Bianca Codiga, owner of Mountain Living Studio, has a simple philosophy when it comes to choosing which artists her nearly 7-year-old gallery will display.
Works must be original art by Coloradans and if she has the space, she'll hang it.
"I've always told people, 'This isn't a gallery of what Bianca likes. This is a gallery of what the people coming in the door like.'"
And that's the catch. If the customers are buying the works or talking about them, they stay. And Mountain Living Studio, which anchors a prominent corner at 741 Manitou Avenue, has a lot of what you might expect: traditional art, Western home décor and hand-crafted jewelry.
But the business also boasts some striking contemporary art, proof that the public has edgier taste than many local cynics tend to believe. Two artists in particular stand out.
Chris Sedgwick, who settled in Manitou Springs only three months ago, paints ornate works of rituals and mystical ceremonies with a strong medieval European flavor. Liese Chavez, the gallery's manager and its top seller two years running, creates slightly surreal drawings and paintings, depicting anthropomorphic creatures and objects that are at once Tim Burton-esque creepy and storybook cute.
Both Chavez and Sedgwick exemplify how artists can create heartfelt work, but also viably compete in a largely decrepit market.
If something about 29-year-old Sedgwick's paintings looks familiar, it's probably because you've seen something like them in art history books. Sedgwick's style draws heavily from 15th- and 16th-century Northern Renaissance paintings, namely the works of Hans Memling and Roger van der Weyden.
Typical of that style, Sedgwick's pieces possess exacting detail, abundant symbols and detached expressions on his subjects' faces as they carry out their rituals. "I like the detail, the mysticism," he says of the genre.
Even his methods resemble those of his predecessors. Sedgwick paints in thin layers of oil paint, and spreads several coats of varnish on top of the dried piece to create a luminosity that traps light between the paint layer and the varnish. Without it, he says, the paint sucks up the light and deadens the pigments. This result leaves the works with a high-gloss finish and extraordinarily brilliant hues. Adding a hint of sparkle, Sedgwick also embellishes his works with luxurious touches of gold leaf, fool's gold or tiny crystals.
Unlike the largely devout Dutch and Flemish artists who inspired him, however, Sedgwick's work depicts a blend of religious iconography and mythology, ranging from Rosicrucianism and Christian mysticism to sacred geometry and the writings of Joseph Campbell.
Each painting is riddled with symbols borrowed from these traditions: Everything from the number of dots that speckle a character's cap to the candle he holds delicately in his right hand, contributes to a bold and esoteric theme. Despite the intense attention to detail though, the works never appear busy.
Sedwick, a frequent transplant who's originally from Florida, even models for his paintings, so his figures are all the same (and he does in fact dress up in the neo-medieval costumes).
"It takes away personal identity and focuses mainly on what's going on in the painting, the concepts behind it," he says.
Despite that, Sedgwick says that the literal meanings aren't crucial to viewers.
"I try to make paintings ... so you don't have to know all the in-depth stuff. It should be immediately pleasing to you, anyway, regardless of knowing anything about why it was created."
In 2000, after traveling across the country selling jewelry, Chavez landed in Manitou Springs, and around 2004, started creating art in earnest. Though she had dabbled in it throughout her life, she had never taken an art class, had only earned her GED and attempted "a sorry stab" at college. With "proper art supplies" at hand, she taught herself by playing around with her materials and reading up on techniques online and in books. She learned to paint, draw and make new kinds of jewelry. Her efforts were good enough to eventually land her both a steady job as gallery manager and representation at MLS.
Although her nudes and decorative poppy paintings sold — and continue to sell — well, Chavez, now 36 years old, decided she wanted to create artwork that would mean something more to her. So she channeled the artwork that she appreciated, and found herself drawn to works with lines that are "confident and energetic."
She also had a feeling she sought to capture. "In my mind I'm even creating from (a) place — I go to my grandparent's house for inspiration ... it was a place filled with antiques and secret places and special smells and special light."
Out of this came her Deadpan Alley and Pale Preoccupation series, which she started in November 2008 and January 2010, respectively. Richly painted vignettes of less-than-impressed girls wandering through strange landscapes comprise the former. A collection of spare ink and watercolor drawings depicting fairytale-like scenes make up the latter. While a ship may set sail inside a teacup or a girl holds her balloon-like head on a string, the mood remains calm and in the case of the Deadpan Alley girls, charmingly blasé.
"That place in my heart has everything to do with this new artwork," Chavez says. "[It's about] being small enough to be looking under the kitchen table again, you know? And there anything's possible or believable."
The bottom line
Chavez concedes that she's as much an opportunist as an artist, saying, "If there's a trend that I'm comfortable with participating in, why not do something portable for tourists to take home with them?"
Her time working in the gallery helped her identify what the customers wanted, and so she started rolling out prints and Pale Preoccupation jewelry pieces. That mindset extends to the two online stores she operates through etsy.com, where she sells on average one item per day on one page.
"Bianca had a lot to do with me taking a practical outlook on certain things," Chavez says. "As long as you're doing something in art that you feel proud about, you shouldn't be ashamed to make a living out of it."
Especially when you believe in your representation. Sedgwick shows at only two other galleries, in Asheville, N.C., and Milwaukee, Wis. He joined MLS because he thought his work "would fit in well with the diverse range of artists Bianca represents. They have a great location, and were very knowledgeable and friendly when I approached them."
Friendliness is the foundation of MLS' advertising and the end result is impressive: The gallery has never had a down year. The shop owner says she averages between a 10 and 20 percent increase in sales annually. And that is something Bianca likes.