Every question I prepared for Brook LeVan suddenly seemed immeasurably naïve once he began his story — a bit like asking an astronomer, “So, what’s your opinion of stars?” Because what LeVan and Sustainable Settings have created is physical proof that it will be artists who solve our environmental, agricultural and social crises in the years to come — an idea that isn’t obvious to the naked eye, but is methodically present in every barn, chicken coop and row of organic vegetables.
A monster of a raincloud rolls in over Mt. Sopris near Carbondale, Colo. as LeVan leads me on a haphazard tour of Sustainable Settings in search of his hat. We amble past repurposed old ranch buildings, stacks of farming equipment and twenty-or-so milk cows with their calves. Newly hatched turkey poults trundle after their mother in the distance.
The non-profit sits on 244-acres of old ranch land, one of the largest undeveloped parcels in Pitkin County. Only a third of the property is used for farming, leaving the rest open for wildlife and habitat restoration. Since 1997, Sustainable Settings has been a source for local, organic food as well as an interdisciplinary learning center for sustainable agriculture and green development. It attracts students from across the country.
Leaning against a weather-beaten fence in faded blue jeans, LeVan certainly doesn’t look like a formally trained artist. Nor does anything at Sustainable Settings resemble the hip artist’s abode you’d expect from someone with an MFA, but, as it turns out, that’s kind of the point. Art for Art’s Sake has been replaced by Art for Daily Life, a key tenant in Sustainable Settings’ philosophy.
“A lot of the research for my artwork was anthropological,” LeVan says of his beginnings as an artist. “As a potter, I became very interested in domestic objects, human settlements and patterns.”
In 1989, LeVan and his wife Rose travelled to Ghana on a Fulbright Scholarship, living with a remote tribe for a year.
“(They) did not have a word for art and that blew me away. It chiselled away at my foundation as a Western trained aesthetic maker-of-things,” LeVan says. “It made me really evaluate our perceptions in the West and also where art is in our life.”
During their time in Ghana, the LeVans saw that the tribes didn’t intentionally make art. They lived it. Huts, walkways, drinking vessels — all were steeped in the kind of meaning that LeVan felt was missing from Western art and culture.
LeVan points at what was once a low-roofed pig barn. Rusted scythes and wagon wheels hang on its walls in tribute to the ranch’s past. It’s rustic in an unimpressive sort of way – until you step inside. Here is a Grade-A, solar powered, raw milk dairy complete with heated floors, sterilizing equipment and gypsy jazz for the cows during milking. The barn’s exterior isn’t a façade; rather, it’s focused attention on aesthetics and meaning.
At last, LeVan finds what he has been looking for, a big, wide-brimmed straw hat. He pours us glasses of milk — fresh from the morning. A heavy cream is just starting to form on the top. It’s sweet and rich — certainly the freshest milk I’ve ever had.
Several years after the LeVans’ return from Ghana, they took a trip down the Yellow River in China. With their four-year old son in tow, the LeVans built traditional transportation vessels for the 3,395 mile journey. Floating through remote provinces of China, witnessing grotesque acts of environmental destruction and social inequalities, the LeVans reached a tipping point.
Following this journey, LeVan was inspired to put together a board of directors for Sustainable Settings. As their mission caught on, it attracted Peter B. Lewis, chairman of Progressive Insurance and the Guggenheim Museum of Art and Adam Lewis, founder of the Loving Exactly What Is Foundation. With a gift of $2.1 million, Sustainable Settings was able to purchase the Thompson Creek Ranch in 2003.
“Sustainable Settings was a natural outgrowth from understanding the potential of what we as human beings can provide for ourselves, each other, and work with nature to make a beautiful, functional and celebratory place,” LeVan says.
Offering internships, volunteer programs, and hosting leaders in the field of architecture, agriculture and ecology, Sustainable Settings is not just developing solar composting toilets, ecologically diverse crops and sustainable economic development but also a richer way of life that influences all who spend time there.
“We understand that art is a mechanism for social change,” LeVan says. “A studio is a laboratory. It’s a place to take risks and explore.”
As the first raindrops begin to fall, we follow LeVan through a garden. I can’t help think of how a traditional artist would die to depict this place in oils and pastels, and yet LeVan lives it in the fullest color everyday.