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How one artist uses her paintings to spark curiosity in conservation

Through live-art installations, Sarah Uhl has raised thousands of dollars for the safeguarding of public lands and clean water.

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“I’m so glad you could meet me in my jail,” Sarah Uhl says, leaning in for a hug. The one-room brick building she welcomes me into has been her art studio for the past year. But, once upon a time, it was the place Carbondale, Colorado, locked up its public troublemakers.

Leaning against the cast iron fireplace—the studio’s only winter heat source—sits one of Uhl’s latest watercolor paintings: a swirling blue-green planet on a tanned, paint-speckled page. A brown-white-striped feather and a scripted note are pinned above it. “Love your earth,” Uhl’s cursive reads.

To the left of the fireplace, on the other side of the window framing 12,965-foot Mt. Sopris like a photograph, is an old-school, spiral-wired telephone hanging from a wooden board. More script next to it reads: “Speak up for our wild rivers, our public lands, our loving community and our restless hearts!” Next to it is a suggestion box, “Now taking ideas for a healthier, happier planet,” signed with a heart.

“So, I want to make art,” Uhl says, gesturing to the other three walls in the studio—all layered in dreamy watercolor mountains, rivers, and wildlife—before pointing to the old-school phone, a metaphor for the political commentary she hopes her art embodies. “And I want to make statements.”

Over the course of the past year, Uhl has developed a way to wield her artwork as a tool for environmental advocacy, raising both awareness and money for issues affecting wilderness areas. She calls her new activation projects “live art performances,” and she estimates they’ve raised more than $30,000 for nonprofits and political campaigns in Colorado advocating for a healthier planet.

The activations look a little different each time she orchestrates one, but in general, she’s creating the time and space at outdoor-industry-related festivals and conventions for people to interact with her and her paintings, and have conversations about conservation.

“It’s an evolution of my interests,” she says. “I have that sort of connector, matchmaker dream in the [outdoor] industry because I’ve worn the different hats. I’ve been at a brand, at events. I’ve been an athlete. I really like when people play well together.”

Sarah Uhl at GoPro Live event
Sarah Uhl painted Wild and Scenic River portraits in the Klean Kanteen booth during the GoPro Games to raise money for American Rivers.Zach Mahone

From bicycles to beers, films to painted flowers

Uhl, 35, started her professional life as an Olympic-contending track cyclist before turning to a sustainability- and cultural-education position at New Belgium Brewing. There, she learned to orchestrate large-scale projects between multiple entities—a skill that later helped in her next role as the events director of 5Point Film Festival, where she worked for three years and which brought her to Carbondale, and eventually to the old jail.

Working with 5Point, “I got this beautiful, enriching experience of the creative side of the outdoor industry. … [It] just made me want to flex my own art muscles,” she says. “I made that my jumping-off point, and I said I want to do this, I’m not sure what this is, so I tried out illustration and wanted to see if I could teach myself.”

She started with plein air paintings, hiking color sets into the mountains, and translating the landscapes before her into dreamy colorscapes on paper. But, as she developed her personal brand, she realized the depth that art had given her relationship with the earth could be a model for the potential depth of connection with her audience. 

“I didn’t want [my art] to just be something pretty in their home,” she says. “I wanted it to evolve and go to the next level. … I wanted my art to somehow translate to taking action in a way that makes someone feel like an activist.”

Uhl designed her live art process to begin with input from each nonprofit; she sketches images that represent their advocacy work—be it clean rivers, healthy fish, or thriving mountainscapes. At the event venue, Uhl brings along dozens of blank, reclaimed wooden boards on which she paints, in real-time, as people walk about. Members of the nonprofit stand by to chat with onlookers and provide information about the images Uhl manifests before their eyes. Anyone can buy the painted boards and proceeds are donated directly to the nonprofit.

Sarah Uhl's painting
\”Taking action was an important aspect of my live art mural dedicated to the protection of Wild and Scenic Rivers in the Klean Kanteen booth during [Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2018] in Denver,\” Sarah Uhl says.Courtesy

The spider web effect

Uhl’s first live art performance kicked off at Carbondale’s 2017 Mountain Fair, where she partnered with the Roaring Fork Conservancy (RFC); the fair’s theme was water. “It was really scrappy,” she laughs, recalling how she’d put together the display herself, not yet knowing the best way to position the boards or her paints. “But it came off really well.”

