The archetypal figure of the Western man has lingered in our collective imagination for more than 200 years. A
maverick, a pioneer, this character has become a symbol of the adventurous American spirit. Today, that spirit is fired
to life in the kilns of the Pagosa Springs contemporary art center, Shy Rabbit.
Like early Western entrepreneurs, the owners of Shy Rabbit, D. Michael and Denise Coffee, have ambitions enough to
fill the mountain horizon.
"Do you want to know how crazy we are?" Michael asked.
Long before Shy Rabbit launched into reality, the Coffees envisioned an art district, a community, emanating from
Bastille Drive. In a sense, their efforts to bring high-quality, international contemporary art into the Four Corners
area has been the flagstone of a larger vision: an artistic community and destination.
That destination is currently hidden on the ill-frequented Bastille Drive in a renovated auto-repair shop. The only
art space in the Four Corners area to house a gallery, a studio and host classes (among other things), Shy Rabbit
attracts artists from as far away as Norway.
The Coffees frequently joke (in an "it's funny because it's true" sort of way) that Shy Rabbit is a 24-hour-a-day
job. Since establishing the gallery in 2004, the couple has hosted more than 20 exhibitions and held classes and
workshops in ceramics, printmaking and the business of art year-round. Like all creative-types, their artistic vision
never expires - the dream for Shy Rabbit extends far beyond its current status.
The reality, however, unlike the dream, presents a slew of challenges with an endless workload only the beginning.
First, there's the location. Pagosa Springs, not to mention the majority of the Southwest, is not known for
contemporary art. Tourism fuels local economies and influences the demand for more popular art like mountain vistas, rutting elk and cowboy silhouettes.
"There is no precedent for it here," Michael Coffee said of contemporary art.
"We're battling a very strong regional art influence."
In fact, the form of contemporary art itself has almost been a hindrance.
"Contemporary art is a difficult thing in the first place because I think people don't understand what it means. It
doesn't mean abstract," he said.
Then there's the auto-repair shop. Most galleries in tourist towns are located on bustling streets in cute, historic
buildings. Shy Rabbit couldn't be farther from that clichÃ©. The former auto-repair shop is located in a sparse
industrial area behind Ace Hardware and the unmistakable Boss Hogs restaurant. It's easy to miss. Camouflaged amid
tin buildings and offices, only a small sign on the door acknowledges the presence of Shy Rabbit.
"People drive up in the front. I've seen them. They won't even get out of their car," said Michael of a fairly common
experience. "It's scary for a lot of people."
Shy Rabbit is not, however, discouraging to everyone.
"People are coming here and freaking out that we're here in the first place," Michael said.
"Freaking out in a good way," Denise quickly added.
Though atypical to the area, such a venue is often found in the major art centers of New York City, San Francisco and
"It was second nature to us to do this," Denise said.
Before relocating to Colorado, Michael and Denise worked in Los Angeles; Michael as an architect and Denise as a
fashion designer. Despite a successful partnership with Prats/Coffee Architects Inc., Michael left Los Angeles in
2003 and landed in Pagosa Springs. Both Michael and Denise had hoped to find an art center where they could rent
studio space and become involved in the art community.
There was no such thing. Having practiced ceramics and printmaking and winning multiple awards since the 1970s, Michael was well-accustomed to the art scene. When he and Denise realized there was no outlet to plug into, they
created one. Shy Rabbit was born from a need: an art studio, a gallery, a community.
Community is a major theme in the Coffees' work, and Shy Rabbit is only the beginning. The desire to exhibit both
local and international art derives from not only a personal love and appreciation for good art but also from a
desire to expose it to new audiences.
"From an educational standpoint, we want to show the best artwork that we can," Denise said.
That attitude is in part what drives the workshops. The Coffees believe that through education comes appreciation.
Local high school students attend Shy Rabbit shows, and financial support is offered to many artists through their
Michael further expanded his definition of contemporary art.
"What it really means is 'of the times.' It's current," he said.
And it is forward thinking, involving passion for creativity and the arts.
"Our passion is the thing that is making this happen."
Margaret Hedderman is a freelance writer living in New Mexico. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org