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They say you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone, and that’s exactly what Carbondale-based artist Chis Erickson hopes his newest piece—an eye-catching sculpture of a melting ski gondola—reveals to ski enthusiasts and Coloradans.
The large-scale sculpture—which has generated buzz online and on ski lifts since it debuted atop the sundeck at Aspen Snowmass’ Ajax Mountain this past December—provides a startling glance at what we stand to lose, especially given the current threat climate change poses to the beloved winter sport, as well as the outdoors in general.
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“[The melting gondola] has garnered quite a bit of attention, which was my intention, the intention of the piece, and of [Aspen Skiing Company]—to just really kind of scream from the rooftops, more or less, about this crisis,” Erickson says.
The artistic wake-up call comes after an incredibly dry summer and fall in the Centennial State, the state’s longest stretch between snowfalls, and the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history. As Aspen Snowmass celebrates its 75th season, the ski resort also reported an average temperature increase of three degrees Fahrenheit since first opening its slopes in 1946, losing nearly 30 days of winter season in that same time.
A few weeks after his sculpture debuted, we caught up with Erickson to chat about his eerily realistic piece, corporate responsibility within the fight against climate change, and how we can save future winters.
5280: You’ve been creating fine art and installations across the Mountain West for nearly 20 years now. When and why did you shift to creating art as a form of activism?
Erickson: I would say for the last six or eight years, I’ve placed an emphasis more on the environmental aspect and activism aspect of [art] … just with the recent series of events, pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord and these things that we’ve done as a nation that have kind of turned our back on the crisis. With this piece in particular, I’ve gotten a ton of response from European countries, actually. It seems like [the United States] tends to be lagging behind in some aspects of the global scale of the importance of the crisis.
Did you feel an urgency to tackle the topic of climate change, specifically?
Absolutely. It’s pretty blatant, honestly. I live at about 7,000 feet, and it has rained here in February the last, I want to say, four years in a row. I grew up on the Front Range, and it never rained in the winter. Like, it literally never rained in the winter. That was a very uncommon occurrence. It just seems like the seasons are getting shorter and the winter comes later. I’m an avid mountain biker, too, so there is an unfortunate benefit to that. I just went mountain biking on the second weekend of December. It’s definitely been different.
How’d you end up partnering with a large corporation for something like this—and one that has contributed its fair share of emissions and ecological impacts at that?
I’ve sought out these opportunities to work with different companies that are actually looking at implementing some sort of tangible change in the way we live our lives. This was a prime opportunity to work with [Aspen] Ski Co., who, you know, they’re an easy punching bag. They’ve taken a lot of criticism. So I was a bit apprehensive to start working with Ski Co., but I wasn’t aware of some of their practices in regards to climate change and reducing waste. And the more I dug into it, the more I really saw this actual genuine effort to address this crisis.
How did you decide the best way to display a melted gondola?
Especially being outside, [the gondola] really needed to be large-in-scale to communicate the message. It’s funny, some people see the photo and they’re not sure if it’s, like, a little-scale model. My work tends to be a bit on the pop-art side, so we wanted to create that kind of pop aesthetic and, honestly, keep [the design] a little bit light. I didn’t want it to look like, you know, death, or this impending doom, necessarily. So it’s intended to look as if the color’s draining off of the actual car, and it was all red at one point. Aspen has had red and black gondola cars for years; they just redid them. So it’s intended to mimic an actual Aspen gondola car.
What were you hoping to achieve with such a bold visual representation of our potential future?
Mostly, it’s intended to be a conversation-starter. I think that’s one thing we are lacking in our culture, is the inability to have a civil discourse. The other thing I was hoping to achieve is [remind that] these big corporations are honestly some of the biggest purveyors of all the waste and carbon emissions. And I think getting corporations on board by voting with your dollars is important. Ski Co., as I said earlier, has been a pretty easy target. People like to kind of conflate wealthy Aspen with Aspen Ski Co., and they’re obviously two separate entities. Ski Co. has tried to reduce waste. They’re working with a cooperative electric company called Holy Cross in the valley here. Holy Cross, as an electrical supplier, is trying to be 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. They’re almost 50 percent renewable energy as we speak.
So, where do we go from here?
We’ve got to get off coal, and that has been at the forefront of Ski Co.’s initiatives and agenda objectives—to stop burning coal and gas. They’re not doing enough there; they admit as much. Obviously, they have their own interest in preserving the ski industry. There’s thought that there won’t be skiing in Colorado in 30 years. And of course [corporations] don’t want that. But also, if people are actually taking an initiative and taking action, then I think we need to give them credit for that. Because the fossil fuel industry would want nothing more than all of us to be fighting amongst ourselves, and people saying, ‘Oh, well, you’re hypocrites, blah blah blah.’ The more we play into that, the further we get away from the objective, which is to reduce waste and reduce our consumption.