GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Some of Gayle Mortell’s best memories from childhood revolve around art.
“I am an art junkie,” said the Glenwood Springs Center for the Arts executive director. “I remember sitting at my dad’s easel watching him paint with so much ease. I was always amazed how just one brush stroke could make such a beautiful cloud.”
Mortell, retiring after 15 years leading the center, credits her parents for instilling a love for the arts early.
“My dad taught me about light and line, shade and shadow. He taught me to appreciate art in all of its forms,” she said. “My mother took me to dancing school. I loved it. She taught me to appreciate dance in all of its forms.”
The meaning of art
Mortell is often asked what art means to her.
“Heck, I don’t know, and I’m even a junkie. But I have let it wash over me on a daily basis,” she said. “The great thing about art is that it has no purpose, and that its usefulness is that it has no use.”
Though she says she can’t quite put art’s meaning into words, Mortell takes an artistic approach to her answer.
“It’s one picture of one picture of beautiful dreams. It’s wordless — the idea of the impossible to follow up with words. It’s a giant leap — a massive spinning wheel of images — sound, texture, light, line, quiet, the future, the past, culture,” she said.
A Michigan native who studied microbiology at Central Michigan State University, Mortell also takes a scientific approach to explaining her connection to art.
“We are the sum total of our ancestors, carting around their DNA. When we meet, they meet,” she said. “It’s what our forefathers earned in tears for our culture, extending and emptying into the future. Art expresses the stability of the past and the instability of the now.”
Mortell headed to Aspen in 1971, the day she graduated from college. She had $100 in her pocket, and she came to learn to ski. She later married, traveled extensively in Europe, had a baby girl, owned an ad agency for 16 years, and worked for the Carbondale Council on the Arts and Humanities.
She eventually made her way to the Glenwood Springs Center for the Arts.
“I’ve had a really fun life, a really fun life,” Mortell said. “We haven’t come all this way to have a bad time.”
Mortell said life’s little details she notices when no one else is watching have made her job a joy.
“I’ll see one of our dance company students jump higher than I have ever seen her jump before, or she’ll string together a series of pirouettes that practically takes my breath away,” she said. “And, there are the times — just in the few moments before the curtain at Dancers Dancing goes up — a quiet hush fills my heart and I think I’ll burst with the anticipation. The dancers dance their hearts out, and it’s all about them and their performance. Our kids have always come first. It was worth the sacrifices back then and now.”
When speaking of the Center for the Arts gallery, Mortell’s eyes brighten with nostalgia of tiny dancers in pink tutus surrounded by art.
“Nothing brings me more joy than when I see a little girl in her pink tutu take a running leap through the gallery space,” she said. “It seems that no matter how old you are, when you enter the gallery you get the urge to run and jump and leap with wild abandon.”
Helping community members of all ages appreciate and celebrate art has always been Mortell’s mission. She said she loves it when children walk through the gallery and stop in their tracks to go up and study a painting on the wall.
“Chills,” she said. “I love that I’ve been able to experience the art of emerging artists as they take that giant leap, and to experience seasoned artists, so proud to display their latest masterpiece. I am an art junkie, and I want our students to become art junkies, too.”
In the last 15 years, Mortell has established the center as a valuable valley resource for arts of all types including dancing, painting, music and wine and spirits and culinary appreciation. She has expanded the center’s class attendance from 40 to 300 students, and established many ongoing programs.
Not an easy task, said assistant director Christina Brusig. She officially steps into Mortell’s role June 1.
“She has helped transform the landscape of Glenwood Springs through the arts in many ways. Between growing the Arts Council classes and renovating the beautiful historic building that houses the center, her time has been spent enhancing the landscape of Glenwood Springs,” Brusig said.
Enjoying the laughter belting out from the art room and pottery studio as students embrace learning will always be one of Mortell’s best memories of the center.
“I love this old building. It’s such a special place where all forms of the arts happen. A place where there is joy and laughter. A place where there is music and dancing,” Mortell said. “It is a place where people can gather: to share ideas; to applaud the artistic efforts of neighbors, friends and invited guests; to relax and enjoy each other’s company; to entertain visitors; and to celebrate life’s important events.”
Renovations to the historic Center for the Arts building were completed under Mortell’s leadership. Over six years, the former Glenwood Power & Light building received necessary upgrades to help the Arts Council serve students well into the future.
“We renovated this building on budget and on time. We brought in many outstanding performers for concerts in the gallery. The 2Rivers Public Art Project changed the landscape of Glenwood Springs,” Mortell said. “We’ve kept the tradition of free music in the park alive for the community. We’ve been in the black my entire tenure, which is not easy. I have loved every second of it. I’m so proud of our efforts and of all the support we received from the community.”
Mortell said she is also proud of leaving lasting impressions on the younger generation of students eager to learn about the arts.
“I love it when the kids run up to me and say, ‘Hey, come look at this, I made it myself!’ I love the hugs, thank-you notes, pictures and pottery the kids bring to me,” she said. “They don’t know it, but they are living their culture in that particular moment.”
Mortell credits the Arts Council teachers, staff and board for 15 years of success at the center.
“They are devoted, committed and they love the Center for the Arts,” she said. “They have followed me through so many changes, adventures and shenanigans without question. O.K., quite a few questions. But they allowed me that giant leap.”
Reflecting on her retirement, Mortell said she also appreciates those in the community who have embraced her mission of making arts accessible to all over the last two decades.
“I love the people who support the arts and give their time to be part of what is happening here. It has become our home,” Mortell said. “Michele Diamond, a former board member, once told me during a concert that, ‘The arts have made my world bigger. They have inspired me and my child.’ I quietly answered, ‘Me too, Michele. Me too.’”
Art around town
Mortell’s inspiration and impact on the arts community is evident by merely walking around town, Brusig said.
“You will notice her influence through the Two Rivers Public Art Project,” she said. “Murals and sculptures that were once absent from our beautiful town now fill the voids making Glenwood Springs even more special.”
Whether it’s the popular Culinary Arts Wine and Brewfest established 14 years ago or the annual Dancers Dancing program, Mortell’s outreach within the community is immeasurable, Brusig said. Such hard work and generosity are an inspiration for Brusig, who has been humbled by Mortell’s selflessness in her role as executive director.
“Gayle has been known for her creative art exhibits and meaningful community collaborations, but mostly for her kind heart that realized the power in each individual from our community,” Brusig said. “She granted the ability for so many families in need to create and enjoy the arts. No matter what their circumstance. Her love for budding artists and little dancers has given way to what has become the largest and most diverse visual arts and dance program in the Roaring Fork Valley.”
A much-loved tradition in Glenwood Springs, the Summer of Music Series at Two Rivers Park is also one way Mortell has helped build the arts in the community.
“During the summer, we all dance to the beats of her heart. Creating community music through the Glenwood Springs Summer of Music series was one of her favorite traditions to continue and grow,” Brusig said. “Gayle Mortell lives by the saying that the arts are for everyone, and her presence in the Arts Community will be greatly missed.”
A community celebration in honor of Mortell’s retirement takes place at 6 p.m. today at the Glenwood Springs Center for the Arts, 601 E. Sixth St.