Anderson Ranch

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This article is from Issue 3 of Woodcraft Magazine.

a student relaxes at twilight outside the Sam Maloof Wood Barn at Anderson Ranch Arts Center.

Anderson Ranch: a feast for the body and the soul 

An Elevating Experience

HAVING LEFT PHOENIX in its dry summer haze, the intoxicating green hue visible from the plane window as we descended onto the tarmac of the Aspen, Colo., airport was just one of the reasons for choosing Anderson Ranch Arts Center as a summer respite. On the 10-minute drive to the Ranch, the car windows wide open, I inhaled a warm freshness that would, in itself, be inspirational in the coming days.

I arrived on a Friday afternoon during an auction. (The revenue from the sale of works of art created by instructors and students goes toward scholarships.) Conducted by Jim Baker, whose day job is executive director of the Ranch, the repartee was lively, irreverent and complementary to the hot dog and ice cream sundae picnic at which the bids were being solicited. This inauguration into life at “the Ranch” would echo through my experience of workshops, lectures, meals and connecting in the coming days.

Settling In

Nestled in the mountains at an altitude of 8,200', Anderson Ranch started as a cattle and sheep ranch. The original farmhouse, built in 1915, now houses the school’s library. Nearby is the Sam Maloof Wood Barn, another structure original to the property. Renovated into the woodworking and furniture facilities, the barn includes a state-of-the-art machine room, bench rooms and a woodturning studio. The old hayloft offers space for drawing, carving, marquetry and finishing, while roll-up doors permit expansion of the work space into the sunshine. Partakers of other disciplines – ceramics, sculpture, photography, painting and drawing, printmaking, art history and extensive children’s programs –

wander by and ask what is being made. The comfortable proximity of buildings on a compact site induces informal cross-pollination; the melding of new and old in the architecture echoes the traditional and contemporary media explored on the campus.

Workshops at the Ranch run June through September and are one to three weeks long. Students invariably fall into a pattern. During the initial days of a session, they are anxious to ingest everything the Ranch has to offer. Some get up before 7 a.m. to participate in free yoga classes or walk the trails surrounding the Ranch. Deer, fox, bears, chipmunks and early birds – of the feathered variety – are frequently sighted as the sun paints the scenery. Next comes breakfast in the Café where, seated indoors or under patio umbrellas, you can savor a hearty cooked or continental breakfast. You join a table of friends or strangers and are likely to encounter a conversation about arrowheads or be invited to join a Japanese tea ceremony.

Once at your class bench, your instructor outlines the day’s agenda. If a skill is being taught, demonstrations are scheduled; when not peering intently at an expert’s hands and tools, you are involved in your own creative efforts. 

After the frenzy of the first few days, the pace adopts an easy rhythm – eat, work, sleep – until the final hours of your stay. Then there is frantic activity to finalize projects, consolidate friendships and sightsee locally.

Residency programs of up to six months are offered. Artists-in-residence are chosen on merit and come from a variety of disciplines. The opportunity to interact with peers in other media can be valuable.  

a student works at the lathe.

Something for everyone

Woodworking workshops during the 2004 season included an introduction to woodturning; an exploration of hand tools; form and color in furniture; complex forms using geometry, lamination and coopering; faux finishing and decorative painting; traditional carving; the wooden container as sculpture; and chair making. An annual weekend with Sam Maloof attracts 20 to 30 avid fans anxious to observe his time-honored techniques. 

All instructors are professional makers as well as teachers. Susan Working, program director for furniture and woodworking, recruits traditional and contemporary instructors who have a gift for teaching. Programs cater to various skill levels: You can have your very first taste of woodworking at the Ranch or hone your more advanced skills. 

I observed a class wherein Larry White, an assistant to Sam Maloof and an instructor at California State University at Fullerton, had challenged the beginner-to-intermediate enrollees to explore the concept and possibilities of “the container” before coming to Colorado so as not to be inhibited. His aim was to “de-box the box” and concentrate on aesthetics. The results were impressive. 

