Cast members of the Purple Fox Conundrum, an immersive theater production, rehearse at installations built for the show, which will take place on a ranch just south of Mancos. (Shaun Stanley, Special to the Denver Post)

Colorado wilderness is often its own destination, but sometimes, tucked away in the natural landscape, visitors can find something even more enticing: immersive art installations that play off elements of nature. More and more, artists are creating large art installations and performance spaces that become destinations in and of themselves, rather than just being quirky road-side attractions along the way.

Immersive art — both visual and performance — is art that allows people to experience it through multiple senses in less traditional settings. Unlike traditional outdoor sculpture that is made to endure the elements, many of these pieces or shows are temporary in nature. While there is indoor immersive art (think Meow Wolf of Santa Fe, which will open in Denver in 2021), part of the appeal is catching these experiences while you can.

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Whether it’s music, sculpture, painting or another art form, the boundary between audience and artist is disappearing as people become immersed in these creations for unique experiences.

Actors in the Purple Fox Conundrum, an immersive outdoor theater production, hike through a ranch south of Mancos during rehearsal for their upcoming performances at Sacred Song Farm. (Shaun Stanley, Special to the Denver Post)

The Purple Fox Conundrum in Mancos

In what sounds like a very ambitious blend of art disciplines set on a southern Colorado farm, the Purple Fox Conundrum — “an interactive, outdoor theatrical performance and art adventure” in Mancos — will debut on Oct. 4 and 5.

“Immersive art is something sensory-oriented where you can become part of it,” explained Sarah Syverson, executive producer of the Purple Fox Conundrum.

Syverson, who also hosts the podcast, “The Raven Narratives,” said she was inspired by the Off-Center theater programs at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Meow Wolf in Santa Fe and the beauty of her surroundings where she lives in this southern pocket of Colorado.

“I grew up in Montana in a rural community, and I have a real love for the arts,” she said. “Sometimes, it feels like all the cool and interesting stuff is only happening in urban areas, but here, we have this grand theatrical space.”

The Purple Fox Conundrum will take place on the 370-acre Sacred Song Farm, where the audience will walk a one-mile path through various “portals” that invite them from one world — and sensation — to the next. The 90-minute experience (note that it’s not called a show) will take groups of 15 in 10-minute intervals between 14 different vignettes spread across the land.

It all begins with a bit of a modern detox, making people aware of their overstimulated lives on digital devices. “The vignettes move from synthetic into a more whimsical world and vast world,” Syverson said.

As she describes a “wilderness of mirrors” and “path of untruths” with faux French food critics presenting the, er, conundrum between artisan bread topped with juniper jam versus classic white bread smeared with grape jelly, it’s easy to conjure up a scene from a Wes Anderson movie.
At some point during the experience, people will encounter a 14-foot blue chair that’s meant to invite contemplation on perspective. And there’s also a purple fox (well, a person dressed as one) in at least one of the vignettes.

“We hope that this creates a sense of play,” she said. “We also hope that people leave with a thoughtfulness around both technology and nature.”

The event runs 5-8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 4 and 3-8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5 at Sacred Song Farm, 6982 Road 41, Mancos. Advanced ticket purchase is highly recommended at purplefoxconundrum.com.

Breckenridge troll Isak Heartsone
Isak Heartstone, by Danish artist Thomas Dambo, sits in its permanent home along Illinois Creek Monday in Breckenridge. (Hugh Carey, Summit Daily)

Isak Heartstone in Breckenridge

Arguably Colorado’s most popular destination artwork is an enormous wooden troll in Breckenridge. This art was initially created by Dutch artist Thomas Dambo in 2018 as part of BreckCreate, the Breckenridge Creative Arts, during the Breckenridge International Festival of the Arts.

Originally, visitors had to hike to the troll along a forest trail on the edge of town. When more and more people kept trekking up to see the 15-foot gentle giant, locals asked that it be removed. The town of Breckenridge stepped in and moved Isak to a permanent location near the ice skating rink where people can walk a short distance from the bus stop or parking lot to see the troll.

Depending on the season, there might be a line of people waiting to see the artwork — and snap a selfie or family photo next to him.

While Isak became permanent, other BreckCreate immersive experiences are temporary and take place for one or two weekends at a time, but still become destinations for tourists. The town of Breckenridge established Breckenridge Creative Arts, a non-profit organization to manage facilities such as the Riverwalk Center, Breckenridge Arts District, Breckenridge Theater and the public art collection, as well as create new arts programming. That programming evolved into seasonal festivals that highlight a blend of art and nature.

