Alma Shoaf

    Nestled in the North Fork Valley, to the west of the draped wound of the Rocky Mountains, is the town of Paonia. It is well over a mile in elevation, has a population under 2,000, and it is surrounded, cut and besieged by railroads, fruit orchards, coal mines and cattle farms. While it’s possible that the botanist Terence McKenna may have opened a vortex (of what kind, no one seems aware) in the basement of what once was the General Electric building, now the home of Elsewhere Studios, it is certain that mountain lions, bears and coyotes do walk the mesas in watchful hunt… although, to a visitor like myself, they are very nearly as invisible as McKenna’s alleged vortex.

 I had never visited Colorado, although as a huge fan in college of the “Denver Music Scene”, I had a great want to. Those seem now like childish fantasies filled with Stetsons, whiskey swigging, and crooning to Jay Munly’s off-beat banjo thrashing. In contrast, my one-month residency in Paonia was very real, and perhaps one of the most sobering and grounding experiences of my increasingly adult life. I found the kind of solitude that a recluse like myself only dreams of, and was able to weave connections with a thread that I believe will continue to send vibrations in every direction for a long time to come.

 Arriving for my residency took a tad bit of effort, as I hate flying and knew that I would miss my cat terribly (and my partner, too). It took me a good bit of the first week to quell my anxiety and wiggle into my space, ripping the first few pencil lines out of myself like a baby tooth dangling on its last thread of flesh. But, of course, it got easier. And easier. Until I found myself trapped in the studio past midnight by my own newly-industrious hand (I am not normally a night worker). By the end I had created one of my favorite drawings I’ve ever made, I think. It will, no doubt, become one of those incongruencies in which my assertion of its quality will be met with a resounding breath of indifference at best, perhaps a universal “meh”, but so it usually goes.

Since returning home, I find I am still staring down the lengths of ditches and creeks, noticing rocks and the odd plastic bag skipping with a sense of dubious freedom down the road. All the quiet, unnoticed things that I collected in my camera, sketchbook and mind in Paonia are also here, and are everywhere. The human beings that walked these same valleys long before this country was and – despite the past’s undeniable maliciousness – still do; coal miners and their memory carried into the future by their children; bones, trash, breath, metal, the most fragile, sleeping flowers – they make up the great, strange composite of America, of its history and tragedies and of the odd success along the way. It can make me sad, as my walks along the train tracks sometimes did, but in a strangely pleasant and hopeful way. It can be recorded; it can be deconstructed, reconstructed, constructive. If an artist residency is meant to give space for creation, Elsewhere gave me that in both an external and internal landscape that I hadn’t seen yet.

And I really, really, really miss Tomatoes.