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Artist and Pilot: Ursula Gilgulin

Article by Lynda La Rocca

Local Artist – July 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

When Ursula Gilgulin is piloting an airplane past the highest peaks of the Upper Arkansas Valley, she often studies the vales below and envisions–her next painting.

“I think of the [human] figure and the landscape as one,” says Gilgulin. “The landscape is the earth, and the earth–this round, blue, glowing ball–is a figure. As I fly lower and can distinguish different characteristics of the terrain, I’m reminded of a person’s skin and its different textures and colors.

“I’m from the old school where the artistic emphasis was on studying figure, figure, figure, then landscape, landscape, landscape,” she adds. “I’m pre-pop, you might say.”

Gilgulin is also an expert at what she does–and she does plenty. She holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts from New York’s Pratt Institute. She has taught art continuously, and at all levels from pre-schoolers to senior citizens, since 1964. Currently, as an instructor at Colorado Mountain College’s Timberline Campus, she teaches an eclectic mix of drawing, painting, sculpture, jewelry-making and art history.

In her “other life,” Gilgulin manages the Lake County Airport. There she also operates a business called Leadville Airport, Inc., which offers flight instruction, scenic airplane tours and charter flights, along with car rentals, fuel sales and pilot supplies.

To illustrate the many hats Gilgulin wears, her husband of 31 years, Bob, jokingly made his wife a business card bearing just her name and the words, “Leadville, Colorado.” There’s simply no way a card could reflect her varied endeavors.

Gilgulin’s flight-related credentials are as impressive as her artistic background. She’s a flight instructor; an air transport pilot, the highest of five levels of private pilots; a volunteer Accident Prevention Counselor for the Federal Aviation Administration, serving as a resource to pilots unfamiliar with the area; an FAA-designated Pilot Examiner; and she holds an FAA Air Carrier Certificate allowing her to transport passengers or baggage for hire. Oh, yes, and she’s also an observer for the National Weather Service.

Gilgulin’s two passions–art and flying–were awakened early. And this native of Zurich, Switzerland, who was born into a “privileged, close-knit, happy family,” credits her father with stimulating both.

Edward Forster was a textile chemist and colorist who invented several processes for coloring wool. He was also fascinated by airplanes.

“I remember going to the airport with my father to watch the planes,” Gilgulin recalls. “My mother and sister didn’t like airplanes, so it was just me and my father. That was our special time together.”

Another treasured childhood memory involves a visit to her father’s laboratory. “Dad placed beakers with liquid in front of me and showed me how to carefully add chemicals to the mixtures. Every time I added a substance to the liquids, the colors changed into these beautiful, brilliant hues. I was so excited. Of course, within ten minutes, I’d turned all the liquids into mud by mixing so much. But after that, I just had to have my own paintbox with lots of different colors.

“In the good Swiss tradition, my parents had decided my sister and I would both learn to play musical instruments,” Gilgulin continues. “They chose the violin for me. But I desperately wanted to paint. And fortunately, my parents realized how important this was to me, because at age seven, instead of a violin, I got my paintbox.”

That fascination with color is evident today in Gilgulin’s favorite artistic medium–oils. Her oil paintings of mountain scenes, wildlife and flowers explode with bursts of bright greens, blues, purples, reds, pinks and yellows.

At first Gilgulin is nonplused when asked to explain the relationship between her art and flying. Then she recalls her decision to apply to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to become an astronaut.

“Filling out the application was like writing a book, it was so long,” she remembers. “NASA replied that although they were interested in my ability to fly at high altitudes without oxygen, I didn’t have enough jet combat experience–which was true, as I didn’t have any!–and they didn’t have a need at the present time for a mission specialist who was also an art historian.

“So in one sentence, NASA was able to make a connection between art and flying,” she laughs.

“But for me, the link is that I love the act, the actual process, of painting. Flying is the same thing. It’s fluid. A paintbrush moving across a canvas is like a plane moving across the sky.”

Gilgulin’s paintings, etchings and charcoal drawings are currently on display at Leadville’s Tabor Grand Coffee House; the Beacon Gallery at the Buena Vista Municipal Airport; and the Ralph Greene Gallery in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her work sells at prices ranging from $20 to $2,000.

Gilgulin also works on commission; a three-panel oil of a view looking from the east toward Mounts Elbert and Massive, Colorado’s two highest peaks, graces the interior of Leadville’s new Salida Building & Loan Association office.

“I worked on that for three months,” Gilgulin says of the vividly-colored panorama. “It consumed me. And I’m never happier than when I’m absorbed in work like that.”

Gilgulin, a Leadville resident since 1977, can wax equally philosophical about a blank canvas or a student picking up a paintbrush for the first time. “I love teaching because it’s a thrill to see that sparkle in someone’s eye when they finally get the big picture,” she enthuses. “To me, art is life. It’s just magic. One painting leads to another and another. The day never comes when you can say to yourself, `This is what it’s all about. This is what art means to me.’ If you could do that, there wouldn’t be any more to learn. And you wouldn’t have a reason to get up in the morning.”

Her advice for aspiring artists–or pilots–is pithy and precise. “If you do something for an hour a day, every day, you’ll soon be an expert at it,” she declares. “And everyone has an hour a day.”

Lynda La Rocca lives and writes near Leadville.