Elizabeth Kinahan Paintings: “A Way We Can Share an Experience”

After a stranger noticed her first cattle painting through her apartment window and bought it immediately, Elizabeth Kinahan, a representational oil painter, has built a livelihood around painting livestock.

Originally from Westfield in north central Jersey, Kinahan’s love of art began when she was five years old. “I’ve been interested in painting and drawing since I was very young,” Kinahan said. “My earliest memory is my grandmother giving me an Alice in Wonderland coloring book. Instead of coloring in the book, I had a blank piece of paper, and I was trying to copy the picture. I did this drawing of the Cheshire Cat maybe 10 times before I came up with one I was so happy with. I think I was five. I still have this thing and I think it says 1986 on it. That’s the earliest memory I have of being interested in drawing. That just never stopped. I always knew art could be the class I could take if I wanted to do something relaxing I knew I could be good at and it wouldn’t be stressful for me. I was a straight C student in gym but art I was good at.”


As a teenager, Kinahan completed portrait commissions. “They were trying to help me and give me a little money and improve my skills,” Kinahan explained of those who asked her to create. “They were all people who believed in me and wanted to help me out. It made all the difference that there were people who believed I could be an artist and I had a skill that was worth exploring and pursuing. I never really started as much as I just kept going with it. I’ve always loved it. It’s been a source of relaxation and joy and peace and pleasure. It’s an outlet. We all need some sort of outlet and if it’s creative, great. I never thought I could be an artist for a living. I didn’t think it was possible when I was young. As I moved along this path, I realized it’s not only possible but necessary. Historically and culturally, art is important, and if that’s what I get to contribute to this world, I’m good with that. I’m happy with that.”

Even with early talent, interest and encouragement, it took Kinahan a little while to find her path. She completed two years of college as a nutrition major, but couldn’t connect to the college or her choice of study. Kinahan left school for a few years and moved back to New Jersey, where she started working for an airline. “My father said, ‘You just need to get a degree in something. I don’t care. What do you think you can get a degree in?’”

Kinahan chose art, and found a small, all-girls Catholic school, the College of Saint Elizabeth. She graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Art degree in 2004. “It was one of the best things that ever happened to me, getting into that school,” Kinahan shared. “There were seven art majors in my class. It was a very small group. Almost all the classes were taught by Sister Anne. She would teach us how to paint flowers and the chapel. There was not a whole lot of variety. She did teach screen and block printing and ceramics. She was an amazing woman and I learned a lot of techniques from her. When I graduated, I kept going.”


Kinahan decided to move west after witnessing the destruction caused by 9/11. She had her sights on Arizona, but her boyfriend at the time suggested Durango, Colo. “The whole drive out across the country, we were friendly bickering about where we were going to move,” Kinahan said.

They decided to pass through Colorado on their way to Arizona 13 years ago, arriving in Durango the day of the Main Avenue Art Festival, a yearly tradition in the small town. “I get teary thinking about this,” Kinahan shared. “It was magical. It was perfect. It was a beautiful day and the sky was bluer than I’ve ever seen. We parked on Third Avenue and walked down. I remember sitting on the curb and I had a beer in one hand and a tamale in the other hand, and a stranger was sitting next to me. They said some generic kind comment. And I immediately knew I was home. I don’t ever want to leave this place. I have felt that way about Durango ever since. … I love it. I have found such kindness and support and wonderful like-minded people. That’s how I ended up here and I’ve never really looked back.”

The relationship didn’t last, but Kinahan has continued to thrive in Durango. She switched to oil painting from acrylic after realizing her acrylics were drying too quickly in the dry climate. She met a successful photographer when she started working for the Art House downtown, who taught her the value of visual art and how to approach other people about that value. “My responsibility as an artist is to think as creatively and outside the box as possible,” she shared. “That skill of visual art is valuable to other people. That is where I struggled the longest–in seeing there is value in painting pictures. He was powerful in teaching me a lot about that. He would say, ‘Let’s walk around town and go into the shops and see what art they have up. If they don’t have art up, we can say, wouldn’t it be nice if you had art on your walls? We’re artists. We can put some art up. And if it sells, we can give you 10-15% of that piece.’ I said, ‘That’s crazy. We can’t do it.’ He said, ‘Nope, let’s go.’ We got our art up all over the place. I ended up falling in love with him and living with him for six years. He opened my eyes to the vast possibilities of life and I’m very grateful to him for that. If you have a dream or vision or goal, you have to just ask for it. Ask people for help, and for their time and their ideas. And people actually want to help other people.”