During the Breckenridge International Festival of the Arts, WAVE: Light + Water + Sound or other annual events here, musicians might be performing in trees, dancers might be scaling rocks, light bulbs will be making a storm cloud in the middle of the street, and more wonders that blend art and nature.

“The experiential artworks that Breckenridge Creative Arts presents are freely accessible to all and inviting in a way that the traditional gallery setting often are not,” said Nicole Dial-Kay, director of exhibitions and special projects at Breckenridge Creative Arts.

Isak Heartstone is located on the Trollstigen Trail, accessible via a walk or free trolley from the Breckenridge Welcome Center at 203 S. Main St. in Breckenridge.

Artist Patrick Dougherty adds branches to one of his “stick works” sculptures at the Denver Botanic Gardens Chatfield Farms location Thursday, April 18, in Littleton. (Michael Ciaglo, Special to The Denver Post)

Patrick Dougherty’s Stick Works in Vail and Littleton

Colorado is fortunate to have two sculptures by artist Patrick Doughtery, an “environmental artist” who creates massive works out of tree branches.

In Vail, Dougherty’s “Hodgepodge” in Ford Park stands 20 feet tall. The sculpture includes many holes, like windows or doors, built into the curvature of the reformed tree branches so that visitors can walk or peer into the piece. The sculpture was created in 2018 and is going to be on display through 2019.

This year, Doughtery created “One Fell Swoop” at the Denver Botanic Gardens’ Chatfield Farms in Littleton. The piece, created using the help of volunteers, is made with willow saplings and other branches from Colorado trees.

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“It is human nature to want to experience things through touch,” said Erin Bird, Communications Manager for the Denver Botanic Gardens. “Art often doesn’t lend itself to this form of sensory engagement due to fragile materials, one-of-a-kind objects and historical and monetary value, so when an artist invites viewers to touch and immerse themselves in the sculpture, that is a very special experience.”

“One Fell Swoop” will be on display until nature says otherwise — it could be damaged by wind or snow, but it will remain there in whatever shape evolves.

The stick works allow people of all ages and abilities to take part in the art experience so it is immersive for nearly everyone.

“Interactive art is also very important for visitors with physical and intellectual disabilities,” Bird said. “A visually-impaired visitor can touch the branches used in the sculpture, feel the texture and the twists of the wood. They can walk through the sculpture and understand the scale and design — providing firsthand information about the art that may not available to them when standing in front of a painting.”

Plus, kids love it. “Immersive art also opens the door to imagination and play,” she added. “Patrick Dougherty’s sculptures are whimsical and treehouse-like, inviting young visitors to create their own narratives and experiences.”

Immersive artworks like these can often drum up more visitors — and more tourism dollars. According to the Denver Botanic Gardens, once “One Fell Swoop” opened to the public, Chatfield Farm saw a 64.4% increase in attendance compared to the same time period one year prior.

“Hodgepodge” is on view through 2019 at Ford Park, 522 S. Frontage Road E. in Vail. “One Fell Swoop” is on display indefinitely at Chatfield Farms, 8500 W. Deer Creek Canyon Road in Littleton.

Denver-based architecture firm Tres Birds designed, fabricated and installed Sunbird Park in Vail in 2014. (Brooks Freehill, provided by Tres Birds)

Sunbird Park and new murals in Vail

Speaking of children, Vail’s Art in Public Places program thought of young audiences when investing in playground designs.

Sunbird Park in Vail’s Lionshead Village has been called on the of the coolest parks in the world. It was designed by Denver architects, Tres Birds Workshop, which made a space that appeals to all ages with three “nests” that invite any visitor to climb inside, immersing themselves in the cocoon between bridges and slides. While it’s more functional than some other examples of immersive art, it stands out from traditional playgrounds and could inspire a future environmental artist. Other playgrounds in Vail also show off creative designs.

For those not quite ready to crawl through sculptures or hike to or through a performance, several mural artists were busy in Vail this past summer: Kelsey Montague, Pedro Barrios, Jaime Molina and Pat Millberry all participated. While not quite immersive, some of the murals invite playfulness, not just viewing. For example, Kelsey Montague’s wall of flowers includes painted swings, and visitors pretend to sit on these one-dimensional objects.

Sunbird Park is located at 555 E Lionshead Circle in Vail. To see new murals and other public art in Vail, use the interactive map at artinvail.com.

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