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Summervail is an historic art event that took place in Vail for 14 years, every summer during the years 1971 – 1984.

The 1970s and ‘80s were an important time for the arts in this country. It was a time when techniques were being borrowed from industry, scaled down to fit into artists’ studios, and taught in college art departments. New things were happening.  Artists and craftspersons were using technology and applying it to their studio practices.  Summervail was a location where all of these ideas and processes could be learned and shared. Friendships were formed that endured to the present day. Relationships were formed that inspired future collaboration with visiting artists, faculty exchanges, and cutting-edge exhibitions. Summervail brought together young creatives, students and “fast guns”, pairing them with more established makers. 

The workshop was paired with and supported by Colorado Mountain College.  Once the workshop became more established the word got around the art community and the Summervail Workshop became a national gathering place. People would come for one class and end up spending the entire summer.

“The Summervail Workshops had a significant impact on most of those who were there either as instructors, young professionals, or students. It was an important time in our lives and although I don’t imagine many of us ever gave it more than casual recognition, it was where we made life-long friends, established our networks of professional contacts, and learned to give and gain the respect of our colleagues and fellow artists. It did a lot to form our attitudes and opinions” as quoted by founder member Randy Milhoan. 

The workshop provided experiences, excelled at education, and touched the lives of young and old alike.  It became a favorite crossroad for artists traveling across the county.

The Summervail Art Workshop ran until 1984. In its 14-year span, Summervail Art Workshop served more than 9,000 students taught by 500 internationally prominent visiting artists like Dale Chihuly, Pulitzer Prize winner Jerry Saltz, Oscar-winner Donna Dewey, Sculptor Robert Arneson, and Painter Ed Ruscha; through 850 different workshops and symposiums. Students came from 15 different nations and nearly every state in the U.S. Participants from the workshop even got the opportunity to work under Christo and Jeanne-Claude during the 2nd installment of  the “valley Curtain” project in 1972.  The Summervail Workshop had projected Vail and the Upper Eagle Valley as a leader of arts in the United States.  

The basic concept of Summervail was to bring together a small number of students and instructors who can work together on individual and group projects in the related arts. Those involved have a close and informal atmosphere in which to work. Each student may take a maximum of two classes and each instructor will teach only one class. This should allow relatively deep involvement in projects for the two week period. Students and instructors will also be encouraged to participate in any class or seminar they are not directly involved with, which hopefully will stimulate an interrelation of ideas and thoughts. Classes may range from small rap sessions to wilderness trips to large group projects. Planned projects include; an open air theatre, production of the summer edition of Afternoon magazine, an amateur rodeo, and an art carnival. [Class Handout, Continuing Education Division, Colorado Mountain College, 1971]

In the summer of 1970, three recent college art grads were sharing a beer in Vail, Colorado.  Jim Cotter and Dan Taleen had opened a jewelry shop a couple of years previously and Randy Milhoan was a recent resident.  Although Vail had been incorporated as a town in 1966, it had yet to make much traction overcoming its image as a ski resort.  Business was slow – summers were dead.  Randy floated the idea of starting some sort of summer arts program as a way of attracting artists to the area as well as boosting the local economy. 

Randy had learned that Colorado Mountain College was interested in establishing classes in Vail.  The group thought that CMC might be interested in offering art classes as a part of their Continuing Education curriculum to be staffed by visiting artists.  A few calls to friends around the country inquiring of their interest in teaching these classes elicited an enthusiastically positive response.  Colorado Mountain College was agreeable, so the first Summervail Workshop in Art and Critical Studies debuted the summer of 1971 featuring 17 faculty teaching 14 classes to an enrollment of 248 students.

The Summervail Workshop provided a unique opportunity for intensive study in studio and applied arts. Workshop instruction was the core of the student’s day. While scheduled instruction was scheduled as Monday-Friday from 9:00am – 4:00pm, many of the studios were open 24/7 with instructors and studio managers available to assist the students. Students were encouraged to spend as much time in the studios and additional events as possible. Special activities included lectures, slide shows, gallery exhibits, and discussion groups. The Summervail faculty was made up of practicing studio artists and they taught from a practical, yet creative, perspective.

