Magic in the mountains

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Brooke MacMillan elevates, Literary Arts Dept. at CB Center

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  • Brooke MacMillan invented the literary arts department at the Crested Butte Center for the Arts. In less than two years she has made it a central part of the Center’s programming.
    Brooke MacMillan invented the literary arts department at the Crested Butte Center for the Arts. In less than two years she has made it a central part of the Center’s programming.
  • Scott Palmer, executive director of the Center, said it’s his job to “get out of the way and let Brooke be a genius.”
    Scott Palmer, executive director of the Center, said it’s his job to “get out of the way and let Brooke be a genius.”

When Colorado native Brooke MacMillan was living abroad and frequenting literary festivals throughout the U.K., Istanbul and Scotland, she had the underlying goal of bringing what she learned back to the Gunnison Valley. MacMillan, now the director of the literary arts and lectures program at the Crested Butte Center for the Arts, catapulted her vision into a flourishing reality in a few short years.

Once imagined as taking a backseat to visual, musical and dance programming at the Center, the literary arts department has found solid footing amidst the pandemic. With the ability to conduct book clubs, workshops and introspective classes virtually, the youngest division of the Center has boomed with big goals set for the future.

“Honestly my job is to get out of the way and let Brooke be a genius; said Executive Director of the Center Scott Palmer. “She has this incredible background, has lived all over the world, is a writer herself and has incredible connections. I just have to figure out how to support her, and (the programming) is going to skyrocket.”

MacMillan holds degrees in fiction from Colorado State University-Fort Collins and a masters in fine art in creative nonfiction from Goucher College in Maryland. She also served in the Peace Corps teaching writing and resource sustainability in Jamaica until moving to the Gunnison Valley in 2005. She then spent seven years in Crested Butte trying to utilize her skillset.

She worked for the Crested Butte News as a photographer and column writer, and freelanced for a number of publications while making a living running a gallery on the mountain, cleaning houses, bartending, and eventually working full-time for the County as the coordinator (and later director) of Gunnison County Substance Abuse Prevention Program. Her partner Jason MacMillan taught at the Crested Butte Community School.

After getting married in 2012, the MacMillans moved to Istanbul, spending two years there. He taught at a private school and she worked for the Turkish Film Channel while writing for Istanbul-based publications. She began attending and cataloguing her experiences at literary festivals.

She realized how literary festivals are “a wonderful way to pull people into the writing community who aren’t always necessarily writers, but curious intellectuals!’

Jason MacMillan was offered a teaching position in the port city of Aberdeen in northeast Scotland in 2014. The couple knew they wanted to eventually return to Crested Butte.

“I think there are a lot of creatines, intellectuals and writers in the (Gunnison Valley) community but not a place for them to be supported,” said Brooke MacMillan. “I thought `If I make it back to this town I need to work in my field or create a way to support others in my field!”

The couple spent five years in Scotland living in an old farmhouse. All the while she was busy studying different festival models. She also worked on completing her thesis manuscript for her master of fine arts in creative nonfiction.

After purchasing a home in Crested Butte while still living in Scotland, the couple booked a short vacation to the valley in 2017. MacMillan’s arsenal of research on festivals and literary canon reached a point where she began formulating a pitch to the Center for the addition of a new department.

She worked on a proposal with Melissa Mason, the Center’s visual arts program director at the time.

“I had a close friendship with Brooke, and when the idea came about I thought `This is someone who knows how to pull this off;” said Mason. The two discussed how the program would be designed, how it would work for the community and what events would be offered. Mason had vast experience in developing programming and making this sort of proposal. Mason knew how to showcase MacMillan’s creativity and prowess of the literary world to a discerning board of directors.

“I think it’s been one of the best things we’ve done at the Center. There is so much potential for this program at our new building,” said Mason. “The things Brooke is doing are putting us on the map as a destination for people to come participate and see what we’re offering and getting diverse talent to be a part of this community!’

Mason now works closely with MacMillan as the associate director of the Center.

After receiving the greenlight from the board of directors to begin her work, MacMillan started honing in on specific programming goals and moved back to the valley in the summer of 2018.

“The big pieces are our yearround, ongoing literary workshops where people can learn different genres of writing and established writers can hone in on their skills, and of course the festivals,” explained MacMillan.

In February 2019, MacMillan’s visions came into reality with the inaugural Murder in the Mountains thriller festival. The festival was a partnership with many entities including Western Colorado University’s graduate creative writing program, the Gunnison Arts Center, and Granite Noir, Aberdeen Scotland’s renowned thriller festival.

MacMillan expressed gratefulness for the strength of Western’s genre writing faculty and creative writing program, a great resource to “pull talent from!’

She sought inspiration from the UK festivals that often offer art installations based on crime scenes, gore makeup workshops and writers panels and discussions rooted in the thriller genre. “The fan base for the thriller genre is enormous,” noted MacMillan. “The UK just does literary festivals so well and they’re so fun.”

Palmer said he hopes the literary division of the Center will eventually become its “crown jewel.”

“The Center should be playing a role as a home base for literary artists of all kinds — playwrights, poets, investigative journalists this place lends itself to solitude and inspiration,” Palmer said.

Literary events for the 2021 season are scheduled to be inperson, limited to 25 people per event and socially distanced in the Steddy Theater. Most programming is set up to pivot virtually if restrictions tighten. A lecture series will include a livecast element for those who prefer to attend virtually.

MacMillan shared her excitement for the future, explaining that while things will be different in 2021, the content will be fresh and fun.

“My goal is to bring people and voices of color, the LGBTQ+ community and amplify diverse voices we don’t often hear and share perspectives we don’t normally have access to in this small community through the power of storytelling,” said MacMillan. “We can tap into the interconnectedness of storytelling by giving a voice to people who are often marginalized!’

Last year’s Scottish Burns supper fundraiser was a dinner celebrating Scottish traditions complete with authentic food, fiddle music and historical readings. Scottish national poet Robert Burns’ work was read aloud while drinking rare whiskey.

This year’s event will morph into a “Poetry and” evening on Monday, Jan. 25 with whiskey tastings and Burns poetry performed by a group of professional actors.

The “Literary Salon” now the “Arts and Lecture Series” focuses on unique authors reading and discussing their work for an audience. An event on Jan. 28 will feature Colorado Poet Laureate Bobby LeFebre.

The “Mountain Words WriterIn-Residence” program was dreamt up this year. The awarded writer will receive a $6,000 stipend to stay in Crested Butte for an artist’s residency during the month of May. The residency culminates with a celebration of completed works and public readings at the Mountain Words Literary Festival, May 27-30, 2021, a valley-wide partnership festival with the Gunnison Arts Center celebrating writing, reading and storytelling in all genres. Applications are due Feb. 22 with the winner announced Feb. 26.

“It’s a great project to be doing in a global pandemic,” said Palmer. “A writer can come here and work safely, and be inspired by this beautiful place while working on their art.”

“We’re throwing as wide a net as possible,” said Palmer of their search for applicants.

If the interest and funding is there, the goal is to eventually expand the residency program to include six or eight artists in residence at a time.

More info on the residency program and upcoming literary arts programming can be found at crestedbuttearts.org.

(Morgan Schaefer can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or morgan@gunnisontimes. corn.)

“The things Brooke is doing are putting us on the map as a destination for people to come participate and see what we’re offering and getting diverse talent to be a part of this community.”

- Melissa Mason