The Artist Within
By Suzanne Cheavens
Every local has what’s known as his or her “Telluride Story,” the tale of how they came to find themselves in the valley, and it’s a story that starts from points all over the map. There are many variations on the yarn, but what they all share is a crystalline moment of discovery and magic. Call it the “ah-haa” moment. How fitting, then, that Ah Haa School for the Arts Executive Director Rachel Loomis Lee finds herself not only at the helm of Telluride’s creative epicenter for “ah-haa” moments, but she also has personally experienced such life-changing instances. Lee’s story started when she left Boston and corporate life in 1997 and discovered this gorgeous mountain community. “The magical feelings have never left me,” Lee says of choosing Telluride, sight unseen. “I was looking for small-town life and simplicity, and I’d found it.”
Ten years after making Telluride her home, she also landed a cherished job at Ah Haa. When the curriculum development position at the art school opened up in 2007, she pounced at the opportunity. Lee was so certain she wanted to join the vibrant culture surrounding the arts institution that when she spied the help-wanted ad in the Telluride Daily Planet at 7:30 a.m., she had her resume on the former director’s desk by 8 a.m. “I feel like I’ve waited my whole life for this job. You just can’t have a bad day here. I am blessed.”
After a month-long interview process, she was hired and hit the ground running. She brings a wealth of organizational skills to the job and a brisk, passionate energy into the historic depot building’s luminous, inspiring space. As a young, driven athlete, Lee had devoted countless hours toward her quest for ice-skating excellence. It was with this same dedication that she threw herself into learning about her new profession. “It was a baptism by fire,” she remembers of her first months at Ah Haa. “I tried to take a class in every single medium to experience it and see what our students were experiencing. I’m not shy and I’m a sponge for learning. I’ve absorbed every iota of this building and what this organization has to offer.” She went on to become the executive director in 2009.
Life at the community hub of creation and artistic inspiration was a change for Lee. “I’m a businesswoman, first and foremost,” she says. But once she started sampling the vast array of art curricula the school offers, she was hooked. “The classes have opened my mind. I don’t want to stop. I believe that everyone’s an artist—you just have to find your medium.” For Lee, it was sumi painting. She likes the simplicity of the ink, rice paper, brush and water, and was surprised to fall in love with her first creation: a stork-like bird that still hangs on her refrigerator.
She takes her own lead from renowned painter and Ah Haa instructor, Robert Weatherford, who tells his students that when it comes to self-expression, “Don’t worry about the rules.”
“It’s all about letting go,” Lee concurs. Her headlong plunge into artistic expression has also inspired her family. Nearly every wall in the home she shares with her husband, Mark Lee, and his daughter, Zakiya, is covered with art, and they add things they make in class to their collection. When they moved down valley, says Lee, they opted not to have television, which has opened up more time and space for them to create art at home.
Ah Haa’s wondrous palette of classes offered in every medium for every age is what excites Lee, season after colorful season. She enjoys seeing children embark on the path to artistic pursuits. In the course of a week, she watches nervous youngsters bloom into fearless painters, sculptors and photographers who proudly march into her office to show her their masterworks. Enrollment in children’s programs is up nearly 40 percent since she started at the school. Lee is quick to credit Ah Haa’s longevity, financial stability and ever-growing programs and exhibitions to its dedicated board of directors, her selfless staff and a cadre of volunteers from every walk of life. “This is not a 9-to-5 job,” she notes.
The programming already benefits from the wide-ranging expertise of local teachers, but Lee and her staff are soliciting more and more visiting artists to come and share their gifts with the community. The adult summer schedule is chock full of classes in everything from writing to painting, jewelry design to woodblock printing.
This summer, Ah Haa is extending its reach to students outside the community with the new Immersion Telluride Art Experience in both painting and photography. Telluride is already a tourist destination, but now it will also be a destination for artists. “People from all over the country will be coming to Telluride to study with our Immersion instructors,” Lee says.
The school’s biggest impact, though, is on the community. In addition to regular programs for children and adults, “Art Anytime” opens the school’s doors for pursuits that fit anyone’s schedule. Ah Haa also offers free Family Day clinics for creating holiday gifts and costumes, as well as special events, art exhibitions and openings, and visiting-artist workshops. The school presents free yoga classes and discounted acupuncture sessions and donates its space and equipment to back other community nonprofits such as the SquidShow Theatre Group, One to One Mentoring Program, One Telluride, Sheridan Arts Foundation, Telluride Medical Center, San Miguel Resource Center and the Telluride AIDS Benefit. In turn, Ah Haa welcomes the support of the community at its own fundraising events, such as the annual gala art auction, which is always a zany and entertaining hit. This year’s affair takes place July 22, and “License to Create” is the James Bond-inspired theme.
For Lee and the legions of either aspiring or long-term artists who cross the threshold into the world of possibilities the Ah Haa provides, life is full of these “ah-haa” moments. “Ah Haa is the sound of inspiration, surprise, awareness and awakening; the sound of learning new skills, new knowledge, new experience,” says Lee.