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Reading on the range: How Kickstarter turned one cattle ranch into a cultural center of the American West

Fairplay’s Buffalo Peaks Ranch is poised to transform into an improbable haven for nature lovers and bibliophiles alike.

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The Cook’s House is a historic structure on the ranch is under renovation and will serve as guest lodging. Photo by Michael Ciaglo

When people think of libraries, they probably picture enclosed spaces, buildings with rows of metal bookshelves interspersed by study tables. Or, in our more digital age, perhaps the image of computers and searchable ebook databases springs to mind.

In either case, though, the notion of a library housed on an abandoned 19th-century cattle ranch seems fantastical. Yet that’s the very idea two Denver-based Tattered Cover Book Store employees had before they launched an enormously successful Kickstarter earlier this year.

Jeff Lee and Ann Marie Martin’s dream of turning Buffalo Peaks Ranch just outside Fairplay into the home base of the Rocky Mountain Land Library–a 30,000-plus collection of books related to the land of the western United States, which includes works of poetry, fiction, history, and hard sciences–began in 2012 when they were forced to move most of their books into storage.

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Since then, the Rocky Mountain Land Library has captured the imagination of people all over the country. The campaign went supernova after being featured in media outlets across the United States.

When asked if he expected this level of response to the Rocky Mountain Land Library Kickstarter, Lee responded, “Yes and no.”

On one hand, he knew from previous pop-up libraries and projects the RMLL had been involved with that there was already strong support for the library, as well as a group of people who could be counted on to help fund the project. On the other hand, he knew they’d have to reach a lot more donors than that to get the $125,000 they were asking for to renovate the Buffalo Peaks Ranch’s Cook’s House into a working building.

Amazingly, Lee and Martin not only funded but exceeded their campaign by about $15,000. To give an idea of how extraordinary that is, only 69 projects asking for $100,000 or more have been successfully funded in the entire history of Kickstarter. That’s about one half of one percent of all Kickstarter campaigns.

What is it about the Buffalo Peaks Ranch library project that fires up people’s imaginations and inspires them to contribute? Lee believes it’s a combination of things: first of all, the sheer improbability of a 32,000-volume library existing on a deserted ranch in rural Colorado, surrounded by prairie and mountains, is irresistibly romantic and quixotic.

It combines paper books–something of an endangered species in and of themselves–with open space and history in a way that calls to our nostalgia for the slower-moving days of the past. There’s also the fact that the RMLL is a positive, grassroots project driven by ordinary people.

But primarily Lee believes that the RMLL has garnered so much attention because of people’s passion for books and learning, and because they believe connecting with the land and protecting nature is essential, particularly in our technology-driven era.

Lee hopes that the books in the RMLL, which can roughly be characterized as a collected cultural heritage of the American west, will inspire his fellow bibliophiles to search for greater understanding about their environment, taking whatever knowledge and insight they gain from the library and applying it to their own neighborhoods, whether they be urban, suburban, or rural.

Since the RMLL is a private, non-profit library and not funded by taxpayer money, Lee and Martin plan to pay for its upkeep and maintenance with a mix of grants and fees, including membership fees and fees for attending programs or staying the night at the ranch. However, Lee emphasizes that they want to keep the prices reasonable and possibly offer scholarships in the future.

Once the Cook’s House renovation is complete–which is currently slated for the end of this summer–the RMLL will also be open to visitors who just want to stop in and explore. Although Buffalo Peaks Ranch looks quite isolated in photos, it’s just a short drive off Highway 9 and within easy travel distance for those on the Front Range.


Want to get a peek at the Land Library yourself? Lee and Martin are scheduling several programs for this summer that include artist workshops, nature field courses, and bookish events. If you didn’t have a chance to fund their Kickstarter in April, this is the perfect way to get involved with what’s slated to become one of the world’s most unique libraries, and provide the RMLL with even greater support as it continues to grow. Visit the Rocky Mountain Land Library’s website, landlibrary.org, to learn more.

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Beer

Fresh pressed: Cider comes to Colorado’s Apple Valley

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A long, winding drive through the mountains on the way back from Grand Junction gave Kevin Williams time to reflect and think about his future. Inspired by a brewery he had recently visited, Williams was racking his brain for a way to incorporate a location or aspect related to Pueblo into a nano brewery he had long planned to open. And as the winding roads continued to clear Williams’ thoughts, it hit him: Penrose is known as Apple Valley. Why not open a cidery there?

Kevin Williams, former brewmaster at Walter’s Brewery in Pueblo, wants to put Penrose on the beer map with his Apple Valley Cider.

