Walk up the stairs in the Roaring Fork Conservancy’s new River Center in downtown Basalt and you will see hanging on the wall a colorful map that covers the entire drainage of the Roaring Fork River and its many tributaries. You will surely notice that it looks more like a piece of fine art than an analog orientation device.
The map was created by Carbondale resident Sarah Virginia Uhl to help the Roaring Fork Conservancy’s fundraising efforts.
This is not Uhl’s first act of creative cartography. In addition to the Roaring Fork drainage undertaking, Uhl has been commissioned to create decorative maps by American Rivers, Outdoor Research, REI and the august American Alpine Club.
In an age when cartography has become defined by the cold-hearted dispassion of pixelization, Uhl’s maps are a breath of fresh air. Would you use them to orient yourself on a backcountry jaunt? Likely not, but, would you hang one in a prominent location on your living room wall? Hell yes you would. In a heartbeat.
Mapmaking is almost part of Uhl’s DNA.
“My mom was a cartographer,” she says. “She and my dad were cave explorers. He was a surveyor too, a draftsman. [My mom] expressed herself creatively by making cave maps. They were very cool. They were award-winning in cave circles because she would make a traditional map and she would make these blowups of a passageway with a human in it, sort of like a 3D aspect. It’s a little bit in my blood. The reason why I like maps is that they tell a story.”
But mapmaking is only one part of Uhl’s extensive portfolio, which includes vibrant watercolors, postcards, calendars and plein air landscapes.
Her corporate and nonprofit clients include Subaru, PrAna, the Access Fund and the Aspen Skiing Co.
Not bad for someone who took up the making of art in a serious manner only a few years ago.
In addition, Uhl just did a major feature story for the Alpinist, considered by many to be the preeminent outdoor-recreation magazine in the country.
And next week, she goes to the Outdoor Retailer Snow Show in Denver to perform a live-art “activation” for the nonprofit organization Protect Our Winters (POW), in which she will complete a 62-piece mural in the Tincup Whiskey booth while spectators look on. (No pressure there!) Those paintings will then be sold, along with a Jones snowboard Uhl is painting, via an online auction. All proceeds will go to POW to help find its advocacy work.
It is not an exaggeration to say Uhl is on a roll.
She came to her current creative circumstance in a circuitous manner.
Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Uhl, while very interested in art as a high school student, was far too intent on athletic endeavors to focus on painting and drawing.
“I always made art,” Uhl says. “It kinda was like my secret passion. My main thing when I was younger was that I was a pro cyclist. I raced bikes for 10 years, starting at age 14. That career ended when I was 24. I went to college and got a degree in kinesiology because my parents talked me out of going to art school.
“I moved to Colorado Springs with a boyfriend, who worked for the U.S. Olympic Committee,” she continues. “That was the last year of my cycling career. That all ended and I moved to Fort Collins and worked for New Belgium Brewery for four years, from 2008 to 2012. I was in charge of in-house eventing.”
It was because of her gig with New Belgium that she was first introduced to the Roaring Fork Valley.
“Through my work with New Belgium, I fell in love with Carbondale,” Uhl says. “New Belgium was a major partner for Mountain Fair and the 5Point Film Festival. New Belgium had this incredible program where they invited anyone who worked at the brewery to come and help with events. I chose to come and help with the events in Carbondale and just totally fell in love.
Much as she hated to part ways with a company that treated her so well, and that makes such good beer, her infatuation with Carbondale mandated a move.
“It was really hard, a heartbreaking decision leaving such a great job, but I wanted to be in the mountains,” she says. “I took a job with Big Agnes, then I worked for 5Point for three years.”
Uhl’s career trajectory might very well have continued along that path, working for various righteous companies that routinely make their way onto the best-companies-to-work-for lists that appear in hip, glossy magazines. But her childhood inclinations started to perk forth. She decided to become an artist. Pretty much just like that.
“Through my time at 5Point, I was working with such incredible filmmakers and artisans and storytellers,” Uhl says. “It was inspiring enough that I decided to work on my own art.
