Finding the Art in Place

By Tracy Wahl

The hospital lobby in Trinidad has an incredible mural designed by a nun. It shows the history of the town of 10,000 people where I have been living for the last two years. One day, when I was waiting in the lobby for something routine, I noticed the huge mosaic of tiles spreading from one side of the wall to the other. I started Googling away and found that it was hung in 1979. The artist was a nun, Sister Augusta Zimmer, from the Sisters of Charity in Cincinnati. It’s a 2,000-pound ceramic mural, constructed in pieces. It’s so heavy that the wall was reinforced so it could hold the weight of the ceramic tiles.

I posted a picture on one of the Trinidad Facebook groups and next thing I know someone has responded, “I helped to hang that mural!” I messaged him and said let’s connect.

When I first moved here after leaving Phoenix, Arizona, I had left a job that just didn’t fit. And the weather didn’t fit either. The weather in the summer was, as I have now said over and over again, well, it was just unlivable.

So when I prepared to move back home to Colorado, I was drawn to Trinidad for the combination of arts community with deep sense of history tied back to the coal miners who once filled these streets. I started writing for the local paper — writing dozens of profiles, essays, and news pieces in the months before COVID struck. I started reporting for the local public radio station.

It turned out the guy who responded to my query about the mural on Facebook had been head of the art department at Trinidad State Junior College decades ago when he got a call that Sister Zimmer needed some help to hang the dozens of ceramic blocks that made up the mural. Inspired, he decided to teach his students how to do similar mosaic projects. Those murals now grace the campus of the college.

That same day I was walking down Main Street and was looking at a picture window display at one of the local galleries. A man whom I recognized from the school board meeting I had covered for the paper was standing next to me. His wife and he also own the local Hallmark card store next to the picture window where we stood. We were looking at a wonderful sculpture made of nuts and bolts and other metal parts.

“The guy who did that sculpture is a police officer,” he told me.

Cool, I replied, saying that I had always wanted to learn to weld. Well, he said, there is a welding class at the local community college and, in fact, the person you need to call to find out more is married to the police officer who made that sculpture. Small world. Actually, small Trinidad world.

About the time I moved here, a friend gave me a piece of pottery. It was curvy and undulating, a bowl but also a cloud shape.

A few months later I took a pottery class. The teacher had taught the woman who made the bowl. That’s just the way it works here. The fabric of the place is interwoven with art.

Two years later, I have completed dozens of paintings, many of which hang in the co-op downtown. Before moving here, while working at NPR in Washington D.C.,  I had taken several continuing education art classes while I worked the overnight. I’d go to class from 6 pm to 10 pm and then drive to work at midnight.  Even though I had taken several of these classes, I had never had one of my paintings professionally framed and displayed in a gallery — that is, until I moved to Trinidad.

Now, I had.

It was in no small part thanks to my amazing painting teacher, and my high school boyfriend whom I had reconnected with. But it is also partly thanks to this place that is so layered with artists.

One day I was working at the art co-op (as part of our membership we all agree to work a few hours a month) and a fellow artist came in and walked up to one of my paintings. They are mostly of local geologic landmarks and scenic views.

“My grandparents live right behind this hill, and I grew up seeing that,” he told me. I got a little thrill.

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