In the silence of the forest, an artist’s installation spirals into contemplation
About 26 miles up the Fryingpan River — over a bridge, up a short, snowpacked hill, past the cabins that smell like a cozy night by the fireplace, tucked into the forest along the 10th Mountain Trail near Beyul Retreat in Meredith — more than 3,000 pieces of repurposed glass catch the light of the woods, suspended midair by almost-invisible wire.
Some shards are as high as 16 feet above the ground, forming a spiral that artist Lara Whitley hopes people will enter to meditate, reflect and absorb the nature around them.
“My intention is that it will be a contemplative space, a space for meditation for ritual, ceremony, stillness, kind of a listening room for the forest to just tune in to one's own thoughts, but also whatever one can perceive going on in the quiet of a lodgepole pine forest,” Whitley said in an interview at her home in Aspen this month.
Whitley identified the location for the spiral by walking through the entire 32-acre Beyul property with Abby Stern, who co-founded Beyul with Reuben Sadowsky and Andrew Skewes. The clearing they found reminded Whitley of California and of the “fairy rings” that new-growth redwood trees form in a circle around the stump of a felled tree.
It’s remarkable just how quiet it is inside the spiral that stretches 125 feet from end to end, although its circular shape gives it a smaller footprint in the forest.
Whitley said the piece is related to “Homecoming,” an smaller installation in the shape of a house that she created from foraged glass in 2017. The work hung from the ceiling of the Launchpad in Carbondale, but Whitley wanted to see how it might look outside, too, and she eventually brought a version of it to the woods near Toklat at Ashcroft.
That installation at Toklat pointed Whitley in a new direction, working exclusively outdoors, she said. And it ultimately led her to create the “Forest Spiral” at Beyul Retreat.
When I drove up to see the Forest Spiral last week, just before dusk on a cool Friday afternoon, I saw a couple of equestrian riders, picked up on the occasional car driving on Fryingpan Road, and caught wind of a critter or two. But, mostly, I heard nothing at all.
Surrounded by the silence of the forest, I understood the magic that Whitley had described during an interview two weeks earlier.
There, she spoke about the collaborative process of building the installation this year with the help of artists, students, people on retreat and even her parents. She said about three dozen volunteers helped hang the glass.
“To spend a day in something that is a very quietly repetitive task, wiring glass onto this fence together, but working mostly silently, in the forest was itself a meditative process,” she said.
Whitley said the peaceful feeling of the space is as much about what you can’t see as what you can.
“Baked in from the very beginning was this intention to stitch presence into the space,” she said. “It's like the invisible architecture of the piece.”
But the visible elements of the installation look pretty magical too, as light reflects on the thousands of pieces of glass Whitley found and foraged near her home.
She repurposes other materials as well, like the leather she uses for handles on wood meditation cushions at the spiral and the fabric scraps that she’s using to create custom tote bags for people who supported this project on Kickstarter. Whitley estimates some pieces are a century old.
“All of this gives us the opportunity to think about trash, and what does it mean, when we throw something away?” she said. “Where does it really go, if I'm finding things that have outlived the humans that threw them away 100 years ago?”
She wants people to think about changing their relationship with trash, and to think about the ways we could repurpose the items we already have to make some new beautiful or useful thing.
“It also gives us the opportunity to think (about) what really endures, which ultimately, is the question of what's important to us,” she said.
You can go visit the forest spiral with the intention of a purposeful experience, like I did. Whitley is even designing field trips for under-resourced groups in the valley so she can make it easier for more people to access the site if she can get funding for the program.
“My hope is that this space is available to all, and that art and mindfulness experiences in the forest are something that anybody can have,” Whitley said.
Whitley hopes people will have accidental encounters, too.
The spiral is located on a public trail, and she expects that some hikers, skiers and equestrians will just stumble upon the installation.
There’s a gate to get to the heart of the spiral — one of a few features, along with wildlife exclusionary fencing and reflective strips, designed to ensure animals don’t get caught in the structure. (Whitley revised the design from an original plan for dangling strands of suspended glass after she consulted with Colorado Parks and Wildlife about the project and its impact on the area’s fauna.)
Once inside, Whitley wants everyone to make themselves comfortable and stay awhile.
“I'm doing everything I can to encourage people to dwell there — like, hang out, and just get quiet,” she said.