“I gave myself a postcard project,” she continues. “I made 100 postcards in 100 days. My objective with that was that I wanted to see if I could learn the software skills on my own or if I would need to pursue school or some sort of training if I wanted to take the illustration route. I met for three hours with a friend who knew how to use the computer programs and that was the beginning of ‘I think I can pursue illustration.’ Then, illustration led to plein-air painting.”
You read that right: She embarked upon her new career with zilch in the way of formal training.
Though Uhl’s live-art activations are primarily beneficent in nature, she is still a rent-paying artist.
“I get the brand to pay for my creative fees,” she says. “I have a day rate, then we’re able to say that 100 percent of what we raise will go to the nonprofit, ’cause it really wouldn’t be an exciting model to me if I had to take my cut out of selling the boards. That relationship also incentivizes the nonprofit to work hard. The more they work it, the more they sell the boards, the more money they make.”
Given her vocational history, Uhl is plugged into both the outdoor recreation industry and nonprofits with an environmental bent.
“My time with 5Point was real integral with that,” she says. “I was able to call all the people I worked with at 5Point and, instead of getting them a really cool itinerary for their trip to Carbondale, I was saying ‘hey what are you working on, what can I contribute to?’ Outdoor Research was a title partner for 5Point when I left, so was my first really big job, the map I did for them.
“That was a really nice jumping-off point,” Uhl continues. “I’ve had experience with self-promotion as an athlete, and then marketing for different brands. I know it was all about relationships. I pretty quickly focused more on relationship-building than I was ‘oh, I want to paint this way.’ The techniques I’ve used lag way behind ‘what projects could we do?’”
Uhl has definitely developed her own style.
“I like to make art that in some way represents a memory of a place and also a hope for a place,” she says. “I like to paint the felt experience. Sometimes when you make something literal or realistic, it doesn’t capture the way the sun felt on you or the exhilaration of the wind. It’s my artistic approach to capture the un-capturable.”
In addition to her professional connections with the outdoor recreation and nonprofit industries, Uhl is of the opinion that her bike-racing past also contributes positively to her artistic efforts.
“I’m working with that a lot because I think that pursuing a career as a freelance artist has a lot of unknowns and a lot of uncontrollable,” she says. “I could get as good as painting as I could possibly get and refine my technique, but that doesn’t guarantee that anyone’s ever going to ever hire me to do it. I think that pursuing art has been an antidote to that hyper, type-A athlete brain.
“The competitive cyclist keeps my business rolling,” she continues. “It gives me the ability to call up three different entities and say ‘I’ve got this crazy idea … let’s raise some money … I’m gonna cut some boards up and we’re gonna paint them here.’ I do a lot of pitching. I’m really at the point of trying to figure out the balance because, too much pitching, you lose your mojo. With these live art things I do, I put so much time in the preparation, and making sure they get a story and here’s how you need to market it and how you need to tell your staff to talk about it, that the point where I actually open the can of paint and make the paintings on the boards, is almost like the afterthought.”
It is beginning to take a toll.
“I don’t know that I want to phase out [the live art stuff], but I want to reinvent it,” Uhl says. “It’s really hard to paint 50 canvasses and to make them look good and try to sell them all in three days. The more I’ve learned about some of the campaign work and fundraising in general, I am proud of the amounts we have raised, but $5,000 almost feels like a drop in the bucket. I guess I want to look even bigger. I want to make an even broader impact. I’d like to find homes for the work that don’t depend upon 100 bucks here or 50 bucks there, I’d love to just make work that tells the story around some sort of conservation or climate issue and have a permanent home for it so it can continue to tell those stories. It isn’t as tied up in the fundraising in the moment.
“I just need to continue to find the right partnerships that have even broader audiences to share with,” she continues. “Patagonia would be a great partner to put my work in all of their stores and get a lot of exposure.
No matter where her work takes her, Sarah Virginia Uhl plans to keep it parked in Carbondale.
“My inspiration and my own personal happiness is really rooted in here, she says. “I feel fortunate that I have outlets to sell my work in the Roaring Fork Valley. Anyone who wants to conspire or collaborate with me, feel free to contact me.”
As for the Roaring Fork Watershed maps, Uhl sells them on her website. She donates $25 per map sold to the Roaring Fork Conservancy.
For more information, go to http://sarahuhl.com/