For most Coloradans, the 10 hiking essentials include a first-aid kit, a multitool, and a puffy. But for Mike Wilson, the essentials look more like watercolor paints, brushes, and a canvas or two.

The Denver watercolor artist started using the Centennial State for artistic inspiration around four years ago, after painting Handies Peak, a fourteener near Silverton. The experience—the defining lines, the contrast against the horizon—inspired him to paint a few of his other favorite peaks, and soon, he found himself on a mission to paint all 53 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains.

After completing his collection, Wilson and his wife, Jane Hansberry, donated the paintings to the Cottonwood Institute, a Denver-based nonprofit that connects students in middle and high schools with nature. The organization, in turn, worked with Denver International Airport to place prints of each painting on display in the Concourse A bridge walkway. Wilson chose to donate his original paintings to the Cottonwood Institute after learning about the programming, and the nonprofit is now selling prints of each painting online to help fund its work.

“I think everyone has a connection to one of the fourteeners,” says Ford Church, founder and executive director of the Cottonwood Institute. One man purchased a print he spotted in the airport because it was the peak where he proposed to his wife. Another buyer took home a print because it brought back fond memories of hiking fourteeners with his father.

Mike Wilson’s paintings are installed at DIA. Photo courtesy of Mike Wilson

As for the originals, Church is still undecided whether the institute will sell all of the watercolors or if they’ll display the works at exhibits throughout the state. Until then, though, reprints on canvas of the 53 paintings will stay on display in Concourse A through September. We sat down with Mike Wilson and his wife Jane Hansberry to learn more about the artist’s process.

Editor’s note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

5280: Are you a full-time artist or is painting a creative hobby?
Mike Wilson: I’d call it a self-sustaining hobby. Anybody that paints as much as I do has a lot of paintings, and it’s very difficult to give them away. It seems like people don’t want art unless it’s priced in some way, which is OK with me. It pays for my materials, and those aren’t cheap.
Jane Hansberry: Mike has always been an artist with a day job. He worked with Denver Water for years, but that meant he was outside all the time, never really stuck in a cubicle. I think that helped inspire his work.

Did you hike all of the fourteeners to paint them?
Mike: No, I’ve hiked maybe 10 to 15, but not all of them. Something that I think is important to note is I painted them from a chosen perspective, meaning I looked at them through Google Earth to figure out what angle I wanted to paint them from. Many of the peaks are difficult to look at because they’re either hidden behind other peaks, or their best face is from another side, or you can’t view them from high enough to get a good look at them. Try to think about taking nice pictures of people while lying on your back on the floor.

What’s your favorite fourteener you’ve climbed?
Mike: I climbed fourteeners when I was quite a bit younger, but I remember hiking Uncompahgre and Sneffels in the winter, which are quite fun to climb up and ski down. I’ve also done Mt. Blue Sky on a bicycle about 10 times now.

Mt. Bross. Photo courtesy of Mike Wilson

Is there a painting in this series you’re particularly proud of?
Mike: I really wanted to use Google Earth to make these mountains look good. They’re like movie stars, they have a good side. Some of these mountains aren’t necessarily impressive by themselves. Take Mt. Bross as an example. It’s just a big lump of earth glued next to other big lumps of earth. Making it look impressive is an artist’s job, and I’m proud of what I did with Bross. I had to enhance it and show the mountain’s best side.

You painted 53 mountain landscapes for this project. Did it ever get tiring?
Mike: Absolutely, I had a couple of tricks to keep me motivated. For example, we were sending out a bunch of them at Christmas as postcards, and our friends would ask when I’d be finishing the rest, which helped.
Jane: At one point Mike was doing a show of these at Lafayette’s municipal art gallery, the Collective. As he was getting ready to do the show, he suddenly was like, “Oh my god. I forgot to paint Harvard.” Casting no shade on Mt. Harvard, but he had completely just forgotten.

Why did you decide to donate these paintings in the first place?
Jane: We were interested in having these paintings benefit an organization that is about getting people into the outdoors, but especially people who might not otherwise have the opportunity. There are several cool organizations that we know, but Cottonwood was one that put together [a proposal] that really made sense. We wanted these to go to an organization that had the capacity and imagination to handle them.

Is there anything you hope people take away from these paintings?
Mike: I don’t know if there’s anything to be taught from the paintings other than Colorado is a beautiful place, but I hope people become interested in the idea behind them and the Cottonwood Institute. I also hope that people are interested in the different perspectives of them: Many of them look even more rugged from above than when you’re looking up at them from a valley.
Jane: I’ve heard from people walking through DIA that it feels like a welcome home to Colorado. I personally hope that people who live here walk by and go, ‘Oh yeah, those are ours.’ I also hope people would want to cherish these mountains more. There’s a lot of organizations out there that are working just on fourteeners to both protect public access to them and protect them. I want people who live here to be reminded of that and the mountains’ beauty.

Barbara O'Neil
Barbara O'Neil
Barbara is one of 5280's assistant editors and writes stories for 5280 and 5280.com.