An Inside Look at the Soldner Center, a Touchstone of Aspen's Creative Past
On a patio surrounded by the handmade structures her parents built in Aspen, Colorado, Stephanie Soldner stands in the bright sunshine of a cloudless July morning telling stories. As part of an appointment-only tour of the property, she weaves the tale of how her father, the pioneering ceramic artist Paul Soldner, turned his life toward art—and how she learned of this pivotal moment.
One day in 1970, when Stephanie was a senior in high school, she was in a bad mood and complained about something trivial to her parents. Wishing to instill some perspective in his daughter, Paul said, “Look, if you want to complain about something, complain about this,” recalls Stephanie. He flipped an envelope full of black-and-white photographs in front of her.
She opened the clasp and inside found pictures that he had taken of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp 25 years before. Paul grew up in a Mennonite family in Ohio and was a pacifist, but he was drafted into the army as a medic during World War II, serving in Patton’s Third Army in the Battle of the Bulge. On May 5, 1945, just days before the end of the war in Europe, his platoon came upon Mauthausen, where the Nazis had abandoned thousands of skeletal prisoners and piles of naked corpses. The captives had been forced to carry 80-pound blocks of stone up more than 100 steps, and many had not lasted long, dying from starvation, disease, or exhaustion, or by execution. Over the coming weeks, as the Americans attended to the survivors, Paul Soldner took out his camera to document the atrocities. He made a quiet discovery on the walls of the prisoners’ barracks: charcoal drawings.
“He was so moved that someone would actually try to create in such dire circumstances,” says Stephanie, as she squints in the high-altitude Colorado sun. “That was really the point where he decided he did not want to become a doctor, and he wanted to go into the arts. I think he also decided that he did not want to just live any life; he wanted to live life completely to the fullest, both for himself but also for all of the people he knew never actually had a chance to live.”
He and Stephanie’s mother—painter, sculptor, and poet Ginny Soldner—did just that, packing their days with making and enjoying art; savoring the pleasures of life, from music to homemade wine; and cultivating a deep network of beloved friends and intellectual collaborators. The Aspen property they built together, now known as the Soldner Center for the Arts and Innovation, is an encapsulation of their vibrant relationship to life, art, and community. Now, Stephanie Soldner is working to honor her parents’ legacy by preserving the grounds and the five structures on site, as well as offering tours to the public. In the future, she plans to create a residency program for artists, writers, philosophers, scientists, and other innovators.
Ginny and Paul Soldner discovered Aspen in the early 1950s, when Paul was securing his master’s degree in arts administration at the University of Colorado Boulder. On the weekends, they roved around the state, exploring the mountains and hamlets. They dreamed of building a home and studio by hand on open land and in 1956 bought 5 acres in Aspen. The land had once been the sole territory of the Ute people before European and other settlers arrived, but by the mid-’50s it was a dusty, abandoned potato field.
Paul realized he wanted to become a studio potter and subsequently secured his MFA in ceramics at Los Angeles County Art Institute. There he and his mentor, Peter Voulkos, along with other students, helped usher in the Clay Revolution, which introduced clay as a medium for fine art. In the summers, the Soldners road-tripped out to Colorado and lived in a tent on their land in Aspen, building as much as they could with their savings from the year before. Young Stephanie read and entertained herself and, when she was old enough, took off with the neighbors’ kids riding bareback on her horse.
The couple eventually fell into a rhythm of living in California from December through April—with Paul serving as a visiting professor at Scripps College and Claremont Graduate School—and returning to Aspen from May through November. Throughout the year, Paul worked on his sculptural ceramics, many featuring the distinctive American Raku technique he developed using fire and smoke to create different colors and textures. Ginny ran Soldner Pottery Equipment, a company the pair created to sell the pottery wheels and mixers Paul had designed with his own patented modifications. She began abstract painting in the 1970s, focusing on 6-foot-tall canvases.
Today, the Soldners’ property sits in a serene, shady oasis between a tony golf course and an affordable housing development. Nearby, ski runs tumble down a mountainside. The Soldners worked on the compound for 40 years until Ginny’s death in 1995, and although Paul died in 2011, it feels as if he could have stepped out yesterday. The radio still continuously plays in his studio. The rhubarb, mint, and blue geraniums the Soldners planted grow with gusto. The furniture they collected, including original Eames, Wassily, and Barcelona chairs, sits neatly arranged in the living room, and Stephanie still occasionally Zooms from an original Sam Maloof table. Behind her, ceramic pieces by midcentury ceramic artists—such as Peter Voulkos, Bernard and Janet Leach, Marguerite Wildenhain, Betty Woodman, John Mason, and Harrison McIntosh—sit exactly where they were left.
While Paul was an intense, energetic, live-out-loud extrovert and the visionary behind the property’s big ideas, Ginny was a warm, inquisitive introvert and balancing presence who helped refine Paul’s ideas and mastermind the finishing touches that pulled everything together. In their artwork and in their building style, the Soldners embraced experimentation, innovation, and early notions of sustainability.
“There can be no fear of losing what was once planned,” Paul often said, “and there must be an urge to grow along with the discovery of the unknown. Make no demands, expect nothing, follow no absolute plan, be secure in change, learn to accept another solution and, finally, prefer to gamble on your own intuition.”
The couple chose to name the buildings for their features rather than their functions so that they could fluidly change the purpose of each space. They abstained from building any internal load-bearing walls, so that spaces could be reconfigured and reimagined. They also used as many local, natural, and recycled materials as they could.
