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A Sister Cities exchange brings community together through art

Artist Valeria Fiala works on her charcoal mural of sheep at the Red Brick Center for the Arts on Nov. 21.
Kaya Williams
Aspen Public Radio
Artist Valeria Fiala works on her charcoal mural of sheep at the Red Brick Center for the Arts on Nov. 21. The piece officially debuts at an opening reception on Dec. 1.

Spend enough time looking at Valeria Fiala’s larger-than-life mural of a herd of sheep at the Red Brick Center for the Arts, and you might begin to feel like you’re one with the herd, surrounded in a warm, wooly crowd of floppy ears and gentle eyes.

The charcoal artist wants the piece to represent the sense of community, connection and belonging that she’s felt here in Aspen, now on her second exchange from Bariloche, Argentina, through Aspen Sister Cities.

“It has a meaning, also, of friendship, … brothership, and that this group of sheep will be friends forever, and are what they are because they are together,” Fiala said in an interview at the Red Brick in mid-November, where she worked on the mural and offered “open doors” sessions that welcome community members to chat and watch her work.

Fiala first came to the area in 2016 on an exchange that lasted about two weeks.

“It’s a connection that is kind of difficult to explain,” she said. “We have similarities, but I didn't [think] that those kinds of mountains, ski resorts, rivers would just make me feel so at home. It’s something else.”

When it came time to go back to Bariloche, she didn’t quite feel ready to go and said she was determined to return in the future.

So when the opportunity arose to spend almost two months in the Roaring Fork Valley this year, leading a program in Spanish at The Art Base for recently-immigrated students from Basalt High School, it was an easy “yes” from Fiala.

Fiala arrived in early October and will head back to Bariloche in about a week.

While in Aspen, she has also been teaching charcoal drawing classes at the Red Brick and connecting with fellow artists in the halls. Fiala has been sharing her creative process through the “open doors” work sessions that welcome community members to talk with the artist and come watch her work on the mural.

Lala Caffarone, who is one of two Bariloche city coordinators for Aspen Sister Cities along with Griff Smith, sees the beauty, inspiration and joy in this collaboration between cultures.

“This is the point, understanding different ways of working and how we can connect beyond those differences and actually learn from that,” Caffarone said.

The Aspen-Bariloche exchange program also offers opportunities for ski patrollers, adaptive ski instructors, doctors and students to trade places in opposite hemispheres.

There are likewise chances to travel to Aspen’s six other sister cities — one in Japan, one in New Zealand and four in Europe — for cultural and professional exchanges.

Caffarone, who is from Bariloche, said the positive connections go both ways, when Aspen sends community members around the globe and when representatives from our sister cities come here to share their skills and perspectives, too.

“I think that's something that I see every time happens, this overall good feeling that we have when we collaborate, when we share, when we open ourselves to knowing others and to doing things together,” she said.

That’s especially true with the artist exchanges, Caffarone said.

“Art is an expression of culture,” she said. “We're showing who we are, in a way, to the other community, how we express ourselves through art.”

Caffarone said the value and impact of these exchanges isn’t limited to the people traveling from one place to another.

“You can get involved, and you can also get all those benefits of getting to know people from another place, and how they work and everything,” she said. “So the whole community gets the impact, not only the person that gets to travel.”

For Fiala, the experience has also helped her learn about herself, and about trust, she said.

“I learned to trust more about what's happening, … to trust about the good intentions of people,” she said.

She said creating art is much like talking to a friend, for what it teaches us about ourselves and about each other.

“Any time you have the chance to let someone express themselves, it will be healing and helpful for the one who talks and the one who expresses something and will be also important for the other people, for understanding,” she said.


Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.