Kinahan began to understand the value behind her art and how it connected people. “I view artists as documenters of the current climate,” Kinahan explained. “Wherever they are, throughout time and geography, they are documenting the way it is there–animals, what people wore, documentation of a culture, people and a time that I don’t know if you’ll get from writing. Writing can be fudged later on down the line. Historians can change facts. But no one can take a painting from the 16th century and change the garments that were depicted and tell us, ‘No, they didn’t wear collars like that. This is what they wore.’ It’s a different way of charting the time. We as humans, part of defines us and separates us from the other living creatures on this planet, is art making. I think that’s pretty neat. I don’t know why we’re drawn to do it, but some of us, or most of us, are artists. That doesn’t mean we paint pictures or sculpt marble. But we make meals and want to arrange it beautifully on a plate. Or buy pretty pillows. It’s all art. It’s aesthetics and beauty and we want to add joy to a world that would be mundane and boring without it. Many more of us are artists than people want to admit. Almost all of us are doing something creative like that in our lives. That’s important just to acknowledge.”

She added, “It must be important because we’ve never stopped doing it. We’ve always done it. It’s like joining around the table with people you like for a shared meal. It’s important. Why? I’m not sure I can state all the reasons why. It connects people. It’s a way we can share an experience. With an image, you can share an experience with someone you’ve never met. That’s powerful. And exciting to think about. Art is a language of emotion. A visual way to depict feeling through imagery. That all creates this shared bond when you have an impact on someone through an image you’ve created, there’s a connection that has been made. I think this whole human experience is about making connections with other living things. If art helps us do that with other people, there’s got to be healing in that. We’ve always needed that and we will always need that.”

After switching her medium and realizing the value of her art, Kinahan started painting livestock. She had appreciated animals for as long as she could remember, and she loved being able to see cattle and sheep in pastures and get close enough to take pictures. She was living on Main Street above a coffee shop when she decided to paint three cows. “The painting could be seen from across the street,” shared Kinahan. “There was someone in the restaurant looking at me working on the painting. She actually came up the stairs and knocked on my door, and said, ‘This is really weird, but I can see you’re painting cows.’”


The woman, visiting from Grand Junction, bought the painting. “I really enjoyed the process of painting those three cows,” Kinahan confessed. “As soon as that sold, I decided to do another one. That one sold and it made me realize there might be a market for this. That wasn’t why I started doing this, but it was really encouraging.”

She found more and more people connecting emotionally with her work. “That’s something I’m finding incredibly fulfilling and exciting,” she shared. “I don’t think I’ve ever painted anything that was so personal and something that my entire heart is truly in, and to find another person who shares that passion and that connection is kind of a benefit of the creative process that I never expected. I’m so touched – it just gives me chills every time a person looks at a painting and looks into the great, big eyes of a dairy cow with these big lashes and I’ve seen people truly moved. It’s so interesting to me and I love it. I just feel like this is an area that I have to pursue. I still paint other things. I love to paint. This is definitely where I’m going and what I’m going to be pursuing.”

As her paintings garnered more attention, she started getting invitations to visit herds or to meet an individual animal. When she first started looking for subjects, Kinahan had to learn how to adjust how she encountered the animals. “It was an interesting change in how I learned to actually physically approach an animal in a pasture so they wouldn’t run away,” she shared. “Sometimes they do, but I’m getting better at it. It was this process I didn’t expect, but as I started painting them more and more and displaying them in places, people would seek me out and say, ‘Oh you’re the one who paints the cows. The cattle lady. My neighbor has this exotic breed of cattle and maybe you want to come out and I’m sure she’d be happy to have you.’ I was super excited about those types of opportunities as they came up, and I would travel anywhere to talk to the person who owns the animals and hear the stories and learn what it’s like to raise cattle, how to approach them.”

