Boulder County straddles the Front Range, with part of the county in the mountains and part on the plains. The city of Boulder has been called the Berkley of Colorado since the 1960’s, with its peculiarity seeping into surrounding communities. Longmont is close enough to absorb the good things about Boulder while retaining its own unique flavor of immigrant families and traditional Colorado culture.
On Main Street in Longmont, there’s a doorway that leads up a narrow stairway of a historic downtown building. It reminds me of Diagon Alley from Harry Potter. The muggles don’t notice it. But if you’re a little bit magic, the metal cactus cutout and the “Cactus Coven” storefront next door will beckon to you. Thistle Witch Tattoo is at the top of the stairs, where Ana Lara-Steely and three others artists operate their studio.
All of their clients come from word of mouth and Instagram. Their friend opened this studio, and more recently the femme pagan curio shop downstairs, by building on reputation and relationships. The work that comes out of this space is quality, creative, and edgy. They take themselves and their art very seriously, and business thriving.
I sat down to chat with Ana this week while they were designing tattoos for clients. Their passion about their work became clear immediately because of the depth of their answers. They were intense and emphatic about tattooing. But they aren't simply producing tattoos. Ana's life is immersed in actively creating an inclusive and loving tattoo culture in their community and beyond.
Me: What is your favorite color?
Ana: Yellow. It’s bright and happy. I think my soul is yellow.
Me: Tell me about tattooing.
Ana: The industry is changing a lot right now. There’s more tattooers than ever been before. It’s kind of effecting how people see tattoo artists and treat us. Instead of going to just some random shop, you can seek out someone because you’ve heard good things about that service. And that’s new.
Me: It seems like there are two components of getting a tattoo. The artwork itself and the experience in the studio.
Ana: Definitely. Word of mouth is huge. If someone comes to you and has a bad experience, that gets around. So it’s important to provide a good service. I have clients who come who have been to a more traditional tattoo shop. And they didn't have a positive experience. They were bullied or harassed or belittled by the artist. So a lot of times people come to us and they're really surprised by how positive and kind and affirming we are. That's something that's changing in the industry as it's getting bigger. The people who are negative or abusive are slowly being pushed out. That's a good thing.
Me: When you talk about offering a positive and affirming experience, what does that look like?
Ana: When somebody leaves the studio I want them to feel good. I don't want them to feel like they got talked into something that they didn't want. They should feel like they got what they wanted and paid a fair price, that they've got something that empowers them. The whole point of tattooing is to make you feel empowered in your body. It’s about being able to choose what your body looks like. It's just this whole new level of empowerment because you get to decide. You’re taking ownership of your body.
Me: How does your own personal journey reflect in the work that you do?
Ana: I think especially for women in this society we're so disempowered with our bodies. There's always these messages of what women should or shouldn’t look like. Tattoos are just really beautiful fun ways break away from that because traditionally it was very unfeminine to do that to yourself. Most of my clients are women. It's kind of this thing where collectively we've decided that this is what we want to do. My generation is like, well screw that, no one can tell us not to tattoo our bodies, we're going to do what we want. We're tough.
I think that falls in a lot with queer culture. They haven’t always been welcome in those hyper-masculine spaces. And so, like a lot of things, queer people have created their own spaces within tattooing. That's what we're doing, opening up this femme queer space. A lot of us identify that way. Only one straight person works at the shop. The rest of us are more fluid. In more traditional shops they couldn't really be open about that. So we just want to embrace and encourage those queer spaces because they're so precious and we want the industry to be more inclusive. That's the kind of energy that we need. We want to create safe spaces for ourselves and our baby gays to get tattooed and express themselves and, again, to take that ownership. I make a point of getting tattooed by femmes and queers because the industry has tried to push them out. They deserve support. I’ve never had a creepy experience with a queer tattooer.
Me: You have created a space for yourself as an artist and an individual to be authentic and to encourage others’ authenticity. What advice do you have for other creatives who have similar goals?
Ana: Do it. Don’t give up. The secret is persistence. I think a lot of people are gonna tell you no. Everyone's a critic, and no one's gonna believe in your dreams as much as you do. And so… just do it. Even if you hate it, you still do it because you love it. There's no magic words, there's no magic formula. You just got to put in the time and the heart and the love...... and that’s all I have to say about that.
Ana on Instagram - @anita.bruxita.tattoo
Thistle Witch Tattoo- @thistlewitchtattoo
The Cactus Coven shop- @the_cactus.coven
Well, the depths of winter have finally settled in. I'll be leaving for the sunnier climes in Arizona in January, but for the rest of December I am in cold, snowy Colorado. Being a sensitive soul makes me susceptible to stimulus from the environment, and the short cold days bring out the worst of my Seasonal Affective Disorder (Seasonal Depression). Lack of sunlight effects my brain chemistry in a bad way. Did you know that sunshine as medicine is real, scientifically based stuff? (If you find yourself feeling depressed during the winter months, you might want to look into light therapy. It really helps me.)