A week later he mentioned the random idea to his dad, who a few days later had a building picked out for him just off of Highway 115 next door to Broadway’s Bar & Grill. Starting with a blank space, the building owner worked with Williams and has built the location to fit the needs of a cidery.

Floor drains have been installed, a large walk-in cooler has been constructed, and an office is in place. A few more finishing touches and Williams will begin making cider under the aptly named brand Apple Valley Cider. His current plan is to have bottles of his three ciders: a semi-sweet, peach, and black currant on store shelves near the beginning of February.

No stranger to what it takes to come up with craft recipes, execute on the tasty ideas, and then market and sell, William’s started his professional brewing career at Walter’s Brewing in Pueblo. He has since moved on, citing the desire to move from employee to owner of his own business as the main reason.

Williams has been experimenting and making cider almost from day one of his homebrewing days, and has continued to do so even when he moved on to brewing professionally. It has been a learning process, but one that he feels has led up to the point where he’s ready to share with the outside world.

Brewing beer and making cider are similar in a few ways, namely starting with a sugary substance that you add yeast. However, the process is vastly different when it comes to the amount of labor required during the brewing process itself. Instead of long, hot, and heavy brewing sessions where larger burners and heavy bags of grain are required, making cider consists of mixing juice with water, adding some yeast, and waiting for nature to do its thing. That may be a bit simplified, but you get the point.

The more intense part of the process is going to be bottling and kegging cider for distribution. Currently, Williams plans to distribute everywhere he can within an hour drive of Penrose. So, that means Pueblo County, El Paso County, and Fremont County. Salida and Buena Vista will potentially be included in the first round of cities he will self-distribute in.

As a member of the Steel City Brewers homebrew club, I’ve known Williams for a couple of years now. During that time, I’ve had the chance to taste some of his ciders. More recently, he started asking the club to taste what (unknown to us at the time) would soon become his first three cider variations for Apple Valley Cidery. Over the course of several months and several iterations, I tasted ciders that went from decent to OMG YOU NEED TO SELL THIS.

Apple Valley Cider

The semi-sweet cider has plenty of apple flavor with a pleasant amount of sweetness. The peach cider is, in not so many words, delicious. It tastes exactly like the peach candy rings you can get from a convenience store—only better. It’s not overly sweet, and the peach is clearly present from start to finish. As for the black currant cider, there’s a notable tartness to the cider that’s rather enjoyable.

Apple Valley Cider won’t have a formal taproom. Instead, the Broadway’s Bar & Grill next door will serve as an informal taproom where you can try out any of the currently available ciders. Williams will have a grand opening party and special tastings as new flavors are released in the front room of Apple Valley Ciders.

Speaking of special tastings, Williams is working with Jenkins Farms to create a special release Apple Valley Cider made with apples from the Jenkins’ orchard. Exact details and timing are still being worked out, but I could tell by the excitement on his face that it’s going to be big.

If you want to keep tabs on Apple Valley Cider, like the Facebook page where Williams will post more details about his impending launch and release party.

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Books

Crouch’s ‘Dark Matter’ and our ever-present what ifs

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Colorado author, Blake Crouch, in his most recently published novel, “Dark Matter,” explores and aims to answer one of humanity’s most pressing existential questions: what if? Crouch writes on the dedication page of his newest novel, “For anyone who has wondered what their life might look like at the end of the road not taken.” And indeed it is.

The story follows the journey of a man named Jason Dessen – a brilliant physicist living in Chicago with his wife and son. Although Jason had the opportunity at one point in his life to achieve his career dreams and become a star in his field, he chose to lead a more family-focused life as a local community college professor.

One night, he is abducted and drugged while walking home. He awakes in a world where his wife doesn’t know him, his son doesn’t exist, and he has achieved that professional success that eluded him in his previous life. Jason’s quest to return to his reality leads him on a thrilling and psychologically probing goose chase through the multiverse that, as Crouch writes in an afterword of the novel, “forces him and the reader to reckon with the quantum-mechanics principles that make our universe tick.”

Science fiction is not uncharted territory for Crouch. He is most well known for his “Wayward Pines” trilogy, which was adapted for television and premiered on FOX in May of 2015. Like the “Wayward Pines” series, “Dark Matter” weaves elements of the fantastic and the actual, with themes of love and family truly making up the core of the story. Crouch is already working on the screenplay for the film adaptation of “Dark Matter” – this time on the big screen. Sony bought the movie rights for the film, and will begin production in the near future.