Kinahan enjoyed hearing the personal stories shared as well. “I’m always surprised but grateful that the owners–the farmers and ranchers–have an understanding of their individual animals,” Kinahan said. “They’re aware of the different types of personalities that each animal possesses, and they’re just as excited to share that as I am to learn about it.”


One of her most memorable visits was being introduced to a herd of ancient white park cattle, which was a surprise. She had scoped out the ranch for years, driving by and seeing the various animals that lived on the property. She drove by once a week, hoping the animals were close enough to the road for her to snap some photos. Then she started wondering if the owners noticed her visits. She sent them a letter, with a picture of a painting of one of their animals, explaining what she was doing. “Sometimes to a fault, I’m trying to be polite to other people,” Kinahan shared. “I included at the end, if this feels like an infringement, no worries, that’s just me and I’m not harming anyone and I’m just taking photos and that’s it.”

She got a call from the owner of the ranch immediately. “She said she’d love for me to come out,” Kinahan said. “She told me about the different sheep she has – this flock for wool, this for meat, and this is how the mommas behave.”

Then Kinahan got to meet the cattle. “I didn’t even know that was coming,” she said. “I thought it was just sheep there. She told me so much about the breed, and how it’s an English breed and how it came to America and was lost for decades. It was so interesting.”


These days, Kinahan continues to paint, chase down animals, go on tours of ranches and farms, and donate to rescue organizations. She is also the co-owner of Studio & on Main Street in Durango, which is coming up on its seventh anniversary. Her partner at the time was a founding member, and she couldn’t fathom living and working together. “I tried to stay out of it for as long as possible, and then I finally realized it would be a really good idea for me to join with this team of artists who were doing progressive things in town and filling a void of some type,” admitted Kinahan. “With the outlandish practices we get to procure on Main Street and the uncensored art we can show. It isn’t anything lewd or terrible. I’ve had difficulty showing a nude painting or anything close to be a nude painting in Durango and I was happy to be a part of a place that would welcome that and not shy away from showing something noncommercial or out of the ordinary. There were a number of reasons I was excited to join the studio. It was an opportunity to show my art on Main Street without having to give 50% of my sales to someone who wasn’t working at all for me. To take home 100% or close to 100% of my sales was amazing and was what enabled to keep me being an artist.”

The studio does take 35% of commission currently, which is the bare minimum Studio & can take and still pay bills. “We really want to give artists as much as possible,” explained Kinahan. “For the first two years, we didn’t take any commission. Then we realized we were spiraling downward financially. We were forking out all the money for the rent, and drinks and food and shows and advertising. We had to start thinking about it. We settled on 35% and it’s been a good balance.”

Kinahan also encourages artists to utilize the internet, which makes it possible to connect directly to clients and collectors. “Most of it is free,” she said. “The most powerful tool an artist has is their email list. We can shoot around the side of galleries now. I’m not trying to talk down galleries. They have their place. Artists don’t always want to deal with self promotion. But if you want to keep more of your revenue, then you have the power to do that now. In the ‘80s, it was really difficult to do that. Now, we can do it. It’s a powerful piece for people to wrap their heads around and when they do, it makes things a lot easier.”

Elizabeth posts her work on Facebook and Instagram. Learn more about her by visiting her website. You can see her work at Studio &  in Durango, CO or at Gallery Flux in Ashland, VA.

This is the fifth in a series of articles I’m writing, called “Sustaining Craft”, which focuses on people who make money creating. Contact me to share your story.

Glamour and Glitz: Perks of the Senior Model Program with Allison Ragsdale Photography

Senora Robinson has seen her friends enter the Senior Model Program with Allison Ragsdale Photography for the past five years. “I always thought her photos were amazing,” Senora shared. “I was pretty well integrated in the modeling arena, so I wanted to make sure I had a great photographer for my senior photos. I was recommended my junior year by one of my senior friends. She has great photos.”

