Working for Free, Full Time

Memoir/Travel, Nonfiction

“Brother, this town is delicious.” Heather leaned forward to peer farther out the windows, looking like I do when I drive through mountains. “Can you believe it? Get a look at that building.”

More than twenty artist-owned galleries fill the town of Salida, “the biggest little art town in Colorado!” according to one brochure. Packed between galleries sit coffee shops and hole-in-the-wall restaurants, bicycle shops and outdoor equipment stores. All the storefronts have found a mix of quaint and eccentric that captured Heather, and many others, too. Unlike other small towns I’ve visited, people crowd the downtown sidewalks.

“I cannot get over how adorable this town is!”

Me and Heather Curtis
Me and Heather Curtis

The first thing I had noticed about Heather was her hair, several inches short and impossibly spiky. The second, her smile.

“Brother, are you sure you don’t mind waiting?”

“I’m totally flexible when I’m hitchhiking.”

“I don’t know how long this will take, but I’ll call you when I’m ready to go.”

“Good luck.”

I headed across the street to explore art galleries, and she headed up it to pitch her work. A gallery called Eye Candy had shown interest when Heather had contacted them about hanging some of her pieces. This visit would be the last chance in an unsuccessful whirlwind of pitches that had kept her driving across the state over the past four days. “We don’t deal with photography,” she had heard in Vail and Aspen. In other places, her work just didn’t connect with the gallery owners.

I hoped for Heather’s success and stepped into a different building, filled with nature photography.

“Are you the artists?” I asked the couple standing inside.

They were. “My work is on the far wall,” the woman said, “and his is on the other.”

I looked around, trying to show equal interest in both walls. “Are you from Salida originally?”

“We moved a few years ago,” she said. “Most people in Salida aren’t from here, actually. People come for the art community.”

An artist and gallery owner, posing with his car
An artist and gallery owner, posing with his car

“It’s not like some Midwestern towns,” he added, “where everyone lives there because they were born there. People live in Salida because they want to, not because they’re stuck here.”

The woman returned my question.

“Washington State. Across the water from Seattle.”

“What brings you down here?”


I answered the usual questions, and then stopped in a few other galleries before Heather called me.

“She likes my stuff!” I could hear Heather’s smile through my phone. “I’ll be a little longer, but you can come in a look around. I’m sorry I’m taking so long!”

Eye Candy
Eye Candy

Eye Candy describes itself as: “Rare treasure from vintage pinup girl art, distinct sterling estate jewelry, local pottery and paintings, glass, bullets, faeries, leather to feather! A site for sore eyes!” Art filled the window display, interior display cases, and the walls–save the wall directly behind the counter, where the gallery owner was clearing a space for Heather’s work.

“You must be the hitchhiker.” The middle-aged owner introduced herself as Nikki.

“She used to be a pilot,” Heather said, “but quit to do this!”

Nikki nodded.

“Didn’t like it?” I asked.

“I loved flying. But you do anything for twenty years, and you need a change.” She has run Eye Candy for the past year and a half.

While Nikki put one of Heather’s photos in the front window, Heather whispered to me: “She took one look and said, ‘Yes. Let’s hang this.'”

Nikki and Heather, with Heather's work hanging in the background
Nikki and Heather, with Heather’s work hanging in the background

Nikki ended up hanging six more. Photographs of age-beaten trucks and weathered buildings dominated the wall. As is standard, if a photograph sells, Heather and Eye Candy will split the profits fifty-fifty. Today, though, Heather made nothing.

Almost fifty years old, she quit her corporate job in May. Her company of ten and a half years changed hands, and the new management “treated her like shit.” She had to spend six months away from home, make cold calls, pressure clients, and work under the demands of “more, more, more.” So she quit without notice and took up photography full time, with the support and encouragement of a few friends.

I’ve been told that the self-employed–whether in art, business, or farming–work for free for the first six months, or first year, or first two years. Two months in, it’s held true for Heather. She has enough saved up to last a few months, and she is willing to sell her motorcycle and downsize from house to yurt to stretch that period even further.

“Everyone keeps telling me I can’t do this,” Heather said, back in the pickup, “and I’m like, ‘Why not?’ So far, the more I’ve let go, the more I’ve received. It sounds like New Age garbage, but it’s not.” She smiled. “I’m doing what I love. Sure, I spent a few nights in the back of my truck instead of in a hotel on this trip, but that adds to the experience.”

We spent the next few hours driving through southern Colorado, paralleling mountain ranges to the west and east. “I can’t wait to tell my friends about you,” she said. “You’re taking your trip at the right time, brother. This is exactly what you should be doing. I’m getting into it thirty years too late. Look at that!”

We flew by a drive-in movie theater.

“I need a picture.” She turned the truck around and parked on the side of the road. “Hand me my camera, will you?”

I rummaged through the back seat and passed her the camera bag. The Sangre de Cristo mountains and a dark, almost-storm sky set the backdrop.

Heather clicked away. “This is delicious.”

Her photography focuses on a type of antique called primitives–“stuff people actually owned and beat all to shit.” Old locks, cars, signs, buildings. In all of them, Heather sees stories.

She started photographing when she was twenty. Heather spent several years taking pictures for a newspaper and working in their darkroom, and she’s been using Photoshop ever since it premiered.

We stopped several more times. An abandoned barn-style house, built alone in the windiest valley in southern Colorado. A boy staring through a fence, a mutt beside him and a junk-filled lawn behind. A “Hippies Use Backdoor” sign and a wooden sign for a wild game butcher. She saw personal histories in all of them.

Some of Heather's work (the three large photographs)
Some of Heather’s work (the three large photographs)

“My photos are me,” she said. “The ones I show have the same texture as me, and the same vibrancy. I don’t have some abstract, lofty artist statement–my art is what I find beautiful.”

At Fort Garland, we parted ways.

“Sometimes it feels like someone’s going to call me and say, ‘Get back to work! You can’t be doing this!’ I mean, this day has been too good to be true.” Heather beamed. “I saw a beautiful sky, got my art in a gallery, and I met you!”

Since then, another gallery has agreed to hang her work, bringing the total to three. Art income is still nonexistent, and the work is long and demanding, but she loves it. “You’ve inspired me,” she said during one phone conversation weeks later, when I agreed to house-sit for her during the month of September. “I’m looking into yurts. I’m going to make this happen.”

Heather’s work is viewable at:

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