Gone with the flames
Dolores fire claims hundreds of pieces of artwork
By Shannon Livick
Dolores Star Editor
Through the lens of a 35 mm camera, Lou Swenson has seen a lot of changes.
Swenson travels the area looking for that perfect shot. He uses black and white film to capture history.
“I like taking pictures of old things,” he said.
Now 80, Swenson has been taking pictures for 50 years.
Once he takes his pictures, he then heads back to his home in Dolores and can spend a whole day before he gets that one perfect print. It’s art.
On Saturday, Aug. 4, Swenson stood outside an area roped off with yellow crime scene tape in front of Fusion Studios and the Hollywood Bar and Grill. He had a 35 mm camera hanging around his neck. While the news spread around town of the fire, droves of people filed by, many quickly pulled out a digital camera or a cell phone to take a shot.
Swenson walked around the line and carefully composed his shot, taking shots of the bar and the art studio, where in the front window a black and white photograph he took of the Hollywood Bar some time ago hung and inside over 60 prints he painstakingly made by hand lay as ashes.
“They can all be replaced,” he said Wednesday inside his home, where he had already begun going through negatives and looking for the photographs he needs to replace.
“I was in the process of creating an inventory,” he said. “But that piece of paper I wrote everything down on, got burned up in the fire.”
Because Swenson keeps all his negatives, he says he can replace most of the prints, which he charges between $200 and $300 for, but the process will take time. And for Swenson, since he does everything by hand, each print is unique and difficult to reproduce exactly.
“One print can take half a day,” he said. “And a whole lot of very expensive paper.”
All Swenson’s photographs are on archival paper.
He showed off some of his work inside his home Wednesday. There is one of Telluride in 1969 that looks almost foreign.
“That was when Telluride was still a mining town,” he said.
There is a photo of Ismay trading post with gas pumps still out front.
“It doesn’t look like that anymore,” he said.
There is one of the Hollywood before the awning was put out front, a woman sitting inside smoking a cigarette.
“You can’t do that anymore,” he said.
There is a photo of a farmer tossing hay to cows during a wicked snowstorm outside Cortez. There is the photograph of Silverton in 1993 when Swenson was snowed in.
“I like to photograph things that have historical content,” Swenson said.
The building that housed the Hollywood Bar was historic. Aug. 3 will likely be the last photograph he will take of the Hollywood.
“There was a lot of history in that old building,” he said.
Nearly 30 other artists lost their work in the fire at Fusion Studios. There was the detailed pen and ink drawings of Gene Lansing of Dolores, custom wood turnings, oil paintings, watercolor paintings, fine photography by Dolores resident Chris Vest, homemade soaps and western scratchboard by Joseph Robertson.
Ruth Hensen, owner of Fusion Studios, said she feels sick when she thinks of all that was lost in the fire.
One painting survived the fire and could be seen hanging on a wall surrounded by rubble of the building last week. It was by Susan McCormick of a mountain meadow, a serene scene amid charred remains of the studio.
The contrast was stark.
Hensen, who lives in Telluride, was in Dolores the night the fire started. She often sleeps in a studio apartment at the back of the gallery instead of making the 65-mile trip home.
She was watching the Olympics at a friend’s house on Aug. 2. She wanted to go to bed but it was too exciting. U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas thrilled many that night after winning gold.
When Hensen finally returned to Fusion Studios, just after 11 p.m., downtown Dolores was quiet, she said.
The bar was closed up and Hensen put on her pajamas. That’s when the nightmare began.
“I decided it was warm and opened the back door,” she said. “I saw flames 15 feet high at the back of the Hollywood.”
At that point, time didn’t matter. Hensen began running out of the building with art.
“A few guys were helping me,” she said. “I don’t know who they were.”
They ran back and forth through smoke grabbing what they could, jewelry here, a painting there, a vase —back and forth, a frenzied effort to try and save artwork.
Hensen hopes to get in touch with the people who helped her that night.
“One of them was using a shirt to block out the smoke,” she said. “I’d like to get his shirt back to him.”
Hensen can’t remember how many trips she made.
“We said, ‘We can make one more trip,’ I don’t know how many times,” she said.
Eventually, the fire and smoke made entering the building unsafe.
“My friends keep telling me they are so glad I stayed up late and wasn’t asleep,” she said.
Hensen has the habit of putting on a large, loud industrial fan to sleep. She might not have smelled the smoke or heard the commotion if she had cranked up the fan.
Hensen’s studio had even more art that usual. She said she was gearing up for Escalante Days and had ordered a lot of merchandise to sell just for the event. She began offering art classes in the evenings at the studio.
“I just think of all that lost art,” she said. “It was their livelihood and their heart and soul.”