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Art of our armageddon – dead wood and old parts are the new palatte

It’s no surprise when faced with a changing planet, people persist, make something from nothing, all for the sake of survival – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Be it a matter of taste, art or necessity, humans find a way through personal and natural disaster and some create beauty where death was assumed to rule.
It’s nature’s way, after all.

Mike Blakeman, public information officer with Rio Grande National Forest, said there is approximately 300,000 acres of spruce and fir dead from beetle infestations within the forest.

Our natural ability to adapt to circumstances and surroundings, people have always used the dead falls in the forest for building and firewood for heat. Even in the beetle kill areas of the recent decades, there is beauty to be found.

“With a mountain pine beetle, the streak always appears, but only in spruce or fir sometimes,” Blakeman said. “The spruce bark beetles carry a fungus which spreads through the sapwood.  Beetle larvae will eat around the tree, stop the flow of sugars up and down the tree, and the fungus clogs water channels.”

And the destructive and deadly little creatures have left their mark behind in the wood – a blue streak.

Even though the tree is dead and stained by the fungus, the integrity of the wood remains intact. The blue streaks don’t appeal to everyone, but Aaron Miltenberger and his partner Allison Cruse loved it so much when their builder Todd Grayson suggested it, they decided to use it to create a dramatic ceiling in the addition to their home south of Alamosa.

“The Crusenbergers are always looking for solutions,” Miltenberger said. “We wanted to use as many locally sourced materials as we could. The ceiling is Douglas fir beetle kill and the posts are salvaged from the Million Fire near South Fork.” The result is a warm and friendly space that the family shares with friends and community and demonstrates their value of sustainability. Plus, because the dead trees are no longer in the forest they can not contribute to fire danger.

With the larger trees gone more sunlight reaches the younger trees, which grow faster and fill in quicker. “Nature is doing its thing, disturbance happens in nature; rather than focus on dead trees, instead focus attention on new trees, wildflowers, watch the forest rejuvenating itself,” Blakeman said.

The forest isn’t gone, it is changing.

Likewise, farmer and sculptor John Patterson of Monte Vista found beauty and an income in the junk pile of his family’s farm.

Patterson welds discarded farm machinery parts and just about anything else into whimsical creatures and functional works of art. He even employs the random rock so abundant in the central San Luis Valley’s potato fields that they are dug out of the fields after potato harvest.

Among Patterson’s Farm Art creations are steam punk guitars made of gears and rebar, chile ristras of rusted nails then painted bright red and green, and drink tables which hold a balanced slab of flagstone secured between railroad spikes. These rustic and colorful creatures have saved his bacon and his mind a few times too.

“I used to call it beer money,” Patterson said. “It was the End of the World Part One – Y2K – I sold the farm and all my farm equipment, got a divorce. I lived on my art for most of a year and it kept me going.”

Today, Patterson continues to create and sell mostly at arts and craft fairs where many artists have a hands-off, you-break-it-you-buy-it policy. However, at his booth adults and kids can and will handle the sculptures, discover which parts move, and ask where the pieces came from and their original function. Because of this, Patterson is often told he has the best booth at the festival. “Kids can touch it, feel it, play with it. I’m not going to say, ‘put the bird beak down, it’s not a hammer,’ because it is a hammer.”

“I’ve had good sales in very hard years,” he said. “These sculptures not only give me a rebirth, a sense of discovery, change, and show me I have the ability to adapt and have a new life, they give that to someone else too.”

In fact, his work is so successful and his clientele growing even without a webpage. “It’s my retirement program.”

Mostly, Patterson works with the physics of balance, trial and error. Patterson said, “I don’t weld it until it’s balanced.”

Along the same line of thought, Blakeman said, “If humans can embrace change in terms of our own happiness and wellness, we’ll be ok.”

Good advice for the end of the world

By Michelle Le Blanc

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