Liza Mitchell, RFC’s Education Programs Manager, was there alongside Uhl, chatting with passersby all day. “It was new for us, trying to use art as the gateway to getting people interested in local water issues,” Mitchell says. “A lot of what we do is raise awareness that there is a local watershed organization [advocating for clean water].”

Uhl sold $3,000 worth of art she finished over the course of two days. More important, however, was that it showed her that the live art model could work. People were engaged, and willing to listen to Mitchell and buy the paintings.

“My hope with these activations is that by witnessing the creative process [it’ll] draw people in so they linger a little longer,” Uhl says. “It’ll give the nonprofit partner a little bit more meat on their bones to tell their story in an emotionally sensitive way.”

Her next stop was a larger venue: Denver’s first Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show this past January, where she partnered with the nonprofit Conservation Colorado and the popular brand Outdoor Research to raise awareness about a wilderness preservation bill that Colorado’s Sen. Michael Bennet and Congressman Jared Polis had introduced to the Senate and House the week before OR kicked off.

Josh Kuhn, a field organizer for Conservation Colorado, stood by as Uhl painted images representing the four facets of the wilderness bill’s campaign: wildlife, waterways, recreation opportunities, and military history. “So many people would come up and be like, ‘This is so cool,’ and [we could] actually talk to people about the campaign,” Kuhn says. “If we had just set up a table and had a map or a sign-up sheet or a fact sheet, we wouldn’t have gotten nearly the [same] level of interest.”

Hearing this, I can’t help but think of Uhl like a spider, casting shimmery color lines that draw in casual passersby—the nonprofit partner waiting to wrap them in conversation about the ways in which they can get involved in conservation movements.

“Yes, that’s exactly how it worked,” Kuhn says with a laugh.

This massive portrait of Mount Crested Butte was painted live during the Yeti Cycles Tribe Gathering in 2017, raising $2700 for the local trail…
This massive portrait of Mount Crested Butte was painted live during the Yeti Cycles Tribe Gathering in 2017, raising $2700 for the local trail organization CBMBA.Courtesy

Measuring success

A few months later, with a few more activations and collaborations with Yeti Cycles, GoPro, the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association, and The Wilderness Society under her belt, Uhl coordinated a partnership with Klean Kanteen and the nonprofit American Whitewater at the OR summer show; she used real estate from Klean Kanteen’s booth to paint a wall of rivers on mini wooden boards.

“Sarah has her own cult following. She’s super approachable,” says Caroleigh Pierce, Klean Kanteen’s nonprofit outreach manager. “People came just because they knew she was there. People would even buy blank boards, just with the names of rivers on them, without even seeing the artwork, just because they had the confidence in Sarah.”

For this activation, Uhl dedicated select wooden boards for a special “direct action opportunity,” which is where the old-school, spiral-wired telephone first entered Uhl’s art scene.

“The fake telephone was eye-catching, and a good way to have people stick around,” Pierce says. Next to it was another board, with Uhl’s cursive, reading, “Help us protect these rivers!!” with printed scripts guiding people on how to contact and speak with elected representatives.

After generating $4,000 in donations during summer OR, amounting to the $30,000 total she has raised to date, Uhl says, “Sure, I love being able to raise these amounts of money, but the best feedback I’ve gotten is, ‘Wow, we really had some great conversations with people today and having this sort of creative process happening drew people into the questions.’ And I think, just personally, I’m really excited to extract curiosity out of people.”

Sarah Uhl Plein Air painting beside Capitol Peak in the spring of 2017.
Plein Air painting beside Capitol Peak in the spring of 2017.Jordan Curet

The road ahead

Using big gatherings to create engaging spaces for nonprofits and the public to connect has caught on in other aspects of the outdoor recreation industry, too. The U.K. brand Craghoppers, for example, opened their summer OR booth to four nonprofits, giving them an arena to share stories about their missions and connect with attendees in a more intimate setting. At the winter OR show, Gianna Andrews also conducted a live art at the Snowsports Industries America booth.

Amidst this vein of growing success, I ask Uhl what she sees, looking down the road of her own art career. “I want to expand who I talk to,” she muses, thoughtfully churning out her response as she traces her fingers over a copy of the Roaring Fork watercolor watershed map that’s hanging in one corner of the jail. “So that I’m not just feeling like I’m preaching to the choir. I think the choir—all of us [in the outdoor industry]—we all need extra encouragement and reminders to pay attention and be involved, but there’s more people out there, too.”

She pauses to gather her thoughts again. “Maybe what’s next is working with kids, or anywhere where I feel like that ripple effect has the chance to evolve in ways I’ll never know.”