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Artist Karen Watkins finds her place in Salida 

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Tucked away in the mountains along Highway 50, Salida, Colorado, may seem an unlikely hotspot for arts and culture. It's a small town with a small population, fairly isolated by its distance from larger cities. But Salida has built itself a flourishing art community, boasting a variety of galleries and dozens of artists who call the town home.

Salida doesn't just offer artists a community, however. It also offers them an affordable place to create — which was one of the key draws that inspired artists Karen Watkins and her husband Carl Bork to move to the town in 2010. They had been living in Denver, but found that the rising cost of living proved too high to pursue art full-time and still live comfortably.

"Here in Salida, we found that people could work full-time as artists, so we decided to give it a try and open our own gallery," Watkins says.

Their decision to relocate and open the Bork & Watkins Studio-Gallery has proven to be quite successful. "We see a lot of tourists and travelers up here, and they make up most of our buyers," says Watkins. She's also found great success branching out in online shops such as Etsy, which helps her overcome the distance that can often keep buyers from coming into the gallery in person.

Watkins' paintings are vibrant, whimsical studies of woodland animals, humans and humanlike creatures depicted in brightly colored, surrealistic settings. Watkins, who has a bachelor of arts in illustration from the Columbus College of Art and Design, describes her style as artistically "cartoonish," influenced by pop surrealism. She enjoys working in a variety of sizes, from large canvases to what she calls "tiny paintings," affordably priced 2-by-2-inch pieces that were a huge hit as gifts over the holidays.

In addition to her paintings, Watkins also creates tiny, needle-felted creatures such as sloths, sheep, bunnies and foxes, all made from natural fibers and all featuring her signature use of rich colors. (She also sells these in Colorado Springs at Old Colorado City's 45 Degree Gallery.)

With the holidays over, Watkins is happy to get back to the easel and work on several pieces that have been waiting for her attention.

"I have a few large paintings that are coming up that I'm really excited about," she says. In the year ahead, she also plans to begin experimenting with melding her mediums, combining her feltwork with her paintings for an entirely new effect.

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