Before I started migrating south, I dreaded this season. (Winter in the desert involves a lot of sunshine. Kinda cheating, but hey, I’ve earned this!) In the past, by December I was skidding down a hill and fearing the dark cold months that felt like nothingness, until spring showed signs of coming back in March. I don't produce much art when I'm depressed. The drive and inspiration isn't there, and then I feel twice as bad because I'm not creating. Over the years, I’ve learned to allow myself to shift with the seasons. Rather than fighting it and feeling defeated, I accept it as the Fallow Time. Being a driven, hyperactive person, this has not been easy to do. Here are some truths that I’ve come to live by: Give yourself permission to not be productive. Give yourself permission to sleep when it's dark. Give yourself permission to be sad. Quiet the inner voices that call you lazy and replace them with kinder, gentler ones. Most of the natural world hibernates and becomes inactive this time of year, so why shouldn’t you?
Because of depression and other issues, the holiday season has always been tough for me. Some of my self-work entails wading through the darkness to find light during this time, and I’m getting closer. Slowly. It’s taken a long time to build a healthy relationship with this season on my own terms. I’ve shifted away from modern society’s definition of “The Holidays”. To me that’s fraught with obligations, shopping, advertisements, pressure to buy things that no one really needs. Now I choose what makes this season important and special to me personally and immerse myself in that. I skip the gratuitous shopping and make things for people (and together with people) instead. Cooking has become a big deal for me this time of year, and I pour my creativity into that. I celebrate Yule (the winter solstice) in ancient northern European traditions that make me feel connected to my roots. I allow myself to become immersed in the darkness (literal and metaphorical) and celebrate the rebirth of the light during the solstice.
What's your experience with this season? Do you love it, or dread it? Do you deal with depression when everyone seems to be happy? Share what it means to you, and what traditions you find joy and comfort in (if you do). I’d love to hear about your experience, too.
I just came across a wonderful gem. “The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook” is a memoir disguised as a cookbook. Her lifelong partner was Gertrude Stein, the famous American writer who, along with Alice, hosted salons in their home in Paris for the leading figures of modernism and literature during the first part of the 1900’s. I can’t wait to get my hands on it. I’m looking forward to reading about their long and loving lives together, as well as the traditional French recipes.
One of the things that appeals to me about this book is that Alice “was a critic and connoisseur, more interested in preparing food, tasting it and passing comment on it, than in consuming it.” I totally relate with this. I love to look at food, read about food, cook it, and share it with others. My guilty pleasure is watching food porn shows on the cooking channels where they almost elevate food to the level of sex by obsessing about it and filming those long, close-up shots of irresistible morsels. I bet Alice would have watched, too. Ah, what I'd give for a cozy night curled up on the couch with Alice and Gertrude, watching "The Best Thing I Ever Ate".
Amateur Food Porn
I was hoping to catch up with the director of an artist residency program during my visit to Paonia, but we weren’t able to connect this time around. Elsewhere Studios is a lovely space that expands beyond the walls of its charming building into courtyards, murals, and installations where creativity radiates into the surrounding town. It is a “choose-your-own-adventure style residency, providing residents with the opportunity to connect with the community... or just time to focus on work. Time spans are individually based - 1 to 6 months, accommodating 4 to 6 artists at a time.” It is “open to visual artists, writers, composers, and performing artists at any stage or their career as well as scientists, activists, teachers, students, or any kind of creative thinker interested in exploring and expanding their work”. There is some scholarship funding for BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ artists. Check them out if you’re interested in doing an artist residency. This place is unforgettable. Elsewhere Studios
Art out and about in Paonia
Driving is my thinking time. I listen to podcasts and music, but also spend many hours in silence, observing and contemplating. Even though I haven’t been making art recently, this is an important part of my incubation process. On my drive back to Nebraska from the western slope of Colorado, I went over three mountain passes and down the I-70 corridor. Any time of year, the mountains are breathtaking. Beautifully, monumentally, in-your-face breathtaking. They are just undeniable. I took them for granted when I lived there. I’m experiencing them as an outsider for the first time, and now I see why so many people are drawn to visit.
As the interstate spit me out onto the flat expanse of the Front Range, I’m struck by the stark difference between the mountains and the plains. After getting through Denver and the cities and back out onto the open road, the subtle beauty of the landscape crept back in. This is the kind of place where you have to be mentally present in order to find the quiet splendor. It doesn’t shout from crystal crusted peaks. It breathes of sunshine and crisp wind and seasonal time. The colors are subtle, but even in the winter time, the palette is thick between blanched yellow sunlight and powder blue shadows. Clouds take center stage, with mesmerizing drifts and undulations. It’s a place that invites contemplation.
The landscape in Nebraska has been altered, managed, and forced into straight lines by human plans. Even so, nature pushes through absolutely everywhere. Erosion, weather, volunteering vegetation, persistent wildlife. This is very different than the vast undisturbed mountain ranges where the native plant and animal life is largely left in peace. (But only because the rugged landscape isn’t easily accessible or ‘useful’ in a human sense.) What I love about the plains is that, wherever a patch of earth is left alone, nature immediately begins to take it back. It's this ever-shifting dynamic that inspires me to create here. In my encounters I've found that people don't come here to share their visions and unique perspectives, they come here to make a living. That's made it harder for me to find other creative spirits, but I know you're out there! Let me know what you find creatively inspiring about the Great Plains.
Artist, homesteader, teacher and adventurer. Turning over every literal and figurative rock that I can find, living curiously and creatively outside of the conventions of the common world.
facebook: Karrie Steely Fine Art and Creative Services
Youtube: Homesteading and High Adventure