Rifle gallery showcases town’s high-caliber artists

Carrie ClickPost Independent Arts WriterGlenwood Springs, Colorado CO
Kelley Cox Post IndependentOne of Anne Harris Hunter's specialties is her chalkboard sandwich board signs such as this one outside the Midland Arts Company on Third Street in Rifle.

RIFLE, Colorado – Walking into the Midland Arts Company is downright surprising. There on Third Street, amid Rifle’s decidedly western downtown core, is what you might call a fine arts and crafts gallery, chock full of high quality paintings, jewelry, pottery and so much more. It’s unexpected because once you take a breath and look around, you realize what a flourishing artist community Rifle has. And it’s more surprising when you learn that the six artists who own the gallery – and the roughly 30 consigners who exhibit their wares here – are all local. Maybe it does make sense that Rifle is home to a fine arts and crafts gallery. After all, Rifle became big news in the art world when it was selected for the Valley Curtain installation in the 1970s – a famed (and maybe infamous) gigantic orange “curtain” strung across Rifle Gap by internationally recognized environmental artist Christo. More recently, Rifle’s artistic side has become increasingly evident by its impressive inventory of public murals, statues and sculptures located around town. So as much as ranchers, equestrians, oil and gas workers, barrel racers, teachers, cowboys and everybody else belong in Rifle, the artists of the Midland Arts Company are part of the town’s fabric, too.

Six artists – all women – own, exhibit and operate Midland Arts Company today. Former owners and artists Michelle McCurdy, Lori Antonelli, Steve Chesley, Mary LaFranz and Alan Lambert started the store in 2005. Tragically, potter Steve Chesley, who was part of the first store and remained on board during its transition, died last October while mountain biking near DeBeque. His work remains in the shop, not to be sold, but to remember him. The original gallery was across the street in a smaller space. When it came time for a new crew to take over in 2008, the process was like handing a baby gently over to a new mother.”It was very smooth and easy,” said Ren Fisher, one of the current six owners, who is a jeweler, potter and fine soap maker. (None of the Midland’s owners/artists works in just one medium, by the way.)”We benefit from each other’s strengths,” said Fisher of herself, photographer/painter Jen Sanborn, potter/jeweler Misty Frontella, painter/signmaker Anne Hunter, jeweler/potter Lindsey Johnson and potter/jeweler Deb Stewart.”We work together so well,” said Johnson who has taken on the gallery’s bookkeeping duties, which was something Chesley did. “Everybody here says, ‘I’m willing to try.'”Besides painting furniture and glassware, Hunter also teaches art at Graham Mesa Elementary School in Rifle. Like the others, she commits one day a week to working at the gallery and shares in the rest of the duties. “It really just falls into place. And we don’t allow egos,” she said smiling, as the others laughed. “We don’t have time,” added Sanborn. “We’re all so busy.” Part of the reason the flow of fine arts and crafts fits so seamlessly in the store is because all six owners have to agree that an artist’s or artisan’s work is a match. At least four or five people a month come in to see if the owners will consider carrying their work. “All six of us vote on it,” Fisher said. “Everything is juried. We base our decision on affordability, originality, and if the work competes with anything we’re presently carrying.”

Frontella said much of the success of the Midland Arts Company comes straight from locals.”This community really supports us,” she said. “They want us to be here, and we really feel that.”And during a time when practically everyone equally feels the effects of the economic downturn, this gallery featuring local, artisan-crafted goods is doing – once again – surprisingly well. “We’re doing great,” said Hunter. “I think we just had our best year yet.” Midland Arts Company is located at 110 E. Third St., Rifle, 625-3068.

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