This is a story of heartbreak. It is a story of loss. It is a story with a happy, unexpected ending. It begins in Madrid, Spain.
In 2007 my mom wanted to take me to Europe. She had been many times, but I had never been. We reached consensus on a destination she hadn’t seen which I thought would be less cliché than the big three of Paris, London and Rome.
We chose Madrid, Spain.
From Fernando Valenzuela to Diego Velasquez
I was 32. My life revolved around sports. I was living in Atlanta, working in sports talk radio, as I had for the past 10 years and would for the next almost 10.
I was obsessed with sports in middle school, high school, college and all through my 20s. I watched countless hours of sports on TV and in person. I listened to sports on radio. I blogged about sports. I talked about sports tirelessly with friends. I collected sports memorabilia.
What I knew about art before traveling to Madrid could comfortably fit inside a catcher’s mitt with room still left for the baseball. I had some interest in sculpture, but this was mostly for monuments of historical figures along with moose and bears.
What I didn’t realize was that concealed inside of me was a deep passion for art which needed a “big bang” to be set free. My “big bang” came at the Prado Museum.
As part of our Madrid itinerary, my mother scheduled a guided tour of the Prado through her travel agent. I had nothing against art. I visited with an open mind, albeit looking much more forward to wherever I would next be able to eat paella.
While the name of our tour guide has been lost to history, his joy for, and incredible knowledge of, the incredible works on display at the Prado sparked inside of me an interest in art which continues growing to this day.
Francicso Goya. Diego Velazquez. The pain on the face of “Queen Joanna the Mad” was my favorite.
I would come to learn that the Prado is among the small, small number of greatest art museums in the world. Its collection blew my mind. At times, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Wardrobe drawers had been opened in front of me and inside existed a fine art Narnia which I didn’t previously know existed.
I had been to art museums before. Good ones.
A trip to New York took me to both the Guggenheim and the Met, but I never “got” it. I had never previously had anyone explain to me what I was looking at, what the artist was trying to communicate, and why what I was seeing was exceptional.
I could watch a basketball or football game and clue in on every subtle nuance, fully appreciating what I was seeing. I had played these sports. I had them explained to me by parents and friends and broadcasters and coaches. When it came to art, I was on my own just looking at pictures.
Until this day.
Our guide took pains in explaining each work he showed us. He discussed technique, educated us about the artist, described what we were seeing in the historical context of Spain and the art world, and instructed us about what to look for, physically “how” to look at the pieces.
“All for you,” he would excitedly say with the sweep of an arm like a game show host revealing a grand prize after discussing each work allowing us to admire it.
Our tour lasted over three hours and I wished it would have lasted three more. At times I felt out of breath. I was amazed at this wonderful new world I was being exposed to. To this day, it stands as the most enjoyable, memorable, transformative travel experience I’ve ever had.
Upon my insisting, my mom and I returned to the Prado the next day.
From Madrid, Spain to Breckenridge, CO
Kristi and my first visit to Breckenridge, CO in February of 2015 was memorable for many reasons, not the least of which the number of art galleries there, the best of them – by far – was Jim Tylich’s Breckenridge Fine Art which specialized in Russian Impressionist masters.
If you had told me my first visit to Breckenridge – and every subsequent trip – would be highlighted by Russian Impressionist paintings…in my life no experience stands so starkly against expectation.
Breckenridge Fine Art also then housed Chance Hays’ spectacular Native American portrait “The Oklahoman.” It cast an immediate spell on Kristi who still talks about it to this day. This is another story of loss with an ultimately happy ending. More on that later.
During the four days we spent in Breckenridge, we must have browsed through the vast collection at BFA on three different occasion. Masterpieces – though I didn’t know it then – museum-quality masterpieces were stacked and racked and crammed and displayed through every nook and corner of the gallery from floor to ceiling.
One of the gallery’s employees took time to show Kristi and me around, share pieces of Tylich’s unbelievable backstory about taking advantage of the fall of the Iron Curtain to rescue many of the works on display, and in some small way try to explain to a couple of rank art amateurs what we were looking at.
We were in no position to buy anything, but she didn’t seem to mind.
Again, like at the Prado, I was awestruck. I couldn’t believe how good what I was looking at was. I didn’t know why it was so good, I couldn’t explain it, but I felt it. The more I admired it, the more I craved it.
