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Telluride's Art Scene Heats Up: Of Mine Burns and Fire Festivals

Ski towns aren't strangers to wacky festivals, from grassroots, culture-based celebrations to internationally renowned events. Telluride, in particular, has achieved global fame for its summer festival season, which include the always sold-out Bluegrass, Jazz, Blues and Brews, and FILM festival weekends, as well as funkier events like the Mushroom Festival and the Nothing Festival (the token weekend thousands of tourists don't descend, giving locals a chance to take back the town and ride around naked on their bikes). Telluride winters, however, have historically been about the skiing. Certainly, there's been no publicly promoted revelry involving defunct mines, fringe movements, and the torching of purpose-built installations- until now. Read on for Curbed Ski's account of the winter solstice Mine Burn, and its spawn, the forthcoming, first-annual Telluride Fire Festival.

The Deep Creek Mine is located six miles downvalley from Telluride, near the hamlet of Sawpit. It's history is somewhat nebulous, given the region's fame as a gold and silver boomtown. The Telluride Historical Society was unable to find any records about its history for Curbed Ski, and the Interwebs yielded only this blurb, from the 1918 edition of The Mine Handbook: "Deep Creek, 1917…quartz vein in diorite and porphyry. Ore contains…gold, silver, zinc, and lead values."

Whatever the backstory of Deep Creek Mine, today it's on privately-owned land. In an extremely benevolent gesture, the owner has permitted the mine to be used as a "non-profit industrial and performance art space" that goes by the name Deep Creek Experimental (DCE). The brainchild of longtime Telluride resident/internationally renowned steel-and-fire artist, sculptor, and Burning Man installation badass Anton Viditz-Ward, multi-media artist Scott Harris, and a handful of other local creative types, the mine is now an art studio, albeit one that lacks running water, has dirt floors, and is furnished with an eclectic array of salvaged materials.

Viditz-Ward and four other local artists work out of the space, using it to create fantastical works of art and installations (some of which are showcased at Burning Man, such as Viditz-Ward's 2014 fiery, hand-cranked Wheels of Zoroaster). There are steel towers, robots made from old security alarm parts salvaged from Mountain Village homes, and other multi-media works of art. The space itself is strung with scrounged Christmas tree lights, blacklights, and chandeliers; old sofas, recliners, and coffee tables make for an ersatz lounge, complete with areas for a bar, DJ station, and dancehall. It is, in short, a total trip.

The mine holds various objets d'art such as an altar, lighting installations, painted rugs by local oil painter/electrician Skully, geometric art, welded sculptures, and Harris' robots. The actual burn takes place outside. Fire sculptures, and specially-built structures like a wooden tower and a frame Victorian/Gothic home are set alight (all done by professionals; the threat of wildfire is why the burns are only held during the winter season). The dramatic backdrop of the steep, rocky mine exterior adds to the dazzling visuals, which are further enhanced by a DJ and the enthused crowd of helmet- and crazy costume-wearing attendees. Inside the mine, it's a dance party. The vibe is electric, welcoming, charged with the firing synapses of creative impulse. Take into account that it's well past midnight, in the middle of the woods, and the scene feels deliciously pagan.


The entirely volunteer-produced mine burns are held during the winter and spring solstices. Explains Viditz-Ward, "I think that people have lost touch with nature, and what's around them. A lot of different cultures used to hold these solstice festivals, and our goal is to help revive that tradition here. They also give us a chance to showcase our art and have our works in progress on display."

Should you think of a mine burn as merely an Old West-flavored rave or Burning Man with snow, Viditz-Ward will set you straight. "We're not interested in being a rave or a drunk-fest. It's a celebration of the community and local arts scene. We're kind of experimental fringe artists, using this quasi-industrial space." By law, the burns must be kept to under 200 people; tickets, which go for $15 to $40 a pop, go toward improving the space, and covering the cost of the events, which include live music, a DJ, and other production-related entertainment and promotion. At this time, there's no organized transportation to or from the burns. Says Viditz-Ward, "Like most other people here, I have to juggle two or three jobs. We're all trying to pull off a party/cultural event last minute, and it can be difficult to get it all done, but it's a work in progress. We also have a grant program for artists at the mine."

