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Photo by Tamie Meck Methane vents, also called gob vents, are among the many industry-related features Elsewhere’s INSPIRED artists saw on their EcoFlight tour of the North Fork area. The vents are often mistaken for hydraulic fracturing drill pads.
Photo by Tamie Meck Artists with the Elsewhere Studios recently got a bird’s-eye view of the upper North Fork valley and beyond with Aspen-based EcoFlight. As part of the INSPIRED project, artists are participating in “socially engaged” projects calling attention to oil and gas and other environmental issues in the valley.

Artists 'inspired' by EcoFlight tour

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On a cool July morning, artists with Elsewhere Studios climbed aboard a Cessna Turbo Centurion II plane at the North Fork Airport for a flight along the North Fork and Muddy Creek drainages above Paonia. They were seeking to gain new perspectives on where oil and gas development is occurring or proposed in relation to local communities, water sources and the overall landscape of the North Fork Valley.

You might say they were inspired.

Since 2002, Aspen-based EcoFlight has provided aerial perspectives of environmental threats to the western landscape in the spirit of early astronauts, who gained new perspectives of Earth after viewing it from outer space. The artists were selected for participation in "INSPIRED: Art at Work," a two-month program designed to allow artists to create socially engaged artwork

INSPIRED is funded by a $25,000 Arts in Society grant in collaboration with the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, Colorado Creative Industries and Hemera Foundation in partnership with the RedLine Contemporary Art Center. Elsewhere was among 21 organizations selected from a field of more than 265 applicants to participate in the grant, which will culminate Aug. 24-26 with the INSPIRED Symposium.

"This initiative responds to the growing desire of artists and arts organizations to use their creativity and talents to make a difference in their community," said Gary Steuer with the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation in announcing the grant recipients last winter.

Throughout July and August, international artists John Melvin and Anna Macleod, local artists Tanya Blacklight and Christine Palafox, and Montrose High School multi-media teacher Clara Pena are working closely with scientists, policy makers and local partner organizations Solar Energy International, Citizens for a Healthy Community, Colorado Farm and Food Alliance, and the Western Slope Conservation Center to explore selected environmental, cultural, social and economic issues. They will interpret their experiences through dance, video, readings, sculpture and other mediums, which will be presented during the symposium.

The goal of the EcoFlight tour "was to give artists a deeper understanding of where development exists and is proposed," said Elsewhere's Dierdre Morrison, a Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) member charged with providing support to INSPIRED and its artists.

Pete Kolbenschlag narrated the flights. He founded the Colorado Food & Farm Alliance, connecting Colorado's farm-to-table movement with conservation and climate advocacy. His more than 20 years as a consultant with Mountain West Strategies gives him a unique perspective on the extractive industries in relation to food production and economic development in the area, said Morrison.

Art can push boundaries and borders and lead to new approaches to creative activism, said Kolbenschlag. "We can use data then to inform people," but art opens people's minds to discussion in a different way, said Kolbenschlag. "I think that art provides an opportunity (to communicate) that shouting at each other just doesn't."

The flight came days after the Bureau of Land Management announced proposed lease sales on about 7,900 acres of land in the North Fork Valley this December. Morrison said EcoFlight gave artists the opportunity to see where lease sales are planned in relation to water, food sources and communities.

With help from Kolbenschlag's narration, artists gained a broader view of oil and gas development on the Western Slope. Flying above Grand Mesa they could see to the I-70 corridor and the Roan Plateau, considered one of the most biologically diverse areas in the state, where up to 3,600 wells could be drilled as part of the December lease sales.

"It's all really close together," said Blacklight. She and Palafox are partnering to create live multimedia dance performances to raise awareness to oil and gas development. "Seeing it directly made a big impact."

Industrial development is happening across the world, said Blacklight. For artists to make a difference, "Unity is a key." The artist's role, she said, is "to think creatively... Legislation is not my department, but community activism is. It's connections and thinking of ideas that comes from source, which I believe we're all connected to."

To hear differing perspectives on the subject of energy development, Morrison reached out to four locals connected to the extractive industries to offer a seat on the plane and discuss what they saw during a post-flight debriefing. All four either declined or didn't respond to calls, said Morrison.

For her INSPIRED project, Pena is documenting a history of extractive industries in the valley with her dad, who grew up between Hotchkiss and Paonia. Their 50-acre farm, which the family has worked for 60 years, borders BLM land where gas development is proposed.

She recruited Montrose senior intern Jonathan Cornejo to photograph the flight. "He's really into flying drones," said Pena. "An airplane is basically a big drone."

When asked what he saw, Cornejo replied that he lacks familiarity with the North Fork area landscape and took as much of it in as he possibly could. "Most people don't think of the subject" of oil and gas, development, said Cornejo "I feel like now I'm just thinking about it."

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