A real art estate is sold: Willowtail Springs Nature Preserve near Mancos changes hands

Lee and Peggy Cloy with Margi Johnson Gaddis, the new owner of the Willowtail Nature Preserve and Education Center.

The successful recent sale of Willowtail Springs Nature Preserve and Education Center in Mancos, Colo., transferred official responsibility for the steady vision provided for nearly 30 years by former owner Peggy Cloy to the not-for-profit developed on-site that sustains the arts and ecology programs there.

“Our pockets are not deep, but our vision is, and has always been, long and spacious,” Cloy explained. After spending nearly a third of her life manifesting this vision, she admitted, “Neither of us could run this if one of us comes down and is unable to work. Now is the time to address the succession of the property and the mission we have shared here. I couldn’t put it on the market as another pretty property and let it go to a buyer who did not share that vision with Lee and me.”

The transaction released Cloy and her husband from the project dependency that provides an ecological sanctuary for art residencies and educational conservation on the property.

Margi Johnson Gaddis, a long-time supporter of Willowtail’s mission, has purchased the entire property and leased it back to the Willowtail board of directors, stipulating that the Cloys remain living in the studio and residence they designed and built there.

In a letter to supporters, Ray Williamson, president of the board of directors, explains that the arrangement will free the board, with the oversight of the Cloys, to expand the arts and ecological components of Willowtail and fulfill the organization’s mission. It was an important transition that will serve the development of the arts in the region to an even greater extent than before.

Programs developed at the nature preserve have attracted consistent support of local and national foundations, and individuals who believe that “holding space” for creative work in a nature preserve is a valuable cultural asset and a worthy investment. The residency program has become a premier arts opportunity in the region.

Gaddis credits her Aunt Winnie for influencing the respect and value she places on arts processes and artists.

“My aunt was an artist,” she said. “She studied and showed in New York and Paris. I loved being with her, being around her as she worked on the abstract landscapes she produced when I was a young girl.”

As a Jungian psychologist, Gaddis said, “I appreciate the creative unconscious and feel assured at Willowtail that the artist is in a nurturing space. I support that concept.”

She added that it is one of the things that confirms the balance found on the property. “I want to see it continue,” she said. “It is an enriching venture that supports creative wisdom and growth.”

Growing residency market

The Alliance of Artists Communities organized around art residencies in 1990 when The MacArthur Foundation saw the need to advocate for the growing number of residency programs.

“They nurture the process of creation… at a time when it is important to reaffirm the essential freedom that is necessary for all creative accomplishment,” the Alliance website says.

Membership in the organization now includes more than 400 organizations and individuals in 50 U.S. states and 20 countries. Since 2004, the Alliance has provided more than $4 million in direct grant funding to artists and artist residency centers.

There are now more than 500 residency programs for artists in the U.S. and over 1500 worldwide, supporting tens of thousands of artists-in-residence each year and incubating some of the most promising creative work today.

While the field includes a variety of approaches and organizational models, their website points out that members commonly share support for artists in “the private moments of creative daring when first the pen is put to paper, or brush to canvas, or fingers to keyboard.”

Art residencies are an opportunity for artists to work in surroundings that can push them in a new direction and possibly alter fixed conceptual ideas, said Suze Woolf, who recently returned to work at Willowtail for the third time. She has been selected for residencies throughout the country, but feels their competitive nature can sometimes produce a feeling that the artist is just one of many artists.

The opportunity to apply for residencies is growing, yet as the new business market gains economic traction, the variety of offerings expands as well. According to Woolf, Willowtail differs from most residencies in the personal care of the artist during the residency.

It is not as large as other programs, which allows Cloy time to interact with the artist, Woolf said in a telephone interview.

“That personal care is a big benefit and puts a big vote of confidence in your favor,” Woolf explained. “Peggy and Lee offer deep personal interest in you and tangible support.”

Cloy said she has always produced art differently in the woods. She understands the significance of offering such an experience to other artists in all genres.

“It is hugely important for people to understand the visceral – a particular aesthetic connection, the need to sense the essence of the land, physically respond to it even if they don’t know exactly what they are responding to. The land has a life of its own, so we steward with a very gentle hand. Both Lee and I hope that everything thrives, including the artists and our colony of feral bees. We have learned to watch the balance in the land, to touch it and know it so it knows us as well.”

Woolf ’s work blends her computer graphic skills with the influence of ecological consciousness, “the really big tent called the environment,” she told the Free Press. One of her series focuses on the burned body of trees.

Woolf, who hails from the U.S. northwest, was paired during one of her three residencies at Willowtail in collaboration with wilderness author and firefighter Lorena Williams of Durango. It enriched her understanding of the forest burning, the bodies of the trees. The collaboration resulted in a digital presentation of the large-scale images on three layers of fabric – a transparent, a solid and a black or blackplus- text layer with Lorena’s stories. Titled, “State of the Forest,” the installation will be touring art and science museums around the U.S. for the next two years.

Lodging dollars

The property is well known for the bedand- breakfast lodging offered to tourists over the years. The cabins provide small but luxurious accommodations nestled beside the pond or in the woods. Although the cabin rentals have funded a large portion of the Willowtail concept, “Lee and I donated the for-profit business – the workspaces, bed-and-breakfast cabin rentals – to the not-for-profit.”

The board will use those proceeds for the operation and maintenance of existing programs and make it possible to plan for the expansion of the facility and growth of residencies in visual art, poetry, music and possibly outdoor theater, including Shakespeare productions, she said.

The board of directors is smart and sensitive, she said. “The most effective people on the board understand more because they see dancers dancing, painters painting, poetry and music in place at Willowtail. They see the essence of the arts thriving here.”

Cloy admitted that dividing the responsibilities based on the well-being of the program and the land was a balancing act.

“The whole project, the place of it in the Southwest, parallels a big piece of visual art when you are in the middle of making it. You, the artist, can’t see it for all the detail, you just keep working on it until you back up and take a deep look at what you have done. Only then can you see the whole.”

It is all the more extraordinary, added Woolf, “when you consider that the vigorous life of Willowtail is the result of an individual vision, little personal resources, determination, and a lot of scrappy wit. I’ll do my best to support their continuing success.”

From November 2019.