It's unlikely the hundreds of skiers clip-clopping their way through Vail's picturesque town centre realise they're trudging over an artwork. But if they were to glance down as they walk along Wall St, they'd notice a series of curious symbols engraved on the paving stones. It's an artwork by Colorado artist Carolyn Braaksma called Riddles, and it invites the more observant to pause and try to crack the code.
Of course, in my haste to get to the slopes each morning, I've been obliviously traipsing over them all week. It's only when Vail's resident art co-ordinator Molly Eppard points them out do I wonder how I missed them.
Similar double takes happen several times during our tour of the town's public art collection. There are the previously unnoticed pine cones on the trash cans and drain covers, the charming stone animal engravings on the walls flanking the stairs to the chairlift and the decorative stainless steel panels on the pedestrian bridge over Gore Creek.
Thanks to the town's Art in Public Places (AIPP) program, Vail now has more than 45 pieces of public art, ranging from paintings and murals to sculptures and playgrounds. All new public capital projects have to set aside 1 per cent of their budget for public art, an innovative scheme that helps the AIPP "promote and encourage the development and public awareness of fine arts". Privately funded projects aren't obliged to do the same but "they're strongly encouraged to", says Eppard with a smile.
Eppard shows us the AIPP's latest commission, Red Eddy, a striking red and white wooden spiral hanging from the vaulted ceiling of Vail Village Welcome Centre. Created by Washington artist Paul Vexler, it looks like a section of a particularly nerve-testing roller coaster.
Another impressive installation is the Tenth Mountain Division Memorial, a ghostly white painted bronze statue that commemorates the thousands of men who fought in the Italian mountains during World War II. Many trained at Camp Hale, an army base 35 kilometres away, and the pioneering advancements they made in ski technique and equipment helped establish the modern-day ski industry.
Arguably, the town's most striking artwork is Gail Folwell's The Edge, a bronze sculpture of a skier crouched in a seemingly impossible turn, both skies edged to the limits, arms thrust forward. Owned by Vail Resorts, the sculpture was inspired by US skier Bode Miller's electrifying winning run in the giant slalom at the 2003 World Ski Championships in St. Moritz.
Other projects are seasonal, such as the Ice Theatre installed as part of the town's annual Winterfest celebration. Comprising several oversized ice chairs positioned around a screen onto which movies are projected, the installation was inspired by an outdoor cinema Eppard saw while visiting Port Douglas. Don't expect to see a showing of The Lord of the Rings, though. According to Eppard, the average time people spend seated on the icy thrones "is around five minutes".
This free weekly tour is sponsored by The Sebastian Hotel and we end our stroll with an indulgent hot chocolate in the intimate surrounds of its lobby bar, Frost. The hotel's owner, Mexican entrepreneur Alejandro Marti, is a keen painter and collector, and his $US10million contemporary art collection is scattered throughout the property.
Although Vail has no shortage of art galleries, I'm surprised to discover it doesn't have a dedicated art museum. But then again, why would it? As Eppard points out: "The town is a museum without walls."
GET CREATIVE IN BRECK
Vail might be one of the best resorts in the region to see art, but if you want to make art, you need to drive 45 minutes east to Breckenridge. Over the last 15 years, the resort has invested $US25million in the Breckenridge Arts District, a creative cauldron in the heart of downtown that includes studios, galleries and performance spaces.
"It's all about encouraging creative tourism," explains Jenn Cram, director of public programs and engagement for BreckCreate, a non-profit organisation that helps support the town's flourishing arts scene.
We meet Cram at BreckCreate's headquarters, a former Masonic lodge on Main Street that's been transformed into a multi-purpose arts venue. Downstairs is a gallery showing an exhibition of encaustic paintings – a technique dating back to Egyptian times that uses layers of heated beeswax, resin and pigment. Upstairs is a hickory floored dance studio that holds an intriguingly diverse range of classes, from hip hop to belly dancing to ballet.
The district comprises a huddle of heritage timber buildings that have been turned into workshops and studios. Each of the spaces has been equipped for different uses – printmaking and textiles in the Randall Barn; metal smithing and glasswork in the Hot Shop – and the idea is you can wander around and see the artists at work.
Sadly, there's no one toiling away during our visit but we can still admire the fruits of their labour – colourful vases in the Quandary Antiques Cabin and clay bowls waiting to be glazed in the Little Red Shed.
Budding artists can also get involved thanks to a delightfully eclectic range of classes and workshops, including "Fun with Felt", "Rocking Garden Gnomes" and "Fairy Wands and Tiaras".
Even if you don't have a creative bone in your body, the campus is still a charming place to stroll around thanks to an ever-changing roster of outdoor installations. Eppard points out a stand of aspen trees that has been temporarily died bright blue using a biodegradable water-based pigment by Australian artist Konstantin Dimopoulos. The installation aims to raise awareness about the importance of trees in the global ecology and highlight the threat of deforestation.
The town also hosts several annual arts festivals and it's well worth timing your trip to coincide with them. During our visit in January they're gearing up for two major events. The first is the annual Fire Arts Festival, which features Mad Max-esque fire-breathing sculptures, pyrotechnical effects and live performances. The second is the International Snow Sculpture Championships, where 16 teams from around the world hand-carve dazzling sculptures from 3.6-metre-high, two-tonne blocks of ice.
All in all, it's an impressive effort from a resort that's primarily known for its terrain parks and high alpine bowls. But perhaps that's the point. By nurturing the town's artistic community and encouraging visitors to get involved, Cram hopes Breck will become "much more than just a ski destination".
Qantas flies to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Dallas/Fort Worth with onward connections to Denver (see qantas.com.au); Colorado Mountain Express runs shuttles between Denver airport, Vail and Breckenridge from $US85 per person. Phone +1 970 754 7433, see coloradomountainexpress.com
Ideally positioned in the heart of Vail Village, The Sebastian Hotel features a world-class art collection, an award-winning restaurant and a range of hot chocolates so dangerously decadent you may never venture outside. Rooms from about $US275. See thesebastianvail.com
Vail Resorts now has an Australian version of its popular Epic Pass, which provides unlimited skiing and boarding at Perisher plus access to nine resorts in the US. See epicaustraliapass.com
Free one-hour tours of Vail's public art collection leave from Vail Village Welcome Centre every Wednesday at 3.30pm. See artinvail.com
Rob McFarland was a guest of Vail Resorts.