Art community grows in western Garfield County |

Art community grows in western Garfield County

Olive Ridley's Coffee Tea & Travel in Rifle has a rotating local art collection on its walls and regular live music. An art community is growing around small, supportive spaces like this.
Jessica Cabe / Post Independent |

In the past month, Rifle and Silt have played host to live music nights in coffee shops, a street art competition, a summer concert series, a Last Friday art celebration, an annual block party and more.

Despite what the upvalley folks might tell you (and what some western Garfield County residents might wish), Silt and Rifle aren’t what they used to be.

For a variety of reasons — including the more reasonable cost of living, the scenery and the overall atmosphere — young, emerging artists are flocking to Silt and Rifle, and the area’s art veterans don’t seem to be going anywhere.


“It’s more affordable, but Kansas is more affordable, and I don’t want to move to Kansas.”Dean Bowlby

It’s a nationwide phenomenon: Artists arrive in droves to the areas where they can afford to live. Detroit is a high-profile example; its growing art scene in recent years is largely due to the city’s economic woes.

This migration of artists happens in the valley, too.

Millie Test, an artist who moved to Rifle from Aspen about a year ago, is one of the many people who have been pushed farther out of the valley because of cost of living.

“It was kind of circumstantial,” Test said. “My bosses laid me off last year without warning when I had to take my son to a doctor’s appointment. At the same time, we were living up on Basalt Mountain, and we were renting the bottom half of this cabin. Our landlord decided — he’s on oxygen, his lungs are failing — he wanted to move home. And I blame it on the fact that he was getting sick and his mental faculties weren’t all there because he was just like, ‘You have two weeks to leave.’ And the only place we could find available that accepted dogs and was anywhere near what we could afford was out in Rifle.”

Test’s intuitive abstract paintings have just been accepted into “Bold,” a Denver art show put on by RAW: Natural Born Artists that opens Sept. 17. She said she likely wouldn’t be able to create work if she were still living in Aspen.

“It gives me the freedom to consider art as more of an option and to spend more of my time playing around,” said Test, whose former day jobs have been in graphic design, web design, project management and the like. “There’s a lot less pressure knowing I have $900 to pay my rent versus $3,000 or $4,000 to pay my rent. All that extra money, if I made that much, could go toward the art, trying to promote myself and traveling to other shows.

“It’s funny, because I don’t have a job now, but I’m no worse off now financially than when I had a real job, and I have free time and flexible time. If I want to work in the middle of the night, I can. If I want to work at 6 a.m., I can. I can take my son to the pool in the middle of the day. I can go to his school stuff. So it’s a better quality of life because of that.”

Although money was the reason Test moved to Rifle in the first place, she said she’s been pleasantly surprised by the vibe of the city.

“I was a little bit nervous because of course everything that I heard in Aspen was like, ‘Oh my God, don’t go out there!’” Test said with a laugh. “But it’s nice to be away from the Aspen area because I feel like everything is so locked off down there. I feel like there’s hope in Rifle, and if I can find a way to reach out and get involved more without feeling like I’m stepping on somebody’s toes or trying to promote over somebody else — and that’s just me, that’s not a vibe they’re giving off at all — I can really go somewhere with this.”


Many of the artists living in Silt and Rifle, especially the more established, say the affordability is a perk, but it doesn’t top the list of reasons why they live there.

“It’s not why I moved to Silt,” said artist Dean Bowlby, who’s been there since 1988. “It’s more affordable, but Kansas is more affordable, and I don’t want to move to Kansas.”

Bowlby said he moved to Silt on the recommendation of a Japanese artist friend who said the light outside the Roaring Fork River Valley was amazing — perfect for a painter.

Lanny Grant, who was born and raised in Silt and still lives there today, said he tends to keep to himself and focus on his work more than any art scene that might be growing. But he agrees with Bowlby: the cost of living farther upvalley is prohibitive, but affordable housing is just one of the last reasons he’s living in Silt.

“I think for the most part, artists are going to migrate toward what their subjects are,” Grant said.

George Cutting, president of the Bookcliffs Arts Center in Rifle and owner of the Crack in the Wall Gallery in Silt, said affordability can’t be the only factor because Silt and Rifle aren’t that affordable anymore.

“This valley is a hard place to live, even in Rifle and Silt,” he said. “But the number of artists is just amazing. It seems like it’s growing every day. So many young people are moving here.”


One of western Garfield County’s newest emerging artists, Sara Gallagher, was introduced to the area through a monthlong residency in Paonia last September.

“It took all of two weeks to call my job in San Francisco and say, ‘I’m not coming back,’” Gallagher said. “Inspiration lives out here, is what I’ve discovered.”

After deciding to move to the area, she said she spent time in all the towns from Carbondale to Rifle to figure out which place had the atmosphere — and the landscapes — she was looking for. She settled in Rifle and has since moved to Silt.

“People aren’t afraid to be who they are here, and it allows for a really honest interaction,” she said. “And that has much deeper value to me than a ‘scene.’”

Gallagher said she loves the mix of mindsets in western Garfield County and the openness with which its residents share their views. She’s happy to be a part of an emerging arts city, she said. It’s more exciting to her than joining an already established one like Carbondale or Aspen.

“A lot of people’s consciousness is raising out here — their awareness of themselves and their role in this city,” she said. “I think that out of all the creatives around here, all of the creative people I’ve met downvalley have that integrity and that honest glow about them. So within that, there’s a really compassionate, safe space to practice art.

“I don’t think it’s the affordability; I think it’s the place itself. On a whim, I left everything because I was inspired here.”


Artists living in Silt and Rifle is not a new thing. Allen Tupper True, an artist who specialized in depicting the West, lived there in the early 1900s. Many artists living and working there now have been around for decades.

What is new is the sense of community created around art.

“My gathered understanding is there is and always has been an artist population,” Gallagher said. “An artist community is what’s growing now.”

The Bookcliffs Arts Council (BAC) is the art hub of Rifle largely responsible for this growing community. It hosts workshops, First Friday exhibition openings, a summer concert series and other one-off events, like its recent street art competition. It is also responsible for Art Around Town, an initiative that gets artwork in places like libraries, banks and restaurants.

“The BAC has been really active,” said Mellie Test. “I don’t know how much of the community is involved yet, but they’ve been reaching out, trying to get volunteers. And Silt just got a coffee shop. I know it sounds silly, but I almost feel like coffee shops are the first thing. The art has a place to go.”

Misty’s Coffee Shop in Silt has a rotating collection of art on its walls, as does Olive Ridley’s Coffee Tea & Travel and the recently opened Whistle Pig Coffee Stop and Cafe, both located in Rifle. Olive Ridley’s also hosts live music and artist talks on a regular basis.

“There are lots of small places for art,” Gallagher said. “Right now this city itself is working on bringing all the groups together.”

The Greater Rifle Improvement Team, or GRIT, is basically an advisory board where one representative from a variety of organizations or businesses is sent to a meeting so there can be citywide coordination and collaboration. If one group is trying to put on an event, another group may be an ideal host, for example.

Whether it’s because of cost of living, a humble sincerity in the resident’s attitudes or the unbeatable light, Silt and Rifle are attracting artists, and the results can be seen all across town.

“Make no mistake — Silt is not Sienna,” Dean Bowlby said. “But neither was Sienna at one time.”

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