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Ted Mullings: The art of mining

Article by Steve Voynick

Local Artists – June 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

FORTY-SIX YEARS AGO, Leadville’s Ted Mullings began his art career literally at rock bottom — a thousand feet underground on the Phillipson Level of the Climax Mine. Despite that inauspicious beginning, Mullings has earned a reputation as one of the region’s best-known artists.

It’s a safe bet that more people have seen Ted Mullings’ works than those of any other Central Colorado artist. At the least, they would include some 40,000 former Climax employees, tourists who once stopped at the Climax Visitor Center, and countless thousands more who received the calendars and promotional materials that Climax distributed to schools and to the general public.

Although long retired from Climax, Mullings has never retired from art. He’s now enjoying a satisfying second career as a full-time visual artist.

Neither mining nor art were Harry Theodore Mullings’ first choices of work. Mullings was born in Alamosa in 1926, back in the days when ranching was big business in the San Luis Valley. Having ridden since he was old enough to be lifted into the saddle, Mullings became a cowboy. His skill as a horseman grew when his uncle, a professional horse trainer, gave him the opportunity to ride the mean ones. By the time Mullings turned 17, he was a regular rider on the regional amateur rodeo circuit that included annual meets in the Colorado towns of Creede, Monte Vista, and Manassa, and the New Mexico towns of Taos, Española and Santa Fé.

Along with horses and riding, Mullings had another interest. “I started drawing when I was just five years old,” he recalls. “Horses, cattle, motorcycles, airplanes — everything that would interest a boy. After I graduated from Mosca High School in 1944, I took art courses for two years at Adams State College.”

By the early 1950s, Mullings was earning a living in the ranching business, but still found time to make the rodeo circuit and to continue developing his art skills. He gave drawings and paintings as gifts, and even spent a year as an apprentice to a commercial artist in Phoenix, Ariz.

But then he got banged up in a Fairplay rodeo. “Rodeos were a lot different then,” Mullings recalls. “We didn’t have pick-ups to get bronc riders off the horses. When the ride was finished, we just bailed off and hoped for the best. Well, I came down wrong and dislocated my ankle.”

In addition to the ankle injury, the ranching business in the San Luis Valley was going downhill. “In the fall of 1954, the rodeo season was over and I was in debt. I heard Climax was paying pretty good, so I figured I’d go up to Leadville and see what mining was all about.

“I showed up at Climax flat broke,” Mullings remembers. “But I hired on as a miner’s helper, then they put me on a Phillipson Level form crew. A lot of guys didn’t like the work, but it was sure no worse than ranchin’ and bronc ridin’.”

A month later, the Climax safety director asked Mullings if he’d be willing to draw weekly safety cartoons for three dollars each. Eager to put his artistic abilities to use, Mullings agreed.

[Ted Mullings in his studio]

BY THE END OF 1954, Climax was rapidly expanding its hiring, training, and safety programs. The company needed a full-time artist and, thanks to his popular, weekly safety cartoons, Mullings had the inside track for the job.

“They gave me a two-week trial period and put me in a Phillipson Level tool room,” Mullings recounts. “That was my first ‘studio.’ I wore a hard hat and worked on a wooden map table under a 250-watt industrial light bulb. Foremen and shift bosses would always come in to see what I was doing — then I’d have to waste time cleaning their dirty fingerprints off my drawings.

“Sometimes I’d be concentrating hard on a drawing and they’d shoot a hangup right over my head,” Mullings continues. “I’d slam my knees into the table, spill the ink and ruin the drawing. It was tough getting used to that sudden blasting. But after two weeks of that, I had the steadiest nerves in Colorado. Hell, somebody could set off a stick of powder next to my foot and I wouldn’t even blink.”

At the end of his trial period, Ted Mullings rode the mantrip out of the Phillipson to a surface management position as a full-time commercial artist working at a quiet, comfortable, well-lit, art table in the safety office.

[A Mullings Cartoon]

Safety and training managers had always had difficulty verbally explaining to “new hires” the nature of the complex, block-cave mining system used at Climax. Among Mullings’ first jobs was preparing detailed, accurate, isometric, three-dimensional drawings clearly depicting the relationship of the haulage drifts to the superposed, perpendicular slusher drifts and the steeply angled fingers.

“It was tough to put all that together in a single drawing,” Mullings admits. But once I did it, I could quickly draw variations for any special safety or training purpose. That’s when I really started turning out drawings.”

During the next 28 years, Ted Mullings recorded the growth and development of the Climax Mine on thousands of detailed line drawings. In pen-and-ink, he documented the Storke Level expansion, the sinking of new shafts, the opening of the 600 Level and development of the 900 Level, construction of the huge moly oxide plant, mill expansion projects, construction of the gaping open pit, expansion of the tailing pond system, and land reclamation and restoration efforts. And when AMAX, then the Climax parent company, closed the Urad Mine not far from Idaho Springs and began developing the new Henderson Mine, Mullings captured everything in pen-and-ink.

[A Mullings Cartoon]

From Mullings’ drawing boards also came legal drawings that visually recorded the circumstances of fatal accidents and serious injuries, humorous cartoons for company newsletters, and scenic paintings for annual company calendars. Some drawings documented the company’s position for use in grievance hearings.

“When it came to accident and grievance drawings, I never buttered anything up for the company,” Mullings says with pride. “I drew everything just as I saw it.”

SOMETIMES, the former U.S. Bureau of Mines needed Mullings’ artistic talents. Eager to please the Bureau, Climax then loaned Mullings to a federal inspector to document accidents in other Colorado mines.

During his career, Mullings documented every part of life and operations at Climax in more than 7,000 drawings. These ranged from simple cartoons that still draw smiles today, to intricate renderings that demystified complex mining operations for tens of thousands of people.

Mullings took an early retirement when the 1982 molybdenum-market crash closed the Climax Mine. But AMAX and other big mining companies still needed him, this time as an independent contracting artist, and paid his way to sites across the country to draw subjects related to mining, milling, and smelting.

[Ted Mullings’s paintings reflect his life in the West]

With more time to devote to creative landscape art, Mullings began using charcoal, oils, acrylics, and watercolors to capture on canvas the themes that had shaped his own life — horses, rodeos, ranching, mining and the western landscape. He describes his own work as objective and accurate. “There wasn’t much in my personal experience that was abstract,” Ted says, “and I guess my work reflects that today.”

While most of Mullings’ work embodies technical precision and a finite quality, he also creates landscapes with an intriguing, mystical openness. “That’s not an attempt at abstract expression,” the artist says. “I’m just trying to define space. Anyone raised in the San Luis Valley, certainly back when I grew up, is very aware of space. It’s often the key element in many western landscapes.”

Discussing the element of space leads Mullings to consider the transitions that he’s seen in Central Colorado over the decades. “I know times change and populations grow, but I still hate to see the mines closing and the ranches being bought up for development. But maybe my paintings can preserve a little of the miners and the cowboys and the landscapes before they’re gone.”

And Mullings is doing just that. Last year alone, he sold more than 40 paintings. He now works from a much more comfortable studio than his first one in that Phillipson Level tool room. It’s the Little Cottage Gallery on West 8th Street, just off Harrison Avenue and immediately west of Leadville’s Old Church. From late May until November, the Little Cottage Gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. Mullings can be reached at the gallery at 719-486-2285, or at home at 486-0043.

Steve Voynick lives near Leadville, and has written books on topics ranging from rockhounding to natural beef. He once made an honest living as an underground miner at Climax.