A landscape artist finds inspiration living on Colorado's Western Slope.
From its perch atop Sunshine Mesa in the Western Slope enclave of Hotchkiss, Len Chmiel's adobe-style home commands a 360-degree vista that more than makes up for the painstaking two-hour drive southwest from Glenwood Springs. The mostly two-lane road winds between steep mountain walls and severe drop-offs to the Crystal River until it gives way to the agrarian hills that inspired Chmiel, a landscape and wildlife painter by trade, to build a house and studio to match the terrain. Here, the earth falls away into elk-filled valleys and the jutting rock formations are dotted with sage, cedar, and piñon that paint splashes of color across the dusty red layers. Terraced bowls sustain vineyards, and the lowlands are filled with orchards.
The land is Chmiel's muse. He believes that working the soil informs his paintings, which hang in collections around the world, including "Consider an Eagle's View" in the Denver Art Museum. His passion for gardening and his proclivity for winemaking brought him to Hotchkiss in 2001 after living along the Front Range and in Los Angeles, where he'd worked as an illustrator. He purchased 17.6 acres, enclosing two and a half inside an eight-foot, wire-mesh elk fence. "For the last 20 years, I'd been looking all over the West for a place where I could grow stuff," he says. "I decided the best place to stay was Colorado, but to get out of Lafayette and come out here where I could get more space around me. The Front Range was crowding in, and that's not why I moved to Colorado in the first place."
The home Chmiel envisioned not only needed to be a place to live and relax, but also a model of efficiency and functionality where he could grow fruit and vegetables, store the produce year-round, and produce wine, from grape to bottle—all while blending with the arid, earthy landscape. He wanted a separate studio to complement the house, with plenty of natural light. And because the climate on the Western Slope is more temperate and sunny than on the Front Range—the reason it appeals to fruit growers—Chmiel knew he could take advantage of the sun to partially heat his living and work spaces. It just required the right building materials and know-how.
Chmiel found a contractor who worked with a fairly new material called Rastra block, composed of 85 percent recycled polystyrene—essentially, old Styrofoam coffee cups—and 15 percent concrete. Both the house and studio have 15-inch-thick Rastra block walls that are covered in stucco and roofed with concrete tiles; on hot summer days the building shell stays buttoned up and keeps the interior cool. "The place is solid," Chmiel says. "It doesn't move in the wind, and you don't hear any of that popping like you would in a normal house."
The 2,300-square-foot home includes living space, a greenhouse, and the workshop area where Chmiel makes, ages, and stores his wine. The entryway and windows are decorated with Mexican Talavera tiles in earthen colors and adorned with his own handiwork: hand-carved spruce and cedar posts and beams. Beneath the floors—concrete in the living areas and wood in the kitchen—is a radiant heating system that he almost never uses because the house is so efficient; he burns just a little more than a cord of wood a year, which he salvaged from the remnants of an old, bulldozed pear orchard on his property. Plus, the hot air generated from the greenhouse—because Chmiel designed it as an integral part of the main house—circulates throughout the rest of the home, bringing with it the fragrance of the citrus trees he brings indoors for the winter.
During the summer, the fruit trees and gardens provide a harvest that includes more than enough to sustain Chmiel year-round, and to share with friends—everything from peaches and pears to potatoes, spinach, and eggplant. His half-acre vineyard, some 675 vines, has yielded as many as 1,600 pounds of grapes and more than 350 bottles of wine in a year—Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir, and more. Chmiel affectionately calls the operation "Hobby-Max," a nod to the fact that it has become something of an obsession, although he is not a commercial vintner. In other words, paying the bills means washing off the dirt and getting into his studio to paint.
A short walk out the back door of the house, past the raised garden beds and orchards—some trellised espalier-style—leads to the front door of the studio. Like the main house, the entryway and windows are tastefully accented with Talavera tiling and Chmiel's carved posts. The studio's pitched ceiling allows the maximum amount of light to flow in from the large bank of north-facing windows and makes the 800-square-foot room feel open and airy. Paintings line the room's perimeter, stacked against one another, and a partially covered canvas sits on an enormous easel. Gold-leafed frames lean against the far wall, ready for his finishing touch—the distressing and speckling that will make them look much older than they are. A worn couch, piled with books and papers, adds to the artistic charm.
Constant tasks need Chmiel's attention in the studio as well as outside in the garden and vineyard. His last major project is a pond out front that will hold water he can use to nourish plants toward the end of the season, when his allotment of irrigation water from the county runs out. The pond is three-quarters finished, but today it can wait. Right now, he's content to stand and admire the view, made sweeter by the taste of juicy purple plums fresh off the tree.