As a child, Senora started modeling when she received encouragement and guidance from a photographer after a family shoot. Since then, she has moved more towards the business side of the fashion industry, but modeling has remained a personal goal.

Senora is headed to fashion school next fall, after graduating this spring. “I would love to keep modeling,” revealed Senora. “I would love to be a Victoria’s Secret Pink Model. That’s my life goal.”

Senora, now an intern with Allison, works with Allison and her husband, Matt, every week, assisting Matt with marketing, sending out marketing materials or helping organize contests, and going on location with Allison to shoots. She completes projects such as Snapchat stories, which Allison posts on Instagram, and helps with flash adjustments, poses and wardrobe. “I help bring revenue, excitement and a different perspective,” Senora explained. “We’re trying now to look at the point of view of the senior and the person who’s already gone through the Senior Program so we can make it better for the up and coming seniors.”

She’s also seen how clients transform from feeling uncomfortable and vulnerable to confident and relaxed. “Allison just makes everything so easy and doesn’t have you do anything you’re uncomfortable with,” Senora said. “She lets you take charge of your shoot which is really awesome. She makes it really fun and comfortable.”

Allison allows the session to be customized, which includes listening to music, or incorporating outfit changes. “It’s super personalized to you,” Senora explained. “She’s lighthearted, really fun and really easy to talk to and be around and it makes it really fun for people doing family, wedding, and senior photos. Everyone loves Allison. It’s really great.”

Senora had been asked by several other photographers in town to join their senior program, but she wanted to work with Allison. “I chose Allison, hands-down, no question, because I knew the program and the way she runs it,” said Senora. “It will be even better with the 2017 Program, especially with the adjustments we’re making.”

Valuing her input as a senior who has completed the program, Allison and Matt asked for suggestions on how enhance the experience. While Senora has noticed that potential clients are nervous about the cost, she has experienced herself that participation in the program is worth much more than the money value. Included are multiple shoots, which can include headshots, couture session, family session, senior session, and custom sessions, depending on the model level a senior chooses. Hair and make-up are also included. “It’s really worth all of it,” Senora said, “and it’s documented the end of junior year to the end of senior year and you change a lot, so it’s cool to document the entire time instead of just senior photos.”

Then there are the relationships with Allison and Matt. “You get to know her and Matt very well, which is cool because they’re such great people,” shared Senora. “It’s an overall really fun experience. I would absolutely go back and do it again.”

Originally published in the February 2016 issue of Durango Neighbors Magazine.

Making a House a Home: Family Portraits with Allison Ragsdale

The last time Pauline Ellis participated in a family photo, she was two years old. After getting married, having a daughter of her own and moving to Durango, Ellis first saw Allison Ragsdale’s work at the Durango Recreational Center. “I thought, if I ever wanted a family portrait, I would look Allison up,” Ellis shared.

Ellis’s work for the United States Forest Service brought her to Durango. With a degree in civil engineering, Ellis is now the partnership coordinator for the San Juan National Forest, which relies on many partners to help care for the forest.

Ellis married her husband, Fred, in 1996, who also works for the Forest Service as a wildland firefighter and fuels technician. They met through mutual friends while Fred was living in Georgia and Ellis was in Arizona. The night before they were going on a backpacking trip with friends through the Smoky Mountains, a hurricane ripped through the area. “We weren’t sure we’d be able to make the trip, but we were able to hike through downed trees,” remembered Ellis, who has been with the Forest Service for 35 years. “It was fun.”

Ellis and Fred’s daughter, Brooke, graduated from high school earlier this year. She wanted her senior portraits taken by Allison, which came with a complimentary family session. “We were so pleased with those pictures,” Ellis said of the senior portraits. “It was wonderful. My daughter tends to be pretty shy, and Allison, in a nice, unassuming way, was able to get these fabulous pictures of her. I was afraid she’d look the same in every picture and not smile, but she was able to get these wonderful poses of her.”

They took advantage of the family portrait opportunity when her father, who lives in southern California, visited during Christmas last year. Ellis’ mother had passed away, and with her father getting older, Ellis wanted to capture their family memories. “Like many other families for years, we’ve talked about doing a family portrait,” Ellis admitted. “Other than a free portrait for our church directory, we haven’t done pictures.”

