higher)” than counties that lacked these groups.

“The ‘secret sauce’ for those prospering rural areas,” the report said, “is their ability to leverage their creative assets to catalyze economic and workforce development … ”

Both Telluride and Ridgway “are doing amazing things, running huge capital projects,” said Christy Costello, the deputy director of Colorado Creative Industries. “Ridgway has Space to Create, the affordable-housing program for artisans, and Telluride has purchased the Transfer Warehouse, which is going to be a world-class arts center. These are huge, transformative projects that will have a really big impact on these communities, and people’s quality of life.”

Well before these projects’ completion, the cultural life in Telluride and Ridgway is steaming ahead full-throttle. This is by no means a comprehensive overview of events (check the Calendar on page 12 for that). Here’s a rough guide to what’s on the next couple of weeks.


The holiday season is over and Telluride Mountainfilm — the traditional start of the summer festival and concert season — is months away. So what’s on right now? More concerts, naturally, at the Sheridan Opera House. In the next 48 hours alone, the historic venue just off Telluride’s Colorado Ave. on Oak Street, will welcome, first, Yale University’s saucy a cappella stylists The Whiffenpoofs. The Whiff’s songs offer a, well, whiff of the high life distinct from today’s cannabis-fueled affairs, a form of relaxation perhaps more Julep-based (their emblem is “a dragon with mint leaves for wings, a horse’s neck and a swizzle stick for a perch”). They perform tonight (Thursday) at 7 p.m. On Friday and Saturday, electronic rock group Papadosio takes the stage.

“They played a single show last January and sold out,” said the opera house’s PR and marketing director Maggie Stevens. This year, they’re back for two nights, with “electronic rock, funk, live instruments and” — speaking of creative heat — “a great light show.”

More heat arrives next week, in the form of a buff, scantily clad all-male venue — “I think they’re out of Vegas,” Stevens said drolly — titled Girl’s Night Out, followed by a soul, funk and jazz performance from The New Mastersounds. “They’ve got a pretty big following in Telluride,” Stevens remarked of the Mastersounds, “and it’s always fun when we have a new band in the house.”

There’ll be more body heat on offer three days later; Telluride Theatre has promised “plenty of pasties” during its tribute to burlesque, a celebration of a decades’ worth of steamy striptease Jan. 17 at the Sheridan (visit for tickets).

Part of the charm of life in a small, creative town is that it invites everyone to dive in  — by attending free writing seminars this winter, for example, at the Wilkinson Public Library, taking classes at the Ah Haa School (go to for a list) or, next week, collaborating on artistic creations for a good cause.

The Telluride AIDS Benefit’s Fashion Gala, one of the highlights of each winter’s cultural calendar, is hosting a get-together for handmade costume-makers Tuesday at the Ah Haa, a chance for all to get involved making wearable art.

“Our registration is open to anyone in the whole wide world,” said TAB’s Kathleen Morgan. “We’ve had submissions from Boston, Florida and Chicago. We get submissions from people who are really skilled, and others who are never-evers. This year, I have a seventh-grader who wants to make something,” and Tuesday’s Wearable Art Workshop at the Ah Haa School — from 5:30-7:30 p.m. in advance of the registration deadline Jan. 17 — is designed to encourage that individual, and others.

“It’s completely freeform, just like the art itself,” Morgan said. “It’s a chance to talk to us about what you’re working on, and tell others what you’re up to.”

This year’s theme, titled “Lumens,” is “bright, flashy, of many colors, and may reveal itself mysteriously,” as Morgan has put it. In an artistically incendiary season, it makes sense that these works are illuminated: “The majority of the artwork must contain lights through the use of LED’s, fiber optics or strands of lights. Candles are not permitted.”


This season, cultural events in Ridgway seem more numerous than ever: Over the next two weeks, sandwiched between two chilly-yet-superheated events, are a poetry reading, concerts, a comedy show, the Sundance Film Festival shorts and more, all at the town’s key cultural institution, the historic Sherbino Theater.

The cool-yet-hot events both (as you might expect) take place outdoors and involve strenuous physical competition: between men or women on skis, pulled by galloping horses, — a practice dubbed “winter’s wildest sport” — at this weekend’s skijoring races at Ouray County Fairgrounds, and between climbers scaling precipitous, frozen walls in The Gorge at the Ouray Ice Festival the week of Jan. 25.

“We’ve definitely ramped up our January events,” said Trish Oakland, program coordinator at the Sherbino Theater. “I think November and December are kind of hard. It’s the holidays, and everyone’s involved in family things. By January, everything settles back down, and people are ready: it’s cold, it’s dark, it’s winter, and there are not a lot of things to do in the evening.”

“We don’t want to compete in any way” with Ouray County’s signature events in the fairgrounds or at the Ice Park, Oakland added, “but we are finding ways to tie in.”

Thus, in addition to the Open Bard Literary Series reading with poet Frank Coons Tuesday, a series “that is opener than ever,” as Oakland put it, given that it now welcomes not just poets but authors and essayists to read each month — and a presentation by alpinist Phil Powers on climbing K2 and other peaks in Pakistan — and an Ekphrastic writing workshop based on the art exhibit “I Have Words” at the 610 Arts Collective — you’ll see yet another form of creative synergy on display.

“Last year, mostly because of people’s schedules, we ended up booking a lot of acts in January. They were really well-received,” Oakland said. One was a comedian-storyteller who was a keynote speaker at the Ice Festival. “He taught an improv workshop with us last year. Just after the festival he emailed me and asked, ‘Do you guys want me to do a (stand-up comedy) set, too? I can stay another day.’ We said, ‘Yes, we can do that!’ So we got notices out,” and about 70 audience members arrived for the storytelling event. Monte Montepare, a three-time Moth “StorySLAM” winner, will be back as an announcer at the fest this year.

Naturally, he’ll offer a storytelling evening in Ridgway. He is strangely perfect for local audiences (and, indeed, has appeared at Mountainfilm).

“He splits his time between LA as a comic and Alaska as a mountain guide,” Oakland said, “and has got a great lineup of stories from both parts of his world. He performs Jan. 23.”

Does the increasing number of cultural and artistic events — this report has barely scratched the surface — have anything to do with the fact that Ridgway and Telluride are state-designated Creative Districts?

“I do think” some of the increased artistic hustle-bustle “can be attributed to these town’s status” as CDs, Costello said. “A key component we look for” when determining whether to award financial and marketing assistance is “broad support for what these towns want their Creative Districts to look like, moving forward. This helps a community gain momentum: What it sponsors is more cohesive and collaborative, because everyone is working toward the same, shared vision.” The artistic events taking place this winter — the creative initiative these towns are taking — “are well thought out,” Costello summed up. “They’re part of a plan.  They aren’t random.”

For a list of the state’s 23 creative communities and their artistic offerings, visit