One of the riskiest things Carrie Fell ever did as an artist was to open a gallery above the skating rink at Solaris, which for retailers represents the pinnacle of Vail’s stratospheric high-rent district. But it was a strategic move, an opportunity to carve out a bricks-and-mortar niche among Vail’s most established galleries and declare that as an artist not only had she finally arrived, but she was here to stay.
“Opening the gallery was a big leap of faith,” says Fell, who signed the lease on the space in November 2011, when luxury items like $11,000 Warhol-influenced pop-art-style paintings of faceless cowboys languished in the recessionary doldrums along with $12 million vacation homes. “The gallery, when it opened, flatlined for a little bit. ... It seemed like more things were working against me than for me.”
How things have changed. With her designation as official artist of the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, everything now seems to be working for Fell. For one thing, her once questionable choice of real estate—upstairs and removed from the foot traffic and general hubbub of Solaris Plaza—now seems prophetic. Virtually every evening for the first two weeks in February, Carrie Fell Gallery, with a bird’s-eye view of Solaris Plaza (renamed Championships Plaza as the official venue of World Champs awards ceremonies), will morph into the equivalent of a skybox, hosting catered private events for the Vail Valley Foundation (VVF) as thousands of race fans mill about outside in the cold below.
And although she may not be receiving any royalties from Competitive Edge, the series of skier-themed paintings that the VVF commissioned to publicize the World Champs—and has reproduced on souvenir posters, wrapped around Eagle County buses, and papered onto the walls of the new Starbucks at the Westin Riverfront Resort in Avon and on the Seasons building along the town’s new promenade—Fell knows the value of the exposure she’s receiving on the Worlds stage. True, she won’t see a cent of the $16.95 spent on an Effective Edge coffee mug, but the hand-painted originals from the series hanging in her gallery are selling—and likely will sell out—in the five figures. To paraphrase what they once said of Sinatra, it’s Carrie Fell’s World Championships; we’re just living it.
Fell has been skiing Vail since she was a kid, when full-day lift tickets cost eight bucks and her parents—third-generation Coloradans—would drive the family up from Denver on weekends in a 1970s pinstriped van. She went to design school, thinking she’d follow in her mother’s footsteps as an interior designer. But then she discovered she could draw and taught herself to paint, in her own peculiar way: instead of vertically, she composes horizontally, like Jackson Pollock, resting her canvas on a tabletop and using an unconventional technique Pollock referred to as “action painting.”
“I paint with my hands,” she explains. “I move pigment around to build shapes. I start with acrylic, let that dry, then I’ll go over it with oil and a water-based acrylic finish. It’s a lot of layering that requires a lot of patience.”
A single painting might take her a week to complete. She’s a fan of Andy Warhol, but there’s probably an even greater creative influence that explains her preference for the splashy primary colors that dominate and define her work, as well as its signature Western meme: her father, a professional drag racer sponsored by Jolly Rancher, was known as the Candy Cowboy.
“What I learned the most from him was marketing and management skills,” Fell says. “My dad was an excellent sports person: he was always crisp and clean, he always signed autographs, and he never turned anybody away. He was really good with people.”
Fell began her career in the 1980s, exhibiting her work at outdoor art fairs from a manicured stall where she often gave away autographed posters, attracting a following of private collectors, museums, business owners (one of Fell’s most-recognized works, True West, hangs in the dining room at Kelly Liken), and galleries from Durango to Park City to Horton Fine Art, which serves as her 2015 satellite in Beaver Creek. As the official artist for a number of local fundraisers and signature events (e.g., Roundup River Ranch’s Cowboy Ball, Gourmet on Gore, and Taste of Vail), she was an obvious choice for VVF for 2015. Like her cowboys, the skiers in her World Champs series, including the rainbow-hued racer carving a turn in Effective Edge, all have featureless faces for a reason: she wants people to put themselves in those oil-and-acrylic boots.
“I’m a skier, not a racer, so I was trying to bring the sport closer to novices like myself,” she says. “I try to imagine what courage it takes to get up and go and take those corners and suffer those injuries and train your way back to the top. That tenacity is hard for any artist to capture.
“It’s about form and style; it’s about all those things that create that moment in time, that race, that run, that determination. ... The challenges are huge. So it doesn’t matter if you’re a skier, if you have a different sport, or a vision for a business.”
When you have that edge, Fell says, you know it.