Ellis found that Allison was able to work magic with her stoic father and two small dogs. “She was able to get my dad to smile,” marveled Ellis. “She’s amazing with animals, she was amazing with my senior father, she was great with my daughter and with my camera-shy husband. We couldn’t be more pleased.”

Matt and Allison’s assistance didn’t end after the photo sessions. “We have so little experience with professional photography,” Ellis explained, “This is where we appreciated both Matt and Allison. Matt spent so much time with us in the studio, selecting the photos and the displays. They came out to our house and helped us find the right place in our home, and hung the photos for us. There was never any hard sell whatsoever. They just followed up the photo shoot with a session to show us the pictures, the different products available and let us select what suited our family the most.”

Ellis saw not only Matt’s expertise in selecting the perfect portraits, but how those portraits personalized their recently remodeled home. “I’m not good at designing or decorating,” Ellis demurred. “Most things that hang on the wall are pieces of my life. Having those photos there just captures everything we wanted about making our house a home.”

Now, Brooke has moved to Washington State for college, and her parents are facing an empty nest, albeit a wonderfully decorated one. “I think my husband is going to spend a lot of time staring at her pictures and pining for her,” Ellis explained, “It will help ease the transition of empty nesting.”

Originally published in the November 2015 issue of Durango Neighbors Magazine.

Senior Model Program Offers Life-Long Friendships and Cherished Moments

Lisa and Peter Marshall first met Matt, the husband half of Allison Ragsdale Photography, when he was teaching math at the Durango High School. As a freshman, their oldest daughter, Colin, was shy. Lisa knew she was a good student, but had concerns about her socially. “I remember going to my first conference and sitting down with Matt,” Lisa shared. “I asked how she was doing, socially, and he just looked at me like I was crazy.”

She found out that Colin talked nonstop in class. “It made me feel good that she felt that comfort level with him to have those interactions and come out of her shell,” shared Lisa, who has three daughters and one son. “Matt had great relationships with the kids, even if he didn’t have them all in class.”

Two years later, Colin applied for the Allison Ragsdale Photography Senior Model Program. Through the program, during their senior year, students are the face of Allison Ragsdale Photography online and in their community while they model for new location shoots, portfolio building and collaborative projects and are featured on prints and canvases locally and nationally. In addition to the business cards they can hand out with their images printed on them, they receive various other perks, such as points that can be applied to prints or other products.

Colin’s participation in the Senior Model Program began a life-long friendship. “I don’t consider them photographers who work for me. I really consider them our friends,” shared Lisa. “The photos are so beautiful, but what’s more important to me is that they bring out a very natural beauty in my children. The pictures I love aren’t standard pictures of them for their senior photos. They’re looking down. They’re looking away. That’s what I love. They’re the moments we’re going to cherish forever.”

Originally published in the August 2015 edition of Durango Neighbors Magazine.

Learning Every Little Thing about Everything


Attention to detail, motivation and ambition make Ryan Cleveland ideal for the position of bar manager at the Ore House restaurant.

Ryan grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, the older of two boys. He started bike racing at age 10, and in 2009, he was recruited for the cycling team at Fort Lewis College. “I fell in love with it,” Ryan shared about Durango. “It was pretty easy to settle here for school.”

Looking to work his way through school, Ryan pursued a job at a local brewing company, working as a busser to start. With his love of beer leading the way, he ended up behind the bar. After a few years, he heard about openings at the Ore House from the current Ore House dining room manager, Chrissy Murrah. He started as server support at the steakhouse, beginning at the bottom of the ladder again as a busser. It did not take him long this time either to work his way up. He expanded his interest in beer, discovering cocktails, spirits and wine. “My intention was to end up at the bar,” said Ryan, who earned his cicerone certification. “Since then, it’s been an obsession to learn every little thing about everything.”

