In the Rocky Mountains, an Artist Residency Is Launching Careers
Tucked away in the Rocky Mountains, about 20 minutes from Aspen, sits a thriving, 50-year-old arts community. Anderson Ranch Arts Center was established in 1966 by the ceramist Paul Soldner, who sought to create an alternative to art school. With fellow artists Cherie Hiser, Peter Voulkos, and Sam Maloof, among others, Soldner created a place for artists to learn and refine their skills, to develop new work, and to relish the company of other creatives—a model that has flourished and evolved over the years as the community adapts to the demands of an ever-changing art world.
Today, the Colorado ranch offers more than 140 summer art workshops while also engaging its local community with year-round programming and outreach. The center also hosts world-renowned visiting artists, including the Haas Brothers, who recently worked there on a new ceramic series, and Carrie Mae Weems and Alex Prager, who gave artist talks. Yet the most inspiring aspect of Anderson Ranch might be its residency program: two 10-week terms during which 14 artists live and work at the ranch, with an opportunity to freely develop their work, take advantage of abundant resources, and become part of a close-knit arts community.
Executive director Nancy Wilhelms believes this sense of community is a major draw for artists applying to the residency. “You might find that there are residencies out there where the artist shows up and they bring all of their own materials, they walk into an empty studio, and then exist in their own little mole hole. We’re not like that,” Wilhelms says. Like an all-inclusive resort or a summer camp, the residency program provides artists with everything they need, from supplies to a supportive staff of working artists and a diverse group of peers, who can be depended upon for new perspectives, feedback, and guidance.
From the hundreds of applications they receive for each term, a diverse jury of artists and critics decides on the 14 artists admitted to each of the program’s two terms, one starting in February, the other in October. The program is geared toward artists early in their careers as well as those who are decades into pursuing art professionally. “An established artist might come here to learn something new or to have a space in which they can experiment and fail, learn new techniques, or complete a project,” Wilhelms says. At the same time, emerging artists have just as much to gain. “We’re looking for emerging artists who are going somewhere in their career, people who can come here and truly benefit from working in our studios, with our studio team, and in the community experience.”
Throughout the ranch, an open-door policy ensures constant dialogue and idea sharing. “This is not a residency for the private painter who’s the genius in their studio with the door locked. We keep our doors open, and the community comes through. Residents interact constantly—it’s a very public residency,” says Liz Ferrill, the artistic director of painting, drawing, and printmaking, and chair of the visiting artists program.
For Christian Rex van Minnen, a Brooklyn-based artist originally from Colorado, the community he encountered during his 2011 residency was part of a turning point in his career. “Up until then I was kind of unaware of the art world, you could say. I was doing my own thing. I had primarily considered myself a painter, but I think that experience helped me see myself as an artist,” he says. “I kind of consider that residency my emerging into the art world.”
At the ranch, in addition to painting 60 to 70 hours a week, van Minnen was working alongside fellow artists with vastly different backgrounds and practices. “I was having conversations about my work that I’d never had before, which was really uncomfortable but also really positive for me. I wasn’t used to that kind of collegiality.”
Van Minnen also took full advantage of the program’s various non-painting studios. He recalls Ferrill encouraging him to try his hand at printmaking, which he’d never done before. “She saw how my proclivities for painting would be interesting in printmaking, and she introduced me to monotype printing.” From then on, he spent one or two nights a week at the printshop. “I haven’t stopped since,” he says. “I bought my own press.”
It’s rare to find a place where nearly every art discipline can be pursued. “One of the most unique aspects of our program is our world-class facilities,” Ferrill says. “Residents have the opportunity to cross over into other areas, work in those facilities, and experiment and broaden their practice, to try something they have never tried before.” In addition to spacious painting studios and the print shop, the ranch’s 14 buildings also include photography and new media studios, a fabrication lab, a fully equipped woodshop, a sculpture studio with welding capabilities, and a ceramics studio—for which they’re best known, due in part to their ceramist founder.
Ferrill recalls an artist who had been working primarily in 2D painting and drawing, before deciding to try ceramics. “Her work changed not just formally, but conceptually,” Ferrill says. “It really impacted her whole body of work and the trajectory of her work. When she left, she said, ‘Now I have to go find a ceramics facility back home.’ ”
“All of the equipment I’ve ever thought about using is here,” says Cathy Lu, a San Francisco-based ceramist and current resident. Previously, Lu had only worked in cities, which limited her practice and required her to simplify her process. At the ranch, she has access to spacious studios and various new techniques, like specialty firings, which she learned from the staff and fellow artists. “There’s so much expertise that I never imagined I would be around,” Lu says. She has also been inspired to experiment with the fabrication lab, which, in addition to new-media equipment, is evidence of the ranch’s updates and upgrades over time in parallel to new, innovative artmaking practices.
For Lu, the ranch has also been a welcome space to disconnect. “As an artist living in San Francisco, there’s so much hustle with the things I’m trying to balance—going to work, the studio, my other job. Here, it’s awesome because I basically have all day to work on my art,” she says. “The only thing I have to worry about is feeding myself—and they cook us dinner every night!” (The ranch has a cafe on campus with a private chef.)
Ten weeks may not seem like much, but the atmosphere inside the ranch allows artists to accomplish a great deal during a relatively short amount time. “This is a place where over 10 weeks it’s possible to develop a significant body of work, and we really do like to see that,” Wilhelms says. “They’re given the opportunity to really experiment, strive, even fail, but with a lot of guidance,” Ferrill adds. In addition to staff, the ranch regularly invites art critics to meet with residents and discuss their work, as early as three weeks into the program.
“It’s not like we have a set idea of what they should be doing, but we really like to have a vibrant studio practice around the ranch,” Ferrill says. “We like to see the lights on at night.” However, she says, the artists in residence rarely need motivation. “Once a resident gets here and sees all of this equipment and opportunity, they’re jumping for it.”
Wilhelms emphasizes that the end of an artist’s residency is often just the beginning of their relationship with Anderson Ranch. “There are faculty members coming this summer who came originally as residents, and past residents often send new residents,” she says. “The program continues to grow and evolve based on the experiences the residents have here.”
Van Minnen, for example, has taught weeklong intensive workshops at the ranch for the past three summers. And he has kept in touch with the artists he met during his own residency. “By knowing those people who are coming from very different backgrounds and places all over the world, I have this window into other little communities of the art world,” he says.
“I was starting from a place where I thought I knew my niche, but I left the ranch with this much broader sense of opportunity, of seeing myself as part of the art world and not just this outsider,” van Minnen says. “I thought the art world was very exclusive. I learned it’s actually more inclusive, that I could be a part of it, a part of the conversation. It changed my whole life.”