The short version of the story is this: Twenty-five years ago, a dozen regional potters got together after Labor Day weekend in the San Luis Valley town of Villa Grove to fire some pots, drink some beer and hang out. They had fun, told some friends and decided to relive the event annually.
UVAPAPA which stands for Upper Valley Artists Party and Picnic Association had been born. In time, live music crept in, as did 100 campers and another couple hundred day visitors and passersby.
"It turned into a flimsy excuse to have a hell of a party," says potter and 25-year attendee Roger Fenton.
Countless people who'd never done any pottery were introduced to the craft via the celebration in this 50-person town. A few even went on to become professional potters.
The longer version of the story involves the community service of UVAPAPA hosts Jeff and Amber Shook, who left Manitou Springs 26 years ago, converted an old schoolhouse in Villa Grove into a home and art gallery (aptly naming it Escuela "school" in Spanish) and have barely broken even throwing this gala most years. It also involves the efforts of those core dozen potters, some of whom lug kilns across the state, instruct newcomers and help set up and breakdown the event.
Whichever version of the story you prefer, the ending's the same: UVAPAPA's calling it quits after this year's throw-down, and its progenitors are all smiles rather than tears.
"Our time is over," says Fenton, "We'll let somebody else do something like this if someone wants to. But this is so unique, I don't think there's going to be anything like it anywhere."
Pottery in the front ...
Pottery in the front ...
With "unique," Fenton's referring to aspects such as free entry to concerts; a huge Saturday potluck and free French toast on Sunday morning for 150 people; mass glazings and five-kiln community pottery firings.
The scrubby, high plains grass behind Escuela, backdropped by the dramatic Sangre de Cristo foothills and smoky from singed hay that cools fired pots, turns into a smattering of lawn chairs and ambling tourists, valley cowboys and tie-dye-generation potters.
"It's totally accessible," says Jeff Shook, a 53-year-old videographer/drummer/photographer/weaver/potter. "Anybody can walk in you don't have to know a thing about pottery. For a $2 to $5 donation, you can pick a pot, go back in the glaze room ... take it out to the kiln line ... wait for your pot to cool ... you've got a pot to cherish and put on your bookshelf to collect dust for the rest of time."
That's the secondary beauty of raku pottery. The technique, originally Japanese, achieves a shimmering, cracked, oxidized look via a low firing temperature, a special glaze and removal of the clay from the kiln while glowing hot. While conventional dishware takes a day or more to turn around, raku (with bisque-fired pots pre-made by volunteer potters) takes only the hour.
"Creating an opportunity for creative experience is what it's all about," Jeff says. "I just love watching that first-time person raising that pot in front of them that they just fired and they're so proud of it with their eyes open wide ... it's something to behold."
Greg Marshall, pottery instructor at Colorado College and participating artist at Commonwheel Artists Co-op (of which the Shooks were early organizers), has missed only four UVAPAPA gatherings. He says potters trade secrets and even glaze each other's work.
"It's so open," he says. "If a potter gets a nice effect, he'll write out the formula."
It's an extension of the spirit with which the Shooks started UVAPAPA.
"Jeff and Amber's only motive was to provide this for the pottery community," says Frank Gray, a 15-year festival vet who's a partner in Manitou Springs' Green Horse Gallery. "You don't find that pureness of intent very often ... it exposes a whole lot of people to the craft."
... party in the rear
... party in the rear
In the early years, the Shooks fronted about $1,000 for the event. This year, it'll be more like $10,000.
The only way the Shooks break even, if they do, is through the sale of T-shirts, aprons, mugs and other merchandise. Though they receive donated clay and glaze, they foot the propane bill, among other costs such as port-o-potties. Sometimes other potters will send around a voluntary collection jar during entertainment.
But ask the Shooks why they're shutting the festival down after this year's, and they don't talk money.
"It's just time to let this one go," says Amber, 56, who also raises sheep and llamas for her weaving. "We'd like to be able to travel more ... we're all getting older. It'll be nice to have closure and go out with a bang. We're trying to simplify. All of us need to simplify."
Adds Jeff: "I've seen other events get tired after a while they fade out and don't end gracefully."
For such a popular event, surprisingly, most everyone's supportive of its retirement.
"I've always thought they were crazy to keep it going this long," says Marshall, who has overheard some of the younger attendees saying things like, "Oh, man, we can't let this thing end. We've gotta find some place else to do this."
It's possible some folks could organize and find land and willing hosts, but unlikely they could pull off an UVAPAPA-scale event anytime soon.
"I'm not going to pick up the torch," says Gray. "It's been an absolutely astounding thing, but [the Shooks] are getting tired, and so am I. Everything has a beginning and end."
After Sept. 7, travelers can still drop into the Escuela or Villa Grove Trade (the caf the Shooks run) to purchase raku pottery.
"I'm just glad its worked out this way," says Jeff. "It seems to have averaged out that we break even, and that's just fine with me."