After Ryan graduated from the Fort in 2014 with a degree in marketing and finance, he took on the bar manager position. “I was definitely hired on with the idea of moving up. No one gets to jump right into anything. You have to show your stuff,” explained Ryan, who has taken over additional responsibilities that pertain to his degree. “With it being such a small restaurant, it’s the fairest way to do things. There’s not a lot of turnover. Positions don’t open up all the time. You don’t get to leapfrog.”

It’s been an educational experience for Ryan to learn and create cocktails, who wants to give customers what they ask for without having to look up a recipe. “I feel like I’ve learned a lot, but I’m just scratching the surface,” confided Ryan.

Being behind the bar and managing the bar staff are only part of Ryan’s responsibilities. He also creates new cocktails using local, fresh and sustainable ingredients, designs educational seminars for his staff, maintains inventory, and helps with whatever else is needed for the restaurant. “I get to use some of my background from school and apply it, but it’s still customer service and I still get to talk to people,” said Ryan. “It’s such a small place that you can’t just have one title. You’ve got to do more.”

The creativity, freedom and educational opportunities are more than worth it. Ryan enjoys his job, and has watched, with interest, the restaurant grow and evolve, even during the year he’s been on staff. “It’s a good spot,” Ryan enthused. “Ryan (Lowe) is a great person and he gives us so much freedom to give people what they want.”

The other members of the restaurant staff enjoy the family and team atmosphere as well, as evidenced by the lack of turnover. “Everyone helps everyone,” explained Ryan, who uses the small size of the staff to his advantage. “I can change the drink menu because it’s only 10 people who need to learn it. At other restaurants, it would take 60 people up to two weeks to learn menu changes.”

With the restaurant constantly adapting for seasonal and availability changes in produce and other menu items, there is a lot of room for new, interesting and creative items made from the highest quality, freshest and local ingredients. “It’s really fun,” shared Ryan. “I get to experiment with a lot of things. There’s always a special drink on the menu using something we can get our hands on.”

Ryan hasn’t had to leave his beer roots behind completely. The restaurant still carries a lot of specialty beers, including locally brewed Ska beers. Ryan has also found that one of the most recently intriguing parts of his job is getting to pass along knowledge to his staff. He designs spirits seminars to help give the service staff the knowledge needed to provide Ore House customers with the best possible experience, which includes using high quality cocktail ingredients. One of Ryan’s favorite cocktails is the Boulevardier, which contains rye whiskey, Campari, and sweet vermouth. “I love it because it is the perfect balance of flavor between three rather strong ingredients,” shared Ryan. “It also would not be a great drink unless you use quality ingredients.”

When not in the restaurant, Ryan is busy exploring all that Durango has to offer. He still bikes, plays hockey, and has been exploring rock climbing, golfing and mountain biking. “These past few years I’ve been able to enjoy Durango for what it is,” said Ryan.

Originally posted on the Ore House’s website during May 2015.

