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Promoting art while preserving the land in Rifle

Amy Hadden Marsh
Post Independent Contributor
The women of the Bookcliffs Arts Center enjoy a sunny fall afternoon at the arts center on the corner of 16th Street and Birch in Rifle. From left, Cindy Dempsey (BCAH board vice-president and arts center events coordinator), Betsy Blackard (art director), Emma Danciger (BCAH board president) and June Renfro (BCAH board treasurer).
Amy Hadden Marsh / Post Independent |

It was Christmas on Veterans Day at the Bookcliffs Art Center in Rifle this week. A camera crew from KREX News Channel 5 TV in Grand Junction were on hand to film holiday greetings from local businesses and officials for airing in December. “We wanted to support Rifle, and the Rifle Chamber suggested the Bookcliffs Art Center,” said Lori DeAngelis, KREX advertising account manager. “It’s a good time for nonprofits, rodeo princesses, the fire department and the cops to get their faces out there.”

And it was good for the Bookcliffs Art Center (BAC), a project of the Bookcliffs Council on Arts and Humanities (BCAH), which sits on five acres of the old Morrow place at the corner of 16th Street and Birch. The BCAH has been around since 1989. “There was a strong group that wanted to feature art, music, and performing arts events in the Rifle area,” said Emma Danciger, BCAH board president. But, without a home of its own, BCAH was dependent on churches, schools and other venues for its events.

Danciger was a good friend of Bill Morrow, a metal sculptor whose family owned the property. Morrow moved to Rifle in 1993 in hopes of purchasing the place but, according to the Delta County Independent, his wife fell ill two years later and they couldn’t afford to buy.

Danciger said he sold the five acres to the BCAH in 2002 specifically for an arts center and to preserve the family home, now surrounded on three sides by housing developments. “The problem for nonprofits is that they expend all their energies to rent or lease land,” she explained. “This was a golden opportunity to buy a piece of land and develop an arts center while saving the property.”

The property was annexed to the city of Rifle in 2009. BCAH has since remodeled the century-old, two-story, stone ranch house to accommodate art classes, offices, a gallery and community events. The on-site community garden has grown to 24 beds, and BCA’s Hilltop Summer Music Series just celebrated its third year. “The music is free,” said Cindy Dempsey, BCAH board vice president and special events coordinator. “We have hot dogs and Icees. You can BYOB,” she explained. “It’s close to town but you don’t feel like you’re in town.”

The outdoor stage is set between large, corrugated metal containers, whose colorful murals of aspen groves and mountain lakes add to the rural setting. In fact, the entire place, with the stone house, shaded yard and a commanding view of the iconic Roan Plateau, feels like it’s way out in the country, despite the encroaching suburbs.

“It’s such a peaceful place to wander around,” said Betsy Blackard, the center’s art director. “If it wasn’t for Bill [Morrow] this land would be all houses, too.”

Blackard teaches painting, drawing and pastel classes for the Art After Hours program, which is based on a community art appreciation concept originated by the Chicago Art Institute. Classes take place the first and third Mondays of every month from 6:30-9:30 p.m.

Blackard explained that the program isn’t about creating the next Rembrandt. “This is no pressure,” she said.

Classes have been small but fun, and some of the art makes its way to the gallery walls. “People create a finished product, put it in a frame, and say ‘Wow! I did that?” said Blackard. “They come back because it’s a nice experience.”

Art After Hours is open to everyone, but BCAH members get a discount on tuition. And the center provides the materials. “People don’t need to bring a thing,” said Blackard, who’s been involved with BCAH since 1989. “It’s a relaxing and fun thing to do when you get off work to get away from the computer, the job and the kids,” she added.

Other programs have included an artist of the year event at the Rifle Rendezvous, kids arts and crafts, Native American music and cultural programs, and garage sales and outreach projects, benefiting children and libraries on the Navajo Reservation.

The center operates on a small budget because most of the staff are volunteers. But that doesn’t keep them from dreaming big.

Plans for an art park, complete with classrooms, lecture halls, galleries and studios for local artists, sculpture gardens, a performing arts space and more, are in the works. And drawings of the park are available at the BCAH website. “This will double the capacity for community events,” said Danciger. “And provide a place where everyone can create and enjoy art.”

Meanwhile, anybody is welcome to enjoy the quiet setting, offer a class or become a member. The center is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. or by appointment. Contact the BAC at 625-8990 or at http://www.artsinrifle.org.


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