When the snow falls in Taos, the landscape is both tranquil and a playground of pure fun. At area resorts, ski patrollers have strong training and professional skills in hill safety. But when the ski resorts close in the off-season, some patrollers turn their attention to more creative endeavors.
Ski patrolling is an occupation that requires a great deal of creativity. On a day-to-day basis, patrollers work with scientific data (such as weather measurements), help skiers and snowboarders in medical need, and endure the elements to open and close roped areas and post signs. For a patroller out on the mountain, the ability to think on one’s feet and solve problems is essential.
And while many ski towns can boast pretty alpine locales, Taos is unique as an enchanting arts colony with a deep history of motivating all who live and visit here. Therefore it is no coincidence that some local ski patrollers are also artists and craftsmen.
Mark Sundin has been patrolling at Taos Ski Valley since 1979. Gesturing to the hundreds of paintings stacked around his home and art studio, he says, “I’ve been skiing since I was three years old, but not painting.”
The desire to paint came to Sundin when he moved to Taos. He describes the landscape as “an inspiring place” and this feeling is evident in his acrylic paintings, which are all painted en plein air (outside). His preferred subjects are landscapes, and local adobe homes and churches.
“On patrol, it is our job to observe. We look at the composition of things. And that’s what being an artist is too,” he says. “It’s about noticing.”
The proficiency of close observation doesn’t just go away when the ski season has ended. Which may explain why patroller Craig Stephenson has also enjoyed a successful photography career. He has patrolled at Taos Ski Valley for 20 years; and in 2000, he won the photography category at the annual Taos Open art show.
It comes as no surprise when Stephenson says, “I work almost exclusively in outdoor landscape photography. Just like with patrolling, I love to be working outdoors and exploring nature.”
But it’s not just the big sweeping views that capture his attention. “I just appreciate the beauty of a moment,” he says.
From the high desert mesa to the pine-forested Sangre de Cristo mountains, it is easy to find beauty everywhere in Taos. Even a seemingly plain wall can be, in fact, a masterpiece of artisan work. David Dubinsky is a plasterer and knows all about attention to detail. When he is meticulously layering coats of plaster by hand, his face is only a few inches away from the wall for the duration of the project.
“When you see plaster cracking, it’s not the fault of the plaster,” he says with conviction about the artisanal nature of labor-intensive plastering.
Dubinsky patrolled at Taos Ski Valley for 28 years and says his work on and off the hill can be summed up in one word: Discipline.
“Patrolling is very hard work but it’s also very satisfying,” he says. “You must have the discipline to pay attention and know your mountain.”
His commitment to getting things right in plaster is so strong that he has never plastered a house for someone he doesn’t know. “If I commit to doing this work for anyone,” he says, “it’s like my own home.”
In André Malraux’s seminal text, “The Psychology of Art,” the French essayist points out one theory of how art came to be. In lore, Ancient Greek artists discovered their right to stand up to the gods. “Man struggled with the forms the gods had imposed on life,” Malraux writes. “So the artists chose to arrange the universe as they saw fit.”
This quest to create anew and not accept “what is” can be discovered in drinking Steve Eskeback’s craft beer at Eske’s Brewery in Taos.
Eskeback has been patrolling at Taos Ski Valley since 1981. He says, “When I first moved to Taos 32 years ago, I had to drive down to Albuquerque just to buy Sierra Nevada. “I was desperate to drink good beer so I started brewing for myself in the early 1980s. Another patroller gave me my first kit.”
Brewing craft beer is a handmade, artisan craft. It is not an automated manufacturing process; there is no pushing buttons or dialing controls.
“We have the same set standards of cleaning and sanitation,” Eskeback explains. “But after mashing in the grains, there is no ‘specific amount’ of water to use. The brewers have their own interpretation of each small batch.”
The demands of ski patrolling run the gamut between the intellectual and the physical. Yet Eskeback concedes there is a side to patrolling that can’t be quantified. And just like the craft of brewing beer and making other art work, he says, “You just have a feel for it.”