I’d never seen a gallery like this before. I had been to many art galleries. Calling this an art gallery is like calling Lebron James a basketball player – while technically accurate, it only scratches the surface.
Leaving Breck, Kristi and I both agreed that our time inside Breckenridge Fine Art was the highlight of our trip. Have I mentioned this was Breckenridge, Colorado, in ski season, one of the most scenic mountain resort towns in the world with great food, craft beer and powder people travel thousands of miles to enjoy and the agreed-upon highlight of our trip – two people on the bottom of the art appreciation Totem pole – was an art gallery.
We couldn’t wait to return and we did so in August. Leading up to our return, we talked regularly about going back to Breckenridge Fine Art, seeing what was new, hoping our favorites from last time were still there.
On our first full day back in town we approached the front door to the gallery only to find the gallery closed. Not closed for the day, closed.
Look up the word “crestfallen” in the dictionary.
We stared at each other, mouths agape. We spoke only in fragments.
The closing of Breckenridge Fine Art gallery didn’t ruin our visit, but it took a shine off. Leaving Breck that second time, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t looking as much forward to returning as when I left the first time now knowing BFA wouldn’t be there.
Chance Hays and Edwards, CO
When I tell you that Chance Hays’ “The Oklahoman” bewitched Kristi, I mean it. She wanted to see it again. She wanted to know what became of it. She wouldn’t accept that our gallery and this painting were simply lost, never to be found.
Kristi had taken a photo on her phone of the gallery identification tag on “The Oklahoman” during our first visit. Putting “Chance Hays” into a Google search brought up a link to Vail Fine Art Gallery. Initially unaware of the connection, Kristi clicked into the link eventually putting two-and-two together, realizing that Vail Fine Art was a sister location of Breckenridge Fine Art, still possessing and displaying the collection of Jim Tylich!
Look up “euphoria” in the dictionary.
A couple calls and emails later and we had an appointment at what was now called Vail Fine Art Uncrated and curator Gretchen Greene for her to show us around the gallery.
Vail Fine Art Uncrated’s technical location is Edwards, CO, a few miles west of Vail. The gallery takes residence in a commercial park, surroundings that couldn’t be less fitting for the treasures contained inside. Shoulder-to-shoulder with a locksmith, a construction company and other perfectly ordinary small businesses, a fine art wonderland hides in plain sight.
Greene greeted us like long-lost friends. She treated us the same way during our three-plus hour dig through the collection. You read that right: three-plus hours.
I was returned to Madrid as Greene took extraordinary care and patience to show us around, explain what we were viewing, and help us put the works into context. She never tried to “sell” us anything. She tried – successfully – to grow our appreciation for art.
As with my guide at the Prado, Greene’s enthusiasm, passion and knowledge for the work brought the art alive. And again, I was swept up by it. The difference here from a museum setting being that you are so close to the art.
Ninety-nine percent of the art inside VFA is shelved, packed tightly into racks stacked 15-feet high in the air, organized by artist. VFA couldn’t adequately display half the works it has housed if it resided in a building 10 times its size.
While Gretchen and Kristi were talking, I dug through the racks like $1.00 vinyl at a used records store – never mind these were masterpieces of the Russian Impressionists valued at thousands of dollars.
VFA galley isn’t set up for window-shopping or for tourists looking to kill time until their dinner reservation. I’m guessing most of their customers are clients who’ve bought from them for many years.
About that. As discreetly as I can put it, the “F” in VFA stands for “fine,” what’s for sale inside is priced in accordance with its quality. But don’t mistake Kristi and I for high-rollers, we’re not. Despite that – and I’m sure it was obvious to Gretchen – she treated us as though we were.
In a gallery where I’m sure it’s not uncommon to write a receipt for six figures, Greene never pressured us or rolled her eyes as I turned our visit into an impromptu art class with her serving as professor answering a stream of questions.
As much as Kristi and I enjoyed the art work – including the one we purchased – we appreciated Gretchen’s kindness even more. You can buy art, you can’t buy friends, and we left feeling as though we’d acquired both.
We’d again go far out of our way on our next trip to Breck to visit Greene and Vail Fine Art Uncrated. This time we spent over six hours with her. She welcomed us to eavesdrop on a group of long-time, knowledgeable collectors – again treating us like old friends. They would spend many (many) thousands of dollars, we did not, but were treated like equals.
My love for art was sparked in Madrid; half a world away I would fall in love again. I have the passion, knowledge and attention of two exceptional people to thank for that.