Judy, a 25-year typist who had never been in a woodshop, learned how big a piece of wood has to be before you can shape it. She also learned to let the piece and the process teach her. 

Diane had done some woodworking but White’s challenge had led her to consult a rabbi about treasures in boxes, which she said was a first. Her finished box, containing a small prayer book, represented faith and the vagaries of life. 

Susan, a potter with no woodshop experience, overcame her phobia of the machines to tackle a small box which, she learned, is harder than a large box. 

And Dave had significant experience but, before coming to the workshop, was bored with techniques and discipline. He carried an Orvis fly rod and a special piece of wood in his luggage, thinking they might kick-start his container. What evolved was a piece that he declared would be part of an “undercurrents series,” in which his inspiration would be what goes on beneath the surface. This, rather than form, was quite a departure from his usual modus operandi. Also during the project he conceived a wooden hinge where before he would have used a metal one. 

White was pleased with the progress of the class, and enjoyed seeing the evolution of their drawings. He was elated by what he saw in the personal transformations that had taken place. At the conclusion of the presentation and discussion, the class lined up for a group photo. David Ellsworth, a noted woodturner and frequent teacher at Anderson Ranch, had just concluded a concurrent turning class. He became photographer, looking through the lenses of a number of cameras to capture this parting gesture. 

Friendships made during summer sessions can have a lasting impact, even if they are continued solely by mail or e-mail. 

The folks in White’s class were at the Ranch for less than a week, and their achievements were remarkable.

larry white, longtime associate of Sam Maloof, gives a demonstration.

They packed as much as possible into five days and nights. With the studios open late, they chose between going back to work after dinner, viewing slide presentations by visiting artist/instructors, and catching a bus into Snowmass Village for a concert. 

Some sessions include an opening at the on-site gallery. Retiring to bed is another option as comfortable rooms beckon after a long day. Rooms are private or shared. In case of a sudden dip in temperature, electric heaters and thick comforters make retreat very inviting. Rooms are priced with or without board, but you’d be foolish not to indulge in the Ranch chef’s meals.

Food for thought

The creation of delectable food complements the creation of delectable art, and I can attest to the impact of pleasurable dining on production. Meat and vegetarian choices are available at each repast. In the course of my stay, I enjoyed lighter-than-air pancakes and bacon, hot oatmeal, cranberry muffins, chicken salad on a croissant, Greek salad, cauliflower vegan soup, stuffed portobello mushrooms, grilled steak, baked salmon, asparagus, corn-on-the-cob, double chocolate chip cookies, fresh fruit and mocha cheesecake. 

The conversation over laden plates is animated because the food is so good. 

Tuition fees for woodworking sessions range from $450-$795, depending on length, with studio fees of approximately $85. All tools are supplied and wood can be purchased from the Ranch’s storage. An on-site art store has basic materials and there are hardware stores in town. Room and board is $495-$725 per week.

My 2004 stay at Anderson Ranch was my first, but won’t be my last. I didn’t want to leave, and I suspect I subconsciously read my flight departure time wrong. My leisurely arrival contrasted with a frantic dash to the airport. As I recovered my breath and my wits, I checked my sadness with a vow to return. 

The benefits of a summer school experience at Anderson Ranch are manifold. The rejuvenation that comes from working with your hands lodges in your body and resurfaces with your memories. Becoming part of an international community of artists is an internal treasure that can be tapped when isolation at home might lead to despair. And connection to a creative endeavor tames the spiritual angst that often arises in our commodity-driven culture. For all of these reasons, any many others, go.

For more information, visit

D Wood

D Wood has an MFA in furniture design from the Rhode Island School of Design. Since graduation in 2000 she has written for a variety of international craft and art publications. When not writing, she teaches at Tucson Design College and explores the Arizona desert as much as possible.

CORRECTION: The last two words were inadvertently dropped from the last sentence of Back to School in the March issue.  The last sentence, a quote by Jim Lorette, should have read: “Something almost magical takes place when you work with wood in a passionate way.”


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