National accolades for Western Slope town's bronze

Lands End Sculpture Center showcases creative economic contributions on the outskirts of Paonia

A nearly 40-foot breaching gray whale with its calf greets visitors to the Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. A larger-than-life tiger stands proudly on the University of Missouri campus. Three children laugh in frozen playful motion on a seesaw in front of City Hall in Steamboat Springs.

What do these sculptures have in common?   

They were all cast in bronze at the Lands End Sculpture Center on the outskirts of Paonia, a Western Slope town of just over 1,400 residents 70 miles southeast of Grand Junction. Paonia shares the North Fork Valley Colorado Creative District designation with the neighboring towns of Hotchkiss and Crawford, and the Lands End Sculpture Center reflects the creative surprises the valley offers.  

When the whale made the journey from the Lands End Sculpture Center to San Diego in 1995, it was the second-largest sculpture ever cast in the U.S., and the only life-sized bronze whale in the world at the time. “It had to have a police escort to get through Las Vegas,” says Nancy Zimmerman, who owns the foundry with her husband, Marty. The sculptor, Randy Puckett, “couldn’t find a foundry in California to cast it,” she says, “so he found us.” 

More than 200 artists from across the nation have discovered Lands End Sculpture Center, whose staff of nine casts around $500,000 worth of bronze statues per year. “We have a top-notch staff because they’ve done it so long and are proud of what they do,” says Zimmerman, noting that Lands End employees average 20 years of experience. 

Marty’s parents, Bob and Mary Zimmerman, started the first foundry in Loveland in the ‘60s where Bob, a metallurgy engineer, had a shop where he made parts for tech companies. The demand for casting quickly grew, and they decided to devote all of their time to casting sculptures. They sold the foundry in the ‘80s and moved to the mountains; that same building in Loveland now houses Art Castings of Colorado foundry, renowned, among other things, for producing statues of Buzz and Woody from “Toy Story” that Pixar awards employees to mark their 10- and 20-year anniversaries with the company. Loveland has gained a reputation as a sculpture center with its foundries and “Sculpture in the Park,” a juried exhibition with artists from around the world that has been held each August for 33 years. 

Fast forward to 1990, when the Zimmermans discovered an abandoned mining equipment repair shop in Paonia that was for sale by the bank — a perfect spot to start another foundry.  “Lands End is a perfect example of what’s going on in the Paonia community,” says Dave Mitchell of the North Fork Creative Coalition. “It continues to be on the verge of discovery with the emerging arts scene.” 

The same could be said of the growth of creative industries throughout Colorado, where its contribution to the economy has been steadily growing. According to reports from Colorado Creative Industries (CCI), a division of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade, creative industries are the fifth-largest employment sector in Colorado and accounted for 139,096 jobs in 2015 and $7.2 billion in earnings.

In first-time research conducted in 2016 by the National Endowment for the Arts, Colorado ranked first in the nation for the percentage of residents who personally perform or create artworks. “It surprised us,” says Margaret Hunt, director of CCI. She defines creative industries with a broad stroke to include “anything you make with your hands or mind.”  Hunt sees a future for Colorado as a “premier creative economy.”

The North Fork Valley is one of 18 communities to receive the Colorado Creative District designation since the Colorado Creative Districts program was established in 2011. Gov. John Hickenlooper signed it into law to attract artists, create economic activity, attract visitors and revitalize communities, among other things. Communities also include Denver’s Santa Fe, Golden Triangle and River North neighborhoods, Trinidad, Pueblo, Ridgway, Salida, Telluride, Colorado Springs, Greeley, Longmont, Lakewood, Crested Butte, Fort Collins, Breckenridge, Carbondale and Mancos.

In 2015, Hickenlooper announced a plan to add momentum to creative enterprises by initiating the Space to Create program, a public-private partnership that will help establish affordable working/living spaces for artists in rural communities under the direction of CCI. “It’s a working model for rural communities,” Hunt says.

The first site, Trinidad, is in the pre-development phase, with plans to save three historical buildings and create 40 units for artists. This year, eight more communities across the state will be chosen to participate in the program.

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