Shining Star Caregivers: Finding Purpose after Tragedy

Eight years ago in Atlanta, Mary Cardin packed up her belongings and her little dog Santana and moved to Durango. Having just separated from her husband, Chris, of 30 years, and ready for a change, she remembered a trip to Durango in 2004. “When we separated in 2007, we’d never had children, so it was just a case of, what does Mary want to do and where does Mary want to go?” she shared.
Her husband, a well-known Southwestern painter, had moved to Taos. “I’d remembered how wonderful Durango was,” she added.
When Mary arrived in Durango, she found a job at an assisted living facility. Hurting from the separation, she wanted to care for others. After three years, she decided to start her own business. She had worked in the corporate world while living in Atlanta, which had provided her with a strong business background. “I saw how devastated and sad people were to leave their homes. I decided I could start a business to keep folks in their home as long as possible,” said Mary.
Already well-known by home health agencies and some of the local doctors, Mary had no trouble getting referrals when she started Shining Star Caregivers in late 2010.
Then another blow came. Shortly after Chris moved to Taos, he committed suicide. “I was even more devastated,” revealed Mary. “That’s why caring for all of these people is so wonderful. It got my mind off of myself and onto caring about someone else. He used to call me his shining star, so that’s how I came up with the name for my company. I felt like he was guiding me.”
Now, with close to 50 clients, Mary has found the community’s reaction to be positive. She doesn’t want her business to be the biggest agency in town, but she does want to be known for providing quality care, which she can guarantee with her 21 caregivers. She also continues to work closely with the assisted living facilities in town, explaining that the facilities are important. “But if we can keep them in the home, safe and independent for as long as possible, that’s what we want to do,” she added.
As a non-medical business, Shining Star cannot administer medications or insulin shots or refill bill boxes. As a result, the business also does not accept Medicare or Medicaid. However, most companies that provide long-term care insurance will pay for caregiver services.
Concerned with quality, Mary keeps services contained to Durango. “I feel like if I get too big, I’ll lose control of the quality,” she explained. “I want to continue being known as one of the best quality caregivers in town. I will continue to expand as long as I can get good, honest caregivers. I know the need is only going to increase.”
Mary has found Durango to be a wonderful place to heal. “The people are so loving and accepting,” enthused Mary. “The community has embraced and supported Shining Star so amazingly. I love the weather. I love the seasons here. It’s a very welcoming and embracing community for me and I definitely feel a part of it.”
While healing, she wrote “Peace: My Final Gift”, a short memoir about her journey with her husband’s suicide and the process of grieving and healing. The cover of the book is her husband’s last painting, which Mary considers his suicide note. “It says volumes,” said Mary. “He was such a great artist, so I didn’t want his art to die with him.”
Through her healing and caring for others, Mary has found her purpose in life with Shining Star Caregivers. “It’s the best thing for me,” confided Mary. “I work seven days a week, but it’s not work. It’s wonderful. I know it’s what I should be doing with my life. All of the hurts and loss have brought me right to where I am today – very blessed.”

Originally published in the May 2015 issue of Durango Neighbors Magazine.

The History, Culture and Legacy of the Barker Family

It’s the story of legends and fairy tales: love at first sight.

Laurie Hahl, a freshman at Fort Lewis College in 1977, decided to stay in Durango over the summer instead of going back home to Littleton. With her high school experience in the restaurant business and her love of singing, Laurie applied at the Strater Hotel to join the singing wait staff. When she arrived at the hotel to meet assistant restaurant manager Rod Barker, she came down the short stairs that led to the hostess area and met his gaze. It’s a moment that both remember vividly nearly 40 years later.

Laurie got the job, and her first night was working at a Republican dinner. She collected pink elephant shaped tickets as the party¬goers came through the buffet line, while Rod carved the Baron of Beef at the opposite end. They spent the night sneaking glances at each other. “The one thing I think is kind of special is I didn’t know anything about the Strater, the Barker family or the legacy,” said Laurie.

Their first date was a few weeks later at the old Solid Muldoon, where Laurie had her first drink, a hot buttered rum. More dates would follow, and one night, they stopped on a back road to sit on the hood of the car and look at the stars. Laurie would only later learn that the road was just above the Barker family ranch.

“I genuinely cared about him and not about who he was and what he represented,” said Laurie, who continued to work at the Strater in various departments. “I wasn’t putting together the magnitude of what it all meant. At the time, the Strater had singing waiters and waitresses. I liked the singing part. I didn’t know about the legacy or all that. I don’t think I knew the whole picture yet.”

Becoming a part of the Barker family was a clash of cultures for the middle-class Laurie, who didn’t grow up around boats, horses or mountain cabins. Laurie’s family was healthy, but they didn’t eat vegetables fresh from the garden, or incorporate fish into their diet. “My horizons expanded,” said Laurie of her time with Rod’s mother, Jentra Jarvis, who would become her mother-in-law. “I learned how to can, make jelly and garden like the olden days. In my family, we just went to the grocery store.”

However, the differences in their families didn’t stop her from marrying Rod two years later, in May of 1979. Two months after that, Rod took a hotel management training position at the Westin Crown Center Hotel in Kansas City, and the newlyweds left Durango and the Strater. While Rod worked at the hotel, Laurie continued her degree in medical technology at UMKC. When she became pregnant with Jeremy, she scaled back her classes, eventually going into labor in her physics lab in 1981. In 1983, Rod’s father called with the news that he was selling the hotel. “I’d left town with the reality that I might never return,” said Rod. “When he put it that way, all of the things I’d been denying came to the forefront. I wanted a hotel, and here was one about to slide away. I said, ‘Dad, don’t do that. I’ll come back if you give me the space to run it the way I want to.’”

