Take a hike or bike ride on many of the trails in the mountains of Salida, Colorado and you may find a surprising sight -- old, dead trees, still planted in the ground and long forgotten now bursting with color and impossible to ignore.
Those painted trees are the work of artist Curtis Killorn and his work on these unconventional canvases has gotten the attention of locals, art lovers in and out of Colorado as well as the Forest Service. Killorn, who started this project in secret but has recently come out in the open, spoke with Huffington Post about his painted tree art that he has dubbed “Sacred Places,” the challenges he’s faced and the new opportunities that his art has created for him.
Why tree painting?
My little town of Salida prides itself on being an art town, yet has made it a very difficult bureaucratic process to actually do any public art for the town. It was during one of these endless meetings I had the idea to simply do my own expression of art the public could enjoy. It was the summer of 2005 when I painted my first tree. I didn't tell anyone of my ventures up on the walking trails of our town. I would walk the trails looking for the perfect tree and begin "working" on it for a week or more, and when it was ready for the painting, I would get the job done either very early in the morning hours or late at night. This was very exciting for me and my family who I used as "look outs” while I painted.
What do the painted trees mean to you?
Nature is already so beautiful and full of such depth and grace, it is NOT my intention to mask or enhance it in any way. The trees that I paint are long dead and weathered by hundreds of years. What I do is bring "life" back to the tree in a completely new way. This tree which was once dead is now vibrantly alive to be noticed by all, no longer blending in with all the other dead trees. It is this rebirth which I wish to impart to the participants. We has humans all have dreams, visions and ideas which for most of us are what make us uniquely who we are. It is those dreams, visions and ideas that we are to see in each other and breath back to life, no longer dead and blending in with the other dead dreams we have stored in our lives.
What has the reaction been from citizens and art lovers?
Keeping my identity secret over the years was a challenge, yet I always publicly denied that it was I who was the painter. My first "nod of approval" came from the Mayor of Salida at a party, a simple whisper, "good job on the trees", was a bit of a surprise. Soon my work ended up in photo form all over the place: The Denver Post, High Country News, Channel 5 News, Mountain Mail, BLM web site and the City Calendar.
How about the Forest Service’s reaction?
The reaction of the Forest Service has been very quiet up until this year when I was working on a very large commissioned piece for Cotton Hot Springs Resort in Buena Vista, Colorado. Evidently the dead tree I was painting was located a few yards on forest service land. I was ticketed and fined $500. It has been that incident that has inspired more people in my community than ever. What was a private altercation with me and the law, grew to a grass roots effort to "save the arts.” I eventually didn't have to pay the fine, but will work off my debt to society with community service work. I have been very amazed how these painted trees have inspired folks.
What is "Sacred Places" and what’s next for your work?
The intent is to create beauty where there is already beauty, highlighting the strengths of a tree now dead or a stone seemingly unimportant is in essence how we are to regard each other. In our busy lives we sometimes forget to notice the splendor of the world around us. Taking time to sit and enjoy a personal place for even a few minutes a day is sometimes all it takes to remind us how blessed we truly are. No matter what one’s personal points of view on life are, we all enjoy a private, sacred place in which to retreat or to relax. I am currently working on several local projects with "Sacred Places" and am days away from bringing a painted tree to the art festival Burning Man.
To learn more about Killorn's trees and "Sacred Places" project, check out his website.