Ask Jim Sawatzki if he's an artist or a historian, and he's quick to answer that he's an artist who just happens to be an amateur historian. Regardless, the retired art teacher has channeled his passions into a career in filmmaking.
The 65-year-old Emmy nominee began work on his latest documentary, Rarefied Air, in 2007, when he decided to chronicle creative minds from Pikes Peak region history. The film features writer Helen Hunt Jackson; potters Artus and Anne Van Briggle; actor Lon Chaney; architect Thomas MacLaren; photographer Laura Gilpin; teacher Lew Tilley; muralist Eric Bransby; Boardman Robinson, the first Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center director; sculptor Starr Kempf; and painters like Archie Musick.
"I picked these artists because I thought they best represented their fields," says Sawatzki, who produced, wrote and directed. "They left a legacy in this region."
The idea sprang from Sawatzki's conversations with Kempf, then his neighbor in the Cheyenne Cañon area that's still home to Kempf's massive sculptures. As he put it together, Sawatzki drew upon interviews with experts including FAC museum director Blake Milteer and the 96-year-old Bransby, the only surviving featured artist.
"I made this for art teachers and the people who love art and the arts in general," says Sawatzki. But he hopes Rarified Air will see something of a mass audience, too. Among his 20 total films, whose subjects have included Gen. William Jackson Palmer and Cripple Creek, some have shown on A&E's Biography channel, PBS and local cable stations.
To accompany the film's release, Marmalade at Smokebrush will host an exhibit with pieces borrowed from the Tilley, Musick and Kempf families, bringing the film's images to three-dimensional life. Don Goede, Marmalade executive director, was inspired by what he learned while curating the exhibit.
"I hope that artists from the local scene will see this film so that they have a sense of how rich our artistic heritage is," he says. "I also hope it inspires collectors."
Rarefied certainly inspired Sawatzki — but he's ready to rest.
"I consider this my magnum opus," he says. "It's the longest, most complicated project I've ever done. But it was worthwhile."