Artist river 14photo zach mahone kkpge2

Image: Zach Mahone

On a balmy spring day out on the rec path behind Avon’s Westin hotel, Mark Lemon and Ian Clark stand on opposite banks of the Eagle River, shoulders squared, staring each other down like gunslingers at high noon. But when their duel commences, it’s paintbrushes, rather than six-shooters, that flash in the sun.

Welcome to Art of the Valley Gallery’s inaugural Paint-Out & Art Show: a seasonal creative showdown showcasing the talents of local plein air painters, who bring a blank canvas and challenged to venture outside, set up their easels, and render an unsigned landscape or portrait—any subject, in any style—in four hours. Afterward, the gallery hosts an art show juried by the public, who will select the winners. First place is a hundred-dollar bill; second place is fifty; third place is a plastic bag full of tears.

Thirty minutes into the competition, a shadow appears on the Eagle River cast by Mason Torry, manager of Art of the Valley, the contest’s sponsor and the latest arrival on the local gallery scene. Lemon says hello. Clark, from across the river, takes notice. A palpable tension hangs in the air as all three artists set about capturing the exact same idyllic scene.

Torry may be hosting this contest, but as a competitor he looks to be an underdog. For one thing, he’s wearing Wranglers and a checkered shirt tucked into his jeans, with a cell phone holstered on his belt. For another, he’s more than half an hour late to the competition.

But such trifles don’t deter Torry, who arrived late to the art game in general. He didn’t grow up in an artistic family, or among the kinds of folks with a wing named after them at the local art museum. He grew up the seventh of eight children on a farm in rural Michigan, where the only family vacation was one trip to the Upper Peninsula—so no formative exposure to Picasso at the Art Institute of Chicago, never mind da Vinci at the Louvre.

But Torry saw gold in the morning sun; he saw silver in the shimmer off the lake. Whenever he could, he scrounged paints and brushes and ventured outside to try to capture the richness of the natural world. As he grew older, Torry knew he had talent, but the only painters he knew from his community were the blue-collar kind, equipped with ladders and rollers. So after high school, he joined the army and learned how to aim howitzers, but he never saw real combat. With his discharge papers, and the GI Bill, he attended a surveying school in Colorado. Then he found a job in Vail.

Surveyors reconcile the real world with county maps. They figure out where, say, the land for Bachelor Gulch or Gypsum begins and ends ... exactly and precisely. Torry’s creative eye wandered beyond latitude and longitude to lakes and hills, shades and colors, values and hues. He’d take pictures of the landscapes he surveyed by day, then paint them at home at night. And so it went for decades, until he crossed paths with David and Greg Hoffmann.

So ... which of the 16 paint-covered brush-slingers prevailed that day? The People’s Choice award went to a landscape of Homestake Road by Minturn painter Sherri Wilson. And the peer-nominated Artists’ Choice award, by a landslide, went to Mason Torry.“Why look at paintings from anywhere else when there’s so much beauty right here?” says Ian Clark, one of the local painters in the gallery’s stable (and one of the duelers along the Eagle River). “People always talk a lot about skiing here, and not about art,” adds painter Tara Stevens. “It’s exciting to have people talk about art.” Both laud Art of the Valley, along with the Vail Valley Art Guild (a collective of Eagle County visual artists), for spotlighting—and legitimizing—the nascent local art scene. The Paint-Out is just one prime example.

At the reception that night, sheepish but still beaming, Torry hung the blue ribbon on his own painting.

What I’m doing now almost seems like a dream come true,” he says. “Can you imagine? To be a surveyor and then to be running a gallery? It couldn’t be better.”

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