Paul was known to cannily offer to take unwanted supplies off others’ grateful hands—as well as find items at landfills, dumps, and lumberyards—and then turn them into brilliant, if unusual, building ideas. When construction crews were widening the nearby highway, he hauled away the boulders they unearthed and used them to create berms that provide privacy on the north and south ends of the property. When a local lumberyard was getting rid of a pile of warped and twisted two-by-four boards, he and Ginny took them home and clamped and nailed them together to create a unique ceiling for the A-Frame that became part of the family’s primary living quarters—and where Stephanie resides today. To fill in slip-cast walls for another structure, the Orange Door Building, Paul hauled rocks from the old potato field on a sled with their Studebaker. Gears from an antique Jeep form the exterior door handles on the Orange Door Building, and pieces of equipment salvaged from the area’s old silver mines function as doorknobs for the A-Frame’s entrance.
The Soldners designed two different active solar-energy systems. They purchased and installed a third system of solar panels that are still in place and positioned the south-facing roof of the A-Frame at 26 degrees to maximally soak in the winter sunshine of the Rocky Mountains. They also experimented with unusual forms. Originally conceived as a garage, the Round Building resembles a gigantic beehive. Paul created the roof by building octagons out of large beams, one on top of another, smaller and smaller.
After Ginny died, Paul stopped all building and set aside the Round Building as a gallery for her paintings. Today, her canvases mingle with his sculptures, which are displayed atop pedestals made of wood that he burned, sealing and protecting them without any need for finishes. “For me, it feels like they’re in conversation,” says Stephanie.
For the Soldners, simply living was a form of art. They rose in the morning and drank their coffee in an in-ground hot tub they built themselves. (They built some 20 concrete hot tubs, both on their own property and at friends’ houses.) They worked from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., then gathered with friends at a picnic table in the shade and laughed, traded ideas, and drank wine Paul made himself from dandelions, rhubarb, chokecherries, and other local plants—anything but grapes. (The last building he constructed was a wine cellar out of a couple of old kilns and a vaulted room shaped like a wine barrel.)
This spirit of community and innovation is exactly what Stephanie Soldner hopes to preserve through the nonprofit organization that she founded in 2021 to handle programming and advance her vision for the future. Three years before, in 2018, she sold a conservation easement on the back 2 acres of the family’s land to the city of Aspen, Pitkin County, and the Aspen Valley Land Trust. It now protects a critical corridor between tracts of wildlife habitat, and deer, elk, bears, coyotes, and other animals amble through the sagebrush, shrub oak, and grasslands. The funds from the sale are helping to maintain the property in the short term while Stephanie applies for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places and raises more funding for an endowment that would support the nonprofit.
“This property is a touchstone to something that Aspen was at one point in time, and that’s important,” says Suzannah Reid, a local architect and historic preservation officer for Pitkin County. “It also represents a trend that we don’t otherwise represent through any of our other historic properties. We have skiing history, we have mining history, we have ranching history, but we really don’t have a property that represents our artistic history and our founding as a center for the arts.” Aspen is often thought of as a magnet for the rich and famous, Reid adds, but it has an additional history of creative achievement. (Paul Soldner also contributed to this history by founding the nearby Anderson Ranch Arts Center in 1966.)
Currently, Stephanie offers tours of the Soldner Center to the public by appointment during the summer. For the future, her vision includes opening the Orange Door Building to gatherings of up to 40 people, for events such as talks and musical performances. A potential master plan could include building six small cottages over the next 15 years: three for future employees as a partial solution to the local housing shortage, and three for “resident innovators,” whom Soldner hopes would be referred through partnerships with local cultural and arts institutions.
“The idea is it’s a place where you can take some time to try something different, potentially collaborate with someone, or just explore ideas,” she says. “The idea is they’re not required to produce. Paul was always encouraging people to try, try, try, risk, learn, try again.”
This year, the Soldner Center was accepted into the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios program, a network of 55 sites throughout the country. “There’s a larger story of artists’ homes and studios [in general] that Paul and Ginny’s house fits nicely into,” says Beth Ann Gerstein, the executive director of the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona, California.
“It preserves an important structure; it preserves the legacy of the artist. It also keeps it current to what’s happening in the field today. And I know from artists that have been in residence at some of these places, there’s just that sort of special feeling when you are in the same environment as someone who may have been a hero.”
The Soldners allowed the property to evolve over the decades, and in many ways it has aged gracefully. The buildings are stable and in great shape, and the aspens and evergreens are now tall and mature, casting deep pools of shade. Lichens have adorned the boulders and concrete pillars that hold up the A-Frame and Orange Door Building.
Even on a brief visit to the Soldner Center, a casual visitor can soak up an atmosphere of creativity and ingenuity. Sculptures dot the grounds, and kiln gods (whimsical earthenware figures put into firings for good luck) still peer out from beneath the eave of the Long Building, which recently functioned as Paul’s studio. You can see where he pressed objects, such as a bronze female form and old bottles, into the walls’ wet concrete. A fountain he built for Ginny out of a massive boulder and a tiny, perfect bonsai tree still gurgles on the edge of the A-Frame’s patio. Visitors can also see where he used found objects to experiment with distinctive effects, like the striking dish tub–shaped concrete blocks he created to form a fanciful entrance to the wine cellar. In this once-remote place in the Rocky Mountains, it was possible to try anything, it seems.
“That really, I think, is what we at the Soldner Center are trying to encourage, which is the quote from Goethe: ‘Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it,’” says Stephanie Soldner. “That’s really the message of the Soldner Center: Don’t be afraid to risk, don’t be afraid to try, learn from it and keep going.”
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