Telluride has long been a community of renegade artists and Burning Man aficionados, so it's not surprising that the mine burns have become a local cultural and community phenomenon. But word is starting to spread. MountainFilm- arguably one of the most important film festivals in the outdoor industry sector- will in fact kick off with a burn (tickets can be purchased on their Facebook page, and according to Viditz-Ward, sell out almost inmmediately). Curbed Ski was invited to attend the winter solstice burn last month, and it was an eye-opener. Sometimes, amidst the gobsmackingly beautiful scenery, debaucherous nightlife, and that spectacular ski mountain, it's easy to forget that Telluride is more than just a party. There's a vibrant arts scene, including a talented theater company, great homegrown bands, and plenty of free-thinkers who make events like mine burns and fire festivals a reality.

The inaugural Telluride Fire Festival, which takes place January 15-19, was conceived by co-founders Chris Myers and Erin Ries (President, and Event Director, respectively). Both longtime residents, it came about as part of a city-supported plan to make festivals a year-round draw to Telluride. Says Ries, "The inspiration for this event was from our yearly sojourns to Burning Man, where spectacular, interactive art is everywhere. We wanted to bring some of this incredible fire art to our community and visitors and offer it for free. We also wanted to offer a new platform for Telluride's arts community that will help amplify this dynamic art form, and give our local artists a place to showcase their work." Adds former Town Councilman Myers, "What better time of year to have a celebration of fire artistry than mid-winter, when Telluride is at its darkest and coldest, and we need light, heat, and fire the most?"

The festival- unlike many major Telluride weekend fêtes, is indeed free, except for live music at local venues. It will include fire artistry in town and up in Mountain Village, as well as workshops, performances by fire dancers, gallery exhibitions, installations, live music, and more. Viditz-Ward will be showcasing his fiery Palindrome installation, and other local and regional artists include Joe Bob Merritt, Alvin Sessions, Keith D'Angelo, and Maciej Mrotek. Music and dancing include performances by Marchfourth Marching Band, Dance of the Sacred Fire, Fractal Tribe, and Eufórquestra. The Peaks Resort is a festival partner, and will also be hosting events. Says Ries, "From dusk to 8pm each night, events will take place both on the central pedestrian plaza of Mountain Village and Telluride's main drag, which will be closed to vehicular traffic. People will watch spontaneous fire performances and experience the many forms of fire art from art cars to dancers, fire-emitting sculptures, and creative burn barrels."

If this sounds like your idea of a good time (and if the mine burn is any indication, it will be), consider attending the Fire Festival's lavish fundraiser Gala at Deep Creek Mine on January 17. For $200, which will benefit the non-profit festival and DCE, you'll get to experience fire sculptures and performers up-close, with entertainment by the Samurai Gypsies and DJ Bruiser with LoveTribe, and enjoy hors d'oeuvres, libations, and "other theatrical surprises." Transportation and hard hats are included, so wear your funkiest threads, gloves, and jacket, and get ready to have your mind blown.

Interested in attending the spring solstice burn? Go to DCE's Facebook page for details. The best transportation option for visitors is to pre-arrange roundtrip through Telluride Express or Mountain Limo, or try to get a ride share going via social media. It goes without saying: Please don't drink (or smoke, trip, or what-have-you) and drive. Now dust off those flame-retardant gold lamé leggings, rainbow-afro wig, or best animal costume (yes, really) and make the trek to Telluride. You won't regret it.

· Telluride Fire Festival [Official Site]
· Deep Creek Experimental [Official Site]
· Mapping the 18 Hot Spots for Drinking & Dining in Telluride [Curbed Ski]
· Mapping the Best Dive Bars in Ski Country [Curbed Ski]
· The 38 Essential Ski Town Hotels [Curbed Ski]