Will Work for Food: The Ore House Art Collection Story

What do ski bums and art collectors have in common? Well, if it was the 1970s and you lived in Colorado, chances were that these dual passions could easily have existed simultaneously. In fact, this unlikely duo laid the foundation for the Ore House art collection.

Beatle Abshagen, co-founder and co-owner of the Ore House, was in fact a selfproclaimed ski bum “back in the day.” He had a passion for not only fine food but for all things artistic and creative. Given this combo of interests, when he and co-founder Jim Arias opened the doors to the Ore House in 1972, they traded meals at the restaurant for art and other creative endeavors like woodworking and carpentry.

Too, they had an interest in the mining heritage found in southwestern Colorado that inspired the name of the restaurant and its collection of numerous artifacts from the bygone era. It was this interest in Old West livelihoods, highlighting cowboys, pioneers, and living off the land, that set the stage for the unique atmosphere found inside the Ore House today.

Long before the concept of ‘local’ was popular, Beatle and Jim supported local artists by trading art for meals at the restaurant. This ‘will work for food’ perspective was a winwin situation as the Ore House wanted decor to liven its walls and artists needed food for their sustenance!

Today, over 30 original works by 16 local, regional and nationally acclaimed artists grace the walls. Watercolors, oil paintings, drawings in charcoal as well as pen and ink, and Native American weavings and baskets comprise the collection of westernthemed art.

The first art works to be traded (and one-third of the total collection) were watercolor and pen-and-ink drawings of area mines created on site by artist Jean Dreyer. Her son Ron was a regular customer at the Ore House and, over time, he traded nine of her drawings for Ore House meals. Many of these mining structures have given way to time and the elements, so Jean’s drawings represent an act of preservation and a look into the area’s mining history.

Since everyone needs to eat, word got out to artists that the Ore House was ‘artistfriendly’ and a venue to show their artwork in exchange for eating good food – and the collection began to grow.

About the same time, Beatle met and married Sharon, who majored in art back then and is today an accomplished plein air painter. Sharon recalls, “It was so cool that artists could feel comfortable just showing up with a painting in hand.” The Abshagens started collecting art on their first anniversary trip to Taos, where they made a conscious decision to collect and display western themed art in their home and the restaurant.

This decision to shine a spotlight on western heritage led Beatle and Jim, in 1980, to commission a train themed mural by local artist John Grow. They wanted to cover over an existing mural of a bar scene that spanned one entire wall of the restaurant. John had never painted a train before so he used photographic slides of source materials to layout the train mural, offering, “The train parts are all correct but not proportional…every brush stroke is based on something real.” John’s representation of a train traveling through a canyon met Beatle and Jim’s expectations and more.

In 1990, John was commissioned to paint a second mural that, according to him, would “capture the essence of Durango…a truth about the industrial West excluding the telephone and electrical wires.” So he set the mural’s scene on the street in downtown Durango, 1900, with the smelter belching steam in the background. Beatle had some specific requests including a central narrative picturing a miner showing a large gold nugget to a young girl. Also represented are a miner and his mule, a nod to the Ore House logo.

Additionally, Beatle requested the incorporation of historical figures to add “some fun” to the painting. John responded eagerly by including cultural icons of the West: John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Theodore Roosevelt, Ouray, and Tonto and the Lone Ranger. Too, the artist pictured himself among an array of family, friends, other artists and his patron, Beatle, all dressed in turn-of-the-century garb.

John researched extensively, using historical photographs and documents to add accuracy to architectural, technological and fashion details of the period. He used artistic license and imagination, however, in reconfiguring the downtown streets and building locations to serve the overall design, aesthetics and concept of the mural painting.

To honor Beatle’s desire for a light-hearted portrayal, John included a number of whimsical features such as a gigantic fishtail protruding from the back of a wagon. Throughout the mural are imaginative details such as the partial words “Ore House” reflecting in a second story window and a Columbine blossom, Colorado’s state flower, nestled behind the ear of the mule. These inclusions remind us that the painting is based upon but is not a historical scene.

In 1991, artist Jake Kelly painted a portrait of Joe Hotter, from the well-established Durango ranching family. Jake recalled, “I had an A-frame up by Purgatory ski resort and Joe Hotter’s ranch was right across the highway. Joe used to go out and whistle for his quarter horses every morning, so I got to know him moderately well…he represented the perfect cowboy to me.” Once the painting was completed, Jake brought it to a gallery for representation and Beatle purchased it for the Ore House.

By this time, Sharon and Beatle had started collecting high quality Western paintings and displaying some on the Ore House walls. Through their connections as collectors, the Ore House catered a number of gatherings of the Cowboy Artists of America (CAA), an exclusive organization whose purpose is “to authentically preserve and perpetuate the culture of western life in Fine Art.”

At one such gathering, Beatle was given a cow skull that all the attending CCA artists signed with a black marker. A few years later, Joe Beeler, one of the founders of Cowboy Artists of America, painted a portrait of a Native American chief on the skull. It is one of Beatle’s most beloved pieces due to its personal nature and the fame of its contributors.

It is only fitting then, that Joe Beeler’s painted skull with all those famous artist signers embodying all that is iconic and beloved about the West, welcomes every visitor as they enter the Ore House today.

From John Grow’s whimsical period portrayal of historic downtown Durango and Jean Dreyer’s acts of preservation in pen-and-ink to paintings, watercolors, drawings and weavings, the Ore House art collection offers unique views on western life and something for just about everyone’s taste. So take some time to browse the walls, actually or virtually, and enjoy the visual feast!