Department

Ranch Hands

How the Colorado Art Ranch created the only Artposium in the world.

September 2009

I recently found myself in Trinidad, Colorado, a town I'm enamored of because it's sparse enough to still be designated as "frontier lands" by the U.S. government (which means, essentially, that there are six or fewer people per square mile in the county), because of the old-fashioned brick streets, and because it's known as the "Sex Change Capital of the World."

I wasn't in Trinidad for gender reassignment surgery—but I was there to attend a symposium that was, aptly enough, about "sex and sexuality." I had driven across the entire state of Colorado not only to teach a class on "Writing Sex Well," something that emerged from my own writing on the topic, but also to be an attendee, so I could pop in on various lectures and art shows, where I saw everything from a male artist who knits superhero costumes to an expert on the biology of human attraction and sex. I was also there to clarify a confusing spatter of words that represents one of the best-kept secrets of Colorado.

You see, all this was part of an Artposium sponsored by the Colorado Art Ranch—"Artposium" and "Colorado Art Ranch" being phrases that require a bit of explication, because neither is accurate and both are confusing. The Colorado Art Ranch, despite being in Colorado, is not really about the arts, per se, nor is it a ranch. Denverite Grant Pound, who founded the Ranch, originally wanted a specific location for these events, but then fate intervened. "No one gave me a ranch," he says. "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need."

And, thus, the idea of a roving symposium, or in this case, a roving Artposium, was born.

Pound, an artist, and his wife, Peggy Lawless, invented the word "Artposium," which is meant to convey the idea of a symposium without the "grad-school angst," as Pound puts it. That means the Colorado Art Ranch Artposium is a weekend think tank of writers, artists, scientists, and regular people, all of whom meet in various locations across Colorado to share ideas about different topics—and to party. To my knowledge (and Google supports this factoid) there is only one "Artposium" in the entire world, and it just so happens to be right here in Colorado.

Given that we live in the great wide West, where people are spread out over large empty spaces, gatherings seem downright important. Add to that this digital/information age, where our learning most often comes from a screen, and forging real connections with real human beings starts to seem like a bit of a miracle.

And so after attending a few of these gatherings, I have become a fan of this strange, roving Artposium. How brilliantly fun, really, to get to know more communities, support small Colorado towns, and meet some of the best thinkers and artists of our day. It's a modern-day Chautauqua that we're damn lucky to have.

We humans have a long tradition of such gatherings, which are supposed to keep us smart and savvy and culturally up-to-date. Chautauquas were basically an adult-education movement popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; the idea was to bring culture and the best thinkers of the day to a community. Teddy Roosevelt, who was a fan of Chautauquas, called them "the most American thing in America."

The Artposium also reminds me of Jane Austen, or, more accurately, her clever characters getting together on certain evenings for witty and fun conversation, for some piano playing or singing, for some talk of literature and politics. But such gatherings even predate Jane and her crew, and as I walked out of one seminar at the Artposium, I realized why. These gatherings are essential in order to:

A) keep us older folk from bogging down in our old knowledge;

B) educate and entertain us when we're old enough to know the value of it and sobered up enough to pay attention, and;

C) keep us from having to travel to New York or California or Paris or London to stay savvy on the arts and ideas of the day.

At a previous Colorado Art Ranch Artposium in Salida, I got to drink wine with Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the famous "wrap artists," and get a sense of what their work was all about and why they did it. I also got a handle on their proposed project that involves hanging miles of translucent panels along the Arkansas River, and I became convinced it wasn't a totally bad idea. I also got to have lunch with Kent Haruf, the best-selling author of Plainsong and Eventide. I saw a lot of top-notch visual art, met a bunch of poets, artists, fly fishermen, boaters, gallery owners, scientists, and the like, and I got to go hiking in mountains new to me. Hard to describe, but all this inspiration took a permanent hold in my mind.

There also have been meetings in Durango, Steamboat Springs, and Denver, and the next one is in Delta County. The recent event in Trinidad was particularly educational for me. I was not aware, for instance, that animals that are monogamous—Homo sapiens, gibbons, foxes, bald eagles, and sea horses—are those that have offspring that have the longest childhoods. (Go figure!) Nor was I aware that some babies are born whose sex is undetermined, or the huge effect hormones in the womb have on our sexuality. I was not aware of what it might feel like, emotionally or physically, to undergo a gender reassignment, nor did I know that the doctor who performs most of these operations has undergone a sex change herself. I was not aware that Trinidad is considered the spiritual center for many transsexuals, and I did not know about the controversy this has caused for locals.

When I left this shindig, my heart felt greater, more expansive, and maddeningly alive. I felt as if a more contemplative, tender, aware me had emerged. D.H. Lawrence was said to have lived as if he were a man without skin—more alive and jubilant and uncontained than the rest of us. For a moment, I understood that. I felt what it was like to live without skin, without containment. Which is just to say, I suppose, that these Artposiums have the fascinating by-product of reinvigorating one's life force. And, frankly, I like the idea of bringing together different folks (scientists, artists, Republicans, Democrats, environmentalists, ranchers, county commissioners) to shake things up a little bit, and to make that life force a little more expansive. What a gift, to be thrown forcibly out of the inevitable ruts of life.

Teddy Roosevelt would be proud of the Colorado Art Ranch's Artposium. He'd be right there, hanging out with the scientists and artists and cultural critics, eyeing the landscape of Colorado, having a glass of wine—and feeling mighty lucky to be a part of it all.

Laura Pritchett is a contributing editor of 5280 and the author or editor of five books. E-mail her at [email protected].