The Summervail Workshop had a simple program design of one week workshops in the fine and applied arts. Additionally, children’s art classes, symposia, lectures, slide shows, panel discussions, and informal discussion sessions occurred regularly.

The goal of the workshop was to instill the importance of critical thought processes into everyone involved, including both faculty and students. The unique curriculum was designed to be non-departmentalized, as much as was practical. Instructors, students, and visiting artists were encouraged to share ideas and investigate techniques and methods between curricular areas and media, the notion was stressed repeatedly that concept and craft were equally important; that fine arts share a common ground; that hard work was the ultimate and only reliable means for success on a continuing basis. Everyone was encouraged to argue, participate, work, and share.

The workshop was designed to offer maximum advantages in the three most important aspects of art production; physical resources and equipment, human resources and expertise, and spiritual and philosophical surroundings.

For the first two years the workshop was located in Antholz Ranch (now Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater and Park) in Vail, Colorado.  Between 1973 and 1978 it was housed at the abandoned A-frame water and sanitation plant in Vail.  In 1979 the move was made to Maloit Park, a 110-acre parcel of land owned by the Eagle County School District just south of Minturn and only 8 miles from Vail.  The 40,000 square foot facility was the former home of the Battle Mountain High School.  There were studios for drawing, design, flat glass, hot glass, ceramics, metalsmithing, enameling, blacksmithing, sculpture, woodworking, fibers & surface design, photography, lithography, welding, and painting.  There were also four lecture rooms, a gallery, a slide auditorium, a gymnasium, a kitchen, an indoor/outdoor dining room, and men’s and women’s locker rooms, in addition to offices and meeting rooms.  There were no dormitories.  Students and faculty alike were housed in tents.  Faculty were provided with wood-floored 10’ x13’ Coleman tents.  Students could either rent a tent from the Workshop or bring their own. 

The grounds included two softball diamonds, a tennis court, volleyball courts, picnic pavilions, a lake, jogging and hiking trails, and various ponds and streams. The Holy Cross Wilderness Area joined the area on two sides.

Summervail takes considerable pride, as it should, in the quality of its faculty.  It is truly a remarkable roster.  The list reads like a “Who’s Who” of the arts world.  Many of the faculty were already established “stars” at the top of their game; others would soon become so.  The list is even more impressive when one considers that they were willing to attend despite the ludicrously low pay.  Even the Director, Randy Milhoan’s considerable charm and renowned persuasiveness couldn’t have been enough.  Obviously, there was some other attraction that brought them.  That other attraction was most likely the spirit and attitudes of the workshop.

One of the best aspects of teaching at a workshop is not having to be concerned with credentials.  Even though students could earn college credit, through Colorado Mountain College’s Continuing Education Division, an academic degree, or teaching experience, was not required.  Talent, and an enthusiasm for sharing that talent, was all that was required.  To be sure, there was a plentitude of university-level artists/teachers involved, along with a few high school teachers and talented amateurs and or hobbyists as well.  But the overwhelming majority were working professionals for whom taking a week out of their practice added to the financial inch.  It was an amazing mixed bag.

In the early days, when the workshop was just forming, faculty were invited who could bring, build, or borrow the tools and equipment they needed.  They had to be problem solvers – creative, flexible, adaptable.  This often meant inviting friends of the founders or others recommended by them.  But as the workshop became more established it was able to cast a broader net – and the fish they caught were ‘Big Fish’.

The mission of the Summervail Art Workshop Legacy Project is to establish historical preservation of the legacy of the Summervail Art Workshop and Critical Studies Program, which ran from 1971 to 1984 and became an invaluable entity to the Vail Valley and to the art world.

The Summervail Art Workshop Legacy Project (SVAWLP) strives to preserve, document, archive, inspire and demonstrate the impact of the Summervail Art Workshop program.

And that is exactly what we plan to do.

In the Summer of 2021 we will have a roundtable discussion with people who were part of the original magic brought by the Summervail Artworkshop for Art and critical studies, the roster of attendees is TBD, but stay tuned, because the panelist will not disappoint.

In the Summer of 2022 we aim to recreate the weekly workshop event, with new artists and classes that are rooted in the arts here in the Vail Valley and recognized by our international community. 

For more information, please contact Ramsey at the J. Cotter Gallery, or 970-476-3131