Crouch was inspired to write the novel by his interest in quantum mechanics, despite his limited scientific background. In an afterword of his book, Crouch writes: “I wrote ‘Dark Matter’ so if you’d never heard of quantum mechanics, it wouldn’t matter.” And he is true to his word. Crouch’s narration weaves in the scientific aspects nearly seamlessly, and makes even the more complicated points understandable to his readers by being concise with his language and clear in his analogies.

A common error among sci-fi stories is piling information on the reader to make the author sound more credible. Crouch avoids this error, striking the right balance of factual information that applies to the narrative with the more fictitious elements that are then bridged effortlessly in the reader’s mind.

While Crouch’s novel does dwell heavily in the science-fiction genre, it is a love story as much as it is an existential thriller. Rather than highlighting the ecstasy of being able to trade a life you’re dissatisfied with for another, Crouch’s approach is more to point out how shallow the reasons are that create that sense of dissatisfaction. His main character, Jason, is motivated throughout the story purely by the love he has for his wife and son – and the realization that his biggest mistake is taking that love for granted.

Detailing Jason’s grappling between his family life and his professional life is where Crouch really hits home with so many of his readers. Detailing that struggle on a larger existential scale where virtually every choice creates another competing life, and that these lives aren’t just possible separately, but also simultaneously, is what lends so much ingenuity to Crouch’s entire premise.

Every single one of us wonders what would have happened if we’d taken another job, gone to a different college, moved somewhere different, married someone different, didn’t marry at all; the list goes on and on. “Dark Matter” is an intelligent proposition of an answer to our ever-present what-ifs. Not to mention an altogether riveting and touching tale.

Originally from North Carolina, Crouch currently lives in Durango, Colorado and has ever since he received his Bachelor’s degree in English from the University of North Carolina. When asked in an interview what drew him to Colorado, Crouch said: “I love everything about the West. The wide-open space. The history. The mentality. Rain curtains over the desert. How much deeper and more rattling thunder sounds as opposed to everywhere else. Sage brush. Mountains. Desert. Snow. But most important, a serene, contemplative place to write.”

Crouch is currently working on a new novel from his home in Durango. In addition to “Dark Matter” and the “Wayward Pines” trilogy, he has written more than a dozen other novels and short stories; most of which can be found for sale on his personal website: www.blakecrouch.com. His other television projects include the TNT television show “Good Behavior” starring Michelle Dockery, which is based off of a series of three interlinked novellas Crouch previously wrote and published.

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Arts & Culture

Her Paris

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When we open an art history book or go to a major art museum, male artists dominate the narrative. A woman may be represented here and there, but the overall impression given is that women were negligible players in the history of art, outliers and curiosities.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, especially in 19th-century Paris. From the French Revolution on, women were a major presence on the Parisian art scene. They may not have been allowed into l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts, France’s largest art school, until 1897, but they were allowed to exhibit in the Paris Salon, Europe’s preeminent art exhibition–and did, in great numbers. Women studied art under private tutors or at smaller art academies like the Académie Julian, all while pushing for greater equality in the art world and, by extension, society as a whole. They were also major contributors to independent exhibitions, including those of the French Impressionists.

Her Paris goes a long way toward bringing more attention to these “forgotten” artists with an exhibit devoted entirely to women painters from the latter half of the 19th century. This huge exhibition is divided into seven sections covering portraiture, genre scenes, fashion, childhood, landscape, history painting, and “jeunes filles,” or young women.

The exhibit opens with portraiture, which seems a straightforward subject. But this section is more than just a series of portraits. It’s the perfect way to start the conversation about female artists in Paris because it demonstrates they weren’t a negligible presence on the Parisian art scene: they were part of an entire community. They were friends, sisters, roommates, neighbors, and rivals who lived, studied, socialized, and worked together to gain recognition for their artistic talents–not just individually, but as a group. From Berthe Morisot and her sister, Edna; once-famous Marie Bashkirtseff and the only person she considered her artistic equal, Louise Breslau; to Anna Elizabeth Klumpke, an American painter who was friends with Rosa Bonheur and later wrote her biography. These portraits show that women artists didn’t just come to Paris because it was the epicenter of European art; they came because in Paris they could find encouragement and support amongst other women.


The next section of Her Paris continues that theme, with scenes from everyday life, also known as genre. The theme may seem innocuous at first, until one looks closer. Between moments of eating dinner and pouring tea are women smoking (scandalous!), reading–which for a woman at the time was still a revolutionary act, underscoring they were human beings with an intellect and interior “life of the mind,” as the exhibition puts it–and performing the commonplace tasks and chores that formed the underpinning of Parisian society.

