From exacting miniature replicas of 20th-century rolling stock to historically precise recreations of late-Victorian dress, Durango’s cultural passions can tend toward the crotchety.
But for the next two years, Durango High School students are ensuring that the city remains young at art.
On Monday, a healthy crowd gathered beneath the beating sun on the Animas River Trail outside Durango Public Library for the unveiling of “Train Goes ’Round and ’Round,” a steel and ceramic sculpture depicting a locomotive traveling on a circular train track which continuously runs through jutting metal mountains.
J Burnite, DHS’s ceramics and sculpture teacher, said the piece took two semesters of focused labor from about 40 students and required an unprecedented amount of collaboration between the high school’s traditional arts departments and its welding program.
Cristie Scott, chairwoman of Durango’s Public Art Commission, said the sculpture’s two-year installation marks an “exciting” expansion of the city’s hallmark “art on loan” program. Durango’s public art collection, which includes 27 artworks, was last appraised as being worth more than $1 million.
Scott said the Public Art Commission selected the winning design from nine finalists because its subject – a train and mountains contained within a metal circle reminiscent of a large bicycle wheel – spoke most directly to Durango’s character.
While the concept’s municipal relevance may well be inarguable, in its execution, the artwork also betrays a lot of technical sophistication.
Burnite said students made the train’s locomotive engine and eight boxcars using ceramic tiles and various glazes, which had to be baked at 2,140 degrees. The tiles are secured with mortar.
Welding teacher Clint Chandler said students used a special grinding technique to distinguish the mountains’ dark expanses from their bright snowcaps.
At the unveiling, Burnite said the long, intellectually involved process of realizing the sculpture’s design had stretched the school’s facilities and finally proved to be a wonderful opportunity to “get our kids’ feet wet in what it takes to do public art.”
City Councilor Dean Brookie heralded the sculpture, saying, “Public art is a quality-of-life issue,” one that caused businesses and families to relocate to Durango.
At the end of Brookie’s speech, Public Art Commissioner Cathy Gore said the piece, “is really great, really, really cool. It speaks to what can be done by high school students.”
Cindy Smart, executive director of the Durango Botanical Society, said the piece “goes with everything” and congratulated the artists on their skillful use of metal.
Public Art Commissioner Karen Schain said the students had contributed a “very powerful” sculpture to the city’s collection.
Carol Martin said the process of creating public art was very complicated and said the students’ success showed they had “learned a lot.”
The Public Art Commission paid $800 to DHS for the artwork, which covered the expense of the materials, and awarded a small stipend to three of the nine students with finalist designs.
The circumstances of the sculpture’s production are uniquely Durango – most high school art departments have no public art commissions to turn to.
But the students’ generosity and achievement is uniquely artistic: They managed to create a thing of beauty, with no pay, inspired only by the eventual promise of mastery and the urgency of their own vision.
Durango’s public art commissioners were uniform in expressing gratitude.
Gore said she wanted to show Durango’s students that “this community values their talent. We can’t afford to pay them for the work they put in, but we want to show them we appreciate their product.”