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Mel Strawn: Artist and Activist

By Robert Parker

Editor’s note: Renowned Salida artist Mel Strawn passed away on May 17, 2020 at the age of 90. We reached out to local artist and climate activist Robert Parker for his thoughts about this talented and beloved man.

Mel Strawn was nationally known as an accomplished non-objective artist and printmaker. He was also known as an art professor at the University of Denver and later in life became a central figure in the art scene in Salida.

What is not so well-known is that Mel was a passionate climate activist. He studied the writings of Guy McPherson, James Hansen, Bill McKibben and many others. He realized climate change was the leading threat to our civilization, to our species and the other species on planet Earth. Then Mel acted. He was in his eighties at the time, but that did not slow him down from founding what is now 350 Central Colorado. It started with Mel gathering his wife and partner Bea Strawn, plus his good friends Fred Rasmussen and Mary Lou Church, to meet and determine what they could do to counter the threat of a vastly changing climate. All were octogenarians. Shortly after, my wife Kay and I joined. We were all moved by the actions of Bill McKibben, a Vermont college professor and author, who with a handful of his students formed to attempt to stop the KXL Keystone pipeline.

The number 350 was used because that was the highest number of parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere that would maintain a climate balance. We have already far exceeded this level. We had learned there was a 350 Colorado, so we became 350 Central Colorado.

The late Mel Strawn at his studio during a 2009 interview with Colorado Central Magazine. Photo by Mike Rosso.

More interested folk heard about us and began coming to meetings at Mel and Bea’s home. We formed a board with Mel as our chair. Mel was always teaching. He could spend hours bringing us up to speed on the details of climate change, the causes and possibilities in curbing or fighting it.

We decided to march as a group in parades, host a Climate Forum and protest. In one of our early actions we entered the Buena Vista 4th of July parade. The parade is a little under a mile long and filled with big engines, huge tires and smokin’ four wheel drive machines revving and posturing. In the midst of this were Mel, Kay and I with our new 350 Central Colorado banner and a sign that said, “We march for our grandchildren.” We expected boos and hisses but when the people lining the street saw this frail looking elder statesman for the climate movement in the midst of so much fossil fuel exhaust, what we were saying and why we were marching moved them. The people stood and cheered as Mel marched past.

350 Central Colorado’s first major achievement came when the city of Salida formed an alliance with the local energy companies to host an energy forum. Mel got wind of it and he and Fred Rasmussen approached the city council with a proposal that climate change be a topic in the event. I don’t know if it was something he said or the implied threat that we would participate either inside as part of the forum or outside protesting the energy companies, but he organizers threw up their hands and said that if we wished to participate, we could take over the entire event. So we did.

Mel led the planning and put together a comprehensive program for the 350 Central Colorado Public Forum on Climate and Energy; Creating a Resilient Community. It included professors from Western State University in Gunnison and was moderated by Micah Parkin, Executive Director of 350 Colorado, from Boulder. None of the energy companies showed up. The Salida Community Center was packed to overflowing.

350 Central Colorado, now with a bit of reputation, took to the streets and highways to protest the KXL Keystone Pipeline, a major national goal for and to stop fracking across Colorado and bring climate resilience to Central Colorado. Our signature events, Earth Day and The Festival for Our Mother Earth all had and still have the imprint of Mel’s original leadership in our attempt to help save our planet from climate chaos.

We owe him a great debt of gratitude and honor.