The grandest painting in this section is Lunch in the Greenhouse by Louise Abbéma, which dominates the wall at the far end of the gallery. When it was first exhibited in public, it was criticized for being “flat” and “emotionless.” But its rich color and high level of detail make it nearly irresistible: you feel like you can step right into the piece and sit down at the table.

There’s also a very modern rejection of narrative or moralizing in Lunch in the Greenhouse; it’s merely a snapshot of a moment, although Abbéma couldn’t resist adding the charm of the little girl with the big pink bow or the dog beside her. The other figures are friends and family of Abbéma, most notably the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt, with whom Abbéma is rumored to have had an affair. If true that makes Abbéma’s expression in the painting as she reclines behind Bernhardt all the more intriguing.

Abbéma also painted one of the stand-out pieces in the next section, devoted to fashion. Among the Flowers shows a woman in a gorgeous flower-printed white dress, whose form is mirrored by the black urn overflowing with flowers beside her. Abbéma’s association of a woman with a decorative object (indeed, the woman seems to be greeting the plant as if it were a person) sums up the theme of this section: that by focusing on fashion, these female artists weren’t just conflating fashion with art, but rejecting the idea that decoration of themselves and their homes should be their only creative outlet.

The next section focuses on paintings of children. While the idea that women artists are innately better able to depict children is patently stupid (men had been doing it perfectly well since the Renaissance), it can perhaps be said that women had greater access to child models. In fact, female artists of the 19th century usually used friends and family as models exclusively, since models for hire tended to have unsavory backgrounds (cough prostitutes cough).

The childhood section introduces the most unique artist by far included in Her Paris, German painter Paula Mendersohn-Becker. One of the earliest expressionist painters, Mendersohn-Becker is frequently referred to as the first female modernist and with good reason. Her paintings look like something out of the 1930s rather than the 19th century. Becker’s figures are flatly modeled, with a limited palette and expressive facial features. Far from pretty, there’s no denying the irresistible charm of Becker’s work in her use of line and her focus on the emotions, rather than the appearance, of her sitters.

The landscape section serves as the lynchpin of the whole exhibition because it’s here where you can really see how 19th-century women were pushing painting forward in new directions.

One of the most unique pieces is Waterfall by Fanny Churberg, which was described as abnormal and “strange” by contemporaries. It is unusual, but in an intriguing way. Churberg’s painting is highly naturalistic and textured, almost as if one is looking at it through a stereoscope (a way to combine two images into one to create a 3D effect). Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowicz’s atmospheric Unter den Linden in Berlin is another standout piece, as is Helen Schjerfbeck’s The Door, which captures a church door in Brittany. It’s a landscape, but could just as easily be called a still life, one that uses light and color to suggest a spiritual and symbolic component.

The last two sections of Her Paris–history painting and jeunes filles–are not as tightly themed as the previous sections, although they contain some of the exhibition’s best pieces. One of these is Plowing in the Nivernais by Rosa Bonheur, by far the most famous female painter of the 19th century, or any century before it. A child prodigy, she was the first woman to be awarded the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest artistic award, which the Empress Eugenie herself pinned to Bonheur’s breast at her chateau outside of Paris.

Plowing in the Nivernais is one of Bonheur’s most well-known works, painted just after the 1848 Revolution that instituted the Second Republic. The stars of the painting are the Nivernais oxen clomping across the canvas, rendered in exquisite and loving detail. But Plowing in the Nivernais doesn’t just demonstrate Bonheur’s skill as an animal painter: her treatment of the soil, atmosphere, and sunlight is the height of realism. You can almost feel the heat of the sun, smell the turned earth, and feel the soft ground beneath your feet. Indeed, the very solidity of the oxen and landscape conveys a sense of permanence and on the grand scale of a history painting. Bonheur may not have been painting history as such, but she was undoubtedly commenting on the endurance of France, despite the ups and downs of political changes.

Other artists of note include Anna Archer, whose paintings are quiet, yet luminous; Eva Gonzalès, the only pupil of Edouard Manet, who has several charming pieces; Marianne Stokes, with gorgeously rich canvases inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites; and Julie Delance-Feurgard, whose Le marriage exudes an intense feeling of movement and suspense, despite the rather staid subject matter.

Her Paris is an extraordinary exhibition that introduces art lovers to the best painters they’ve never heard of. The sheer volume of work in this exhibit is staggering, especially when one considers it covers just 35 female painters who trod Paris’ cobblestoned streets for a mere fifty years. Her Paris, along with The Women of Abstract Expressionism that took place earlier this year, marks the DAM as an institutional leader and innovator. This show is definitely not one to be missed.

Her Paris: Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism will be on view through January 14th, 2018. Advanced tickets are highly recommended. For more information, visit denverartmuseum.org.

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