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Photos by Tamie Meck Ryan Strand works on an arch at Paonia Elementary School as part of the 2015 Paonia Village Building Convergence, sponsored by the Town of Paonia, The Learning Council and the North Fork Valley Creative Coalition.

If a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, then you might say that Ryan Strand's artistic journey begins with picking up a single stick.

Strand is the artist behind the many stick art sculptures found in the North Fork area, including in yards, businesses and inside The Paradise Theatre.

Strand is an organic gardener by profession. He works one day a week at Revolution Brewing in Paonia and teaches people how to repair and maintain their own bicycles at the Paonia Bike Co-op. How he began weaving tree branches into art was a bit of an accident, "a kind of perfect storm," he said. He'd been studying old-world and ancient techniques including wattle and daub used in making fences and other structures and was interested in the fact that these methods can be used to make both utilitarian pieces and fine works of art.

During that time the first Paonia Village Building Convergence celebration occurred in the summer of 2013. Village Building Convergence had its beginnings in 2000 in Portland, Oregon. It was designed to bring neighbors together to plan and create art projects that improve and beautify while building a sense of communal stewardship and connection within communities. The street mural on Second Street is another example of a VBC project. That summer, Strand joined a group of artists and arts supporters in building a multi-media art wall at Elsewhere Studios.

Builders were attempting to avoid 90-degree angles in the wall, he said, when they came to a section of wall that needed to make a sharp turn. In trying to solve the dilemma, artist Maya, one of the founders of Elsewhere, showed Strand images of work by North Carolina artist Patrick Dougherty, an internationally-acclaimed stick artist with more than 250 grand-scale stick art installations throughout the country and the world.

Strand was familiar with Dougherty's installations and had them rattling around in his head. He thought of what Dougherty might do and began bending sticks around the space in the method of wattle and daub construction. "I started bending and couldn't stop," he said.

The result was a gentle curve of willow sticks and plaster that is now a permanent part of the wall.

"I haven't really stopped bending sticks since," said Strand.

Right away someone asked him to make something for their house. The commissions have been coming in ever since, said Strand.

Strand is completely self taught. He began with a circle made from a single stick and branched out from there, weaving in more sticks and turning circles into orbs and piles of sticks into structures. "It took me a while to start doing it with purpose and with gusto," he said. Once he caught on, and after making a decorative wall hanging of interconnected circles that now hangs in his shop, he never stopped.

Among his works are the floor-to-ceiling trees that flank the stage at The Paradise Theatre, and the light fixtures hanging above the Juice Bar Cafe at The Cirque in downtown Paonia. He's created trellises, wall hangings, baskets, multi-media pieces and even two wedding altars.

"People tend to label his work as made with willow," said partner Sharon Bailey. She is the executive director at Elsewhere and holds a degree in arts education. But he uses many types of wood. Their living room floor is half covered in stacks of maple, oak, cottonwood, apricot and other varieties of branches, limbs, shoots and boughs of every size and shape.

The process begins with collecting sticks. "It's kind of mind-boggling," said Bailey. "He has a sort of mental map of where all the good sticks are located throughout the valley. We'll be driving down the road and he'll say, 'Did you see those white sticks back there?'"

Strand said that in gathering sticks he looks for first-year growth, because it's not as thick as older growth and it's much more yielding and easier to work with. While they may all look like sticks to anyone else, he sees different colors in the bark, feels unique textures, and determines how each type of wood bends or doesn't bend. Willow, for example, is fairly malleable and dries to a soft hue and feel, while hawthorn is more rigid and dries to a shiny copper color, its spines giving it a more industrial appeal.

While collecting, he often imagines that he looks quite ridiculous to passers by. He muses that he resembles the bearded man in the top hat on the Led Zeppelin IV album cover, his body bent by the weight of the large bundle of twigs on his back, his weight supported by a dense walking stick. "I do wonder what people think I'm doing, parked on the side of the road," he said, especially when cutting the spiny hawthorn bush.

Once the sticks are collected they need to be used right away, as they quickly dry and become unyielding. The trick to getting started is to find that perfect first stick that can latch or lock into place without being held. Once that first piece is in place he continues weaving in more sticks until he reaches the desired result.

"Every time I make something I come up with a new thing I want to do to take that a little further," he said. Each new method or design gets him to thinking of how he might expand on his work next time, or how he can use a newly-learned technique to make something completely different.

When asked to create the light fixtures for the Juice Bar Cafe at The Cirque, he turned to his work with bicycle gears, coming up with a concept of blending old-world technique with a more modern industrial material. He approached Cirque owner Amy DeLuca with an idea for anchoring sticks to bicycle gears, and using Edison bulbs instead of standard light bulbs. The result is sturdy and long-lasting fixtures, the gears at the bottom creating a space for changing out the bulbs.

Most recently he was asked by the North Fork Valley Creative Coalition to create the central decorations for the upcoming Celebrate the Fork farm-to-table fundraiser dinner at Heritage Hall in Hotchkiss. This year's theme is "A bird's eye view of the North Fork Valley." Strand said he was inspired by the recent growth in social movements and protests and "the seeming rise of consciousness happening today." He thought of Andy Goldsworthy, a British artist who attempts to get viewers to look beneath the surface of his work.

For him, he said, it's turned into an art therapy project. He is creating a series of bird cages, each with a bird perched inside. The cages, he said, are "emblematic of the cages we make for ourselves," including bigotry, hatred and oppression. He puts each bird inside the cage after the piece is completed, so that it always has a way out.

His creation will be the largest of the many art exhibits to be presented at the dinner. More than stick art, "It's definitely fine art," said Bailey, a NFVCC board member in charge of aesthetics for the dinner.

Strand is also experimenting with working sticks into other mediums, including tadelakt, an ancient Moroccan process of making waterproof plaster surfaces. It involves crushing pieces of snowy white Colorado Yule marble into a fine powder and mixing it with lime putty to make a plaster. Once shaped, the surface is then rubbed with olive oil to give it a shiny, impermeable marble-like sheen. The ancient process is popular today in making bathroom and kitchen fixtures like tubs, sinks and countertops.

Bailey said one thing she enjoys about watching his process is how well he works with the materials. Many people try to force the medium or material to do what they want it to do and shape it the way they believe it should be shaped, she said. "Ryan works really well with just flowing with what the media is providing," allowing the material to determine the final look.

He never paints his finished products. Particularly in pieces displayed outside, the beauty of natural wood "is that it keeps on changing" as it dries and ages, he said. "It's an ever-evolving piece of artwork."

Strand said he plans to make some larger-scale pieces in the near future and is working on willow pieces resembling giant clusters of grapes. He said it's not easy to know exactly when a piece is complete, because they can always hold one more twig, he said. "I could add and add and add for forever."

Strand works on one of the bird cages that will be installed for the Oct. 1 North Fork Valley Creative Coalition fundraiser dinner, titled “The Fork: A bird’s eye view of the North Fork Valley.” The dinner will feature numerous works and displays by area artists.
An earlier stick sculpture by Ryan Strand graces the lawn of Green Cottage Collectibles in Paonia. As the outdoor sculptures age they can take on new hues as the bark dries and peels, and even new shapes as they bow to wind, rain and snow.
Strand often combines art and function as shown in these art fixtures at the Juice Bar Cafe at The Cirque in Paonia. The fixtures are anchored by bicycle gears and lit with Edison lightbulbs in a blending of Old World craft and modern industrialism.
Students at the North Fork School of Integrated Studies at Paonia Elementary School worked for about five weeks with Strand to make this unique structure.
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