Coming back to Durango and the Strater meant that the Barkers started the third generation of Barker family ownership. Over 30 years later, their daughter Allison is working her way through the Strater’s departments and learning how to run the hotel, setting in motion the fourth generation of Barker family legacy. Allison went to CSU in Fort Collins after graduating high school in Durango. She lived there for 10 years, and for a time, she worked at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. The Stanley Hotel is an Historic Hotels of America member, like the Strater, which sparked her love for history, culture and the legacy her family had worked so hard to develop. When she heard her father was going to sell the hotel, she couldn’t let it go. “It really hit home with me because it felt like part of my identity wouldn’t be there anymore,” explained Allison. “It was quite the wake up call to think that our family history at the Strater might disappear. The Barkers know the heart and soul of the Strater, and it would be a shame to see the hotel turn into something that it isn’t.”

The Barkers’ oldest child, Jeremy, now lives in Lafayette, CO, with his wife, Meghan. Jeremy worked at the Strater during high school as a bellman and in housekeeping where he had a brief stint that required him to wake up at 3am to vacuum the dining room before going to class. He now owns and manages a housing unit, while picking up work on the side in voiceovers.

While there have been difficulties running a family business, Laurie has enjoyed being a part of maintaining the Strater. “The hotel has always been a really fun thing for all of us,” said Laurie.

A favorite yearly event for the hotel, which Rod started in 1987, is the Open House in April, which offers a “thank you” to the town for years of support. Selected staff and family dress up in historical attire and provide tours to locals. Laurie wore her great-grandmother’s wedding gown at the first few Open Houses, while Rod wore her great-grandfather’s tuxedo. The vintage clothing was only part of what Laurie brought to the Strater. Her family had more roots in Durango than either Rod or Laurie knew.
Their families had already started to encounter each other years before the couple had even laid eyes on each other. The Moores, on Laurie’s maternal side of the family, owned a hardware store in Denver that went out of business in the 1950s. The remaining merchandise was purchased by Jackson Hardware in Durango. When the Barkers and the Hahls all met for the first time at the Barkers’ cabin on Electra Lake, they discovered the connection through an antique ice box the Barkers had purchased, labeled “JM Moore & Sons” Denver, CO. In addition, Laurie’s great-uncle, Lucius L. Moore, often traveled through Durango with his work for the southwest division of Mountain Bell Telephone. Lucius took numerous photographs of activities and sights around Durango and Grand Junction. Many of his photos were published in the Denver Post and Laurie and Rod have a collection on display at their Wagon Road Ranch Event Center. One of the pictures shows him skiing near a cabin owned by the Jarvis family. Other photographs feature rodeo riders, with the La Plata County Fairgrounds in the background. “It was meant to be that the families would come together,” said Laurie. “It’s like our paths were crossing and we didn’t even know it.”

The family traditions continued when Laurie’s parents, June and Leonard Hahl, followed by her brother, Tom, moved to Durango. Tom has worked for seven years restoring and maintaining walnut furniture at the Strater, and June and Leonard worked in the hotel’s food operation. Leonard set up the continental breakfast and June hosted Victorian tea. Currently, Tom’s daughter, Jessica, works at the front desk of the Strater.

The years of hard work, giving back to the community and continuing a family legacy have paid off. In October of 2014, Allison and Rod went to The Hotel Hershey, which was established in 1933, to receive the 2014 Legendary Family Historic Hoteliers of the Year award. “The Strater, Barker family and all the details that have transpired over many generations, only have added to the characters that helped shape our story. The Strater is the anchor that has held our family in a position to be proud of in the town we love,” said Laurie. “Knowing that we get to share that with the guests that come through our doors over the years only makes us more committed to making sure that good hospitality continues.”

Originally published in the February 2015 edition of Durango Neighbors magazine.