Artists in Lyons start over after Colorado floods

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(Photo: CPR/Chloe Veltman)
<p>Craig Ferguson, left, and Brian Eister hold a meeting al fresco at Planet Bluegrass.</p>

The small town of Lyons near Boulder was devastated by last month’s floods. The rising waters caused an estimated $43 million in damages to public infrastructure. Lyons’s burgeoning cultural economy was hit particularly hard. The rains displaced artists, decimated studios, and derailed cultural events.

On the grounds of Planet Bluegrass, roots musicians and fans flock to participate in renowned music events like the annual Rockygrass Festival. Now, it’s a construction site. The floods caused major structural damage to the music festival organizer’s headquarters, so Craig Ferguson, the director of Planet Bluegrass, has been holding meetings under a tree on the festival grounds.

"You know, we prefer to have our offices without walls," he jokes.

Communications director Brian Eister is in a less jocund mood.

"Just a couple of months ago there were 700 people camping, playing music, writing songs and learning new mandolin licks," says Eister. "Now it’s just sand and rubbish everywhere."

Like other arts organizations in town, Planet Bluegrass has been forced to cancel its fall events. The town was still without basic utilities nearly a month after the floods. Ferguson was unable put a number on Planet Bluegrass’s losses, and the worst-hit buildings on his site are uninsured against damage caused by natural disasters. Yet he’s forging ahead.

"As soon as we can flush our toilet, we’re going to bring all of those great elements back," he says.

Over the past few years, Planet Bluegrass has helped to transform Lyons from a sleepy bedroom community into a vibrant hub for artists and art lovers. Economic development and community relations manager Jackie Watson credits the creative industries for the tremendous economic growth of Lyons in recent times.

"Leaders recognize that musicians and artists attract other people who support the arts and it builds on itself," Watson says. "It’s been astounding how successful our business life has been, and frankly it’s almost all artists, musicians, restaurants and the retail business community that’s been driving it."

"Rebuilding homes and rebuilding art are one and the same almost here," says Boulder resident Jordan Grano.

He’s spent the last six months in Lyons working with local artist John King on a colorful, five-storey sculpture that was destined to be housed in Kaiser Permanente’s new medical building in south Denver.

King says they completed work on it only hours before the rains started.

"That night the river came up and took the shop away," he says.

The floods obliterated half of the sculpture and caused an estimated $100,000 in damage to King's riverfront workshop and home. With extra funding and an extended deadline from Kaiser Permanente, King and his team are working to salvage the sculpture.

As artists and non-artists alike focus on reconstructing their lives, the arts are an integral part of the recovery process. Lyons-based mandolinist KC Groves started a relief fund for Lyons.

"I can’t really help build roads, I can't repair bridges, but I can help my fellow musicians," Groves says. "People who I know all over the world who want to help, I’ve sort of channeled all that good will, and we’ve raised almost $10,000."

Violinist MinTze Wu, the founder of the Sounds of Lyons live music series, is organizing a benefit concert for the city of Lyons on Saturday in Boulder.

"There is no time that I feel music and art is more important and essential in keeping the life going here," Wu says.

Ali Kishayama agrees. She co-owns the Mayama Movement Studio, which offers dance classes ranging from ballet to hip-hop. Kishayama had to shut down the studio at a time when the community needed it most.

"When I take my son to school, I have 170 kids all asking me, when are they going to dance again," she says.

As soon as utilities are restored, Mayama will host community dance get-togethers to give residents a chance to forget their worries for a little while and lose themselves in movement.

When the river that flows through Lyons usurped its banks, it threw the lives of the town’s artists into turmoil. Despite the challenges of rebuilding, though, they are still inspired by its raw power.

Sculptor john King illustrates that feeling: "Oddly, having seen this thing, I have more love of this river than I ever did," he says.