America the Beautiful

Gaining Altitude: PiP Goes to Denver

PiP stepped into the heart of winter this past week, meeting the spirited women of the Centennial State.  I arrived in Denver, Colorado with a positive feeling, knowing that this physically beautiful place was also the first US state to give women the right to vote in 1893, twenty-seven years prior to the Nineteenth Amendment, which prohibited state or federal sex-based restrictions on voting.  Since that time, over 250 women have served in the Colorado General Assembly and the state also now leads the nation with the highest percentage of women (41%) in our state legislature.

My first portrait subject, Former Representative Amy Stephens, was suggested to me by Meg Froelich.  Meg is currently working on a kindred project entitled Strong Sisters: Elected Women in Colorado, a compilation of oral histories from past and current female elected officials.  I met Amy Stephens at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs.  

The setting immediately struck me with its grandeur and unique beauty, a place of sweeping views and distinctive rock formations.  I learned that this spectacular location once inspired a woman named Katharine Lee Bates in 1893 to write a pastoral poem, later known as America the Beautiful, upon which the patriotic song was based.  And I could see where she found her inspiration for such laudatory words.

Amy is a wonderfully vivacious woman, full of energy, life, and passion.  She has served as a charismatic conservative leader in the state for many years, and continues to be very active in politics.  When asked about the significance of this place, Amy said: "When I have had a life transition or a big decision to make, where better to hear and pray than Garden of the Gods!  If not here, then nowhere.  I am never disappointed."

I noticed that Amy carried a book with her, part journal, part compendium of ideas, and I imagined her jotting down her inspirations amid this timeless landscape, full of patience and blue skies that stretch on forever.  On the cover of the book is advice I'd like to broadcast to every woman with even the faintest inclination of considering a future in the governance of our country.

Be bold, Take risks, Live life freely, Lead by example, Trust your gut, Say what you feel, Mean what you say, Express gratitude, Believe in your power, Exceed your expectations.

Onward to Pueblo where I met State Representative Clarice Navarro, currently serving her second term in the Colorado State Legislature.  Clarice brought along a very professional entourage with her: Jace, her husband, acted as consummate stylist and wardrobe consultant, while adorable Jorji, her daughter, managed morale by jumping into the shot to lighten things up and break the ice, which was pretty much all around us for as far as the eye can see.  Clarice chose a vantage high above the town of Pueblo (which lies in her district), looking down upon the vast reservoir there.  As we got down to business, I quickly caught on to her gamesome spirit, loving her willingness to try different outfits and alternate setups.  I particularly liked her leopard print shawl, seen above!

Towards the end of the shoot, friends of Clarice and Jace just happened to come upon us.  One of them was wearing a large white stetson and on a whim I commandeered the hat and used it as a prop.  That shot, as it turns out, was the magic one (look for it on my Portraits Page in the coming weeks).  That's one of the things I really love about this art form––it's a marriage of technical skill and creative vision, but it's also dependent on spontaneity and caprice.  More often than not, it's these playful last-minute shots that win the day. 

On the following afternoon, the mood was of an altogether different sort as I met Rhonda Fields.  Her story is an extremely difficult one, a story of terrible tragedy giving rise to hope and a chance of rejuvenation.  Rhonda is a State Representative from Aurora whose son, along with his fiancée, were murdered in 2005 in connection to upcoming witness testimony in a murder trial.  It was only after her son's death that Rhonda considered a role in government, and now she is a prominent advocate for crime victims, working hard to make change in a community that faces many challenges.

Her creation, the Dayton Street Opportunity Center in urban Aurora, is a multi-faceted support facility offering a wide range of social services and help for those in need.  Rhonda's surviving child, daughter Maisha Pollard, is the center's executive director, and clearly the effort is a family commitment with deep-rooted personal motivations.  Gang violence needs to be addressed at the street level, with practical community support systems and dedicated people who understand the economic and emotional trials of broken families and broken lives.  Rhonda, through her center, and perhaps retrospectively through her own tragedy, is holding out a hand to those in need.  I was truly touched by the strength and hope personified by this woman's example to triumph over adversity.  The ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held on March 7th and PiP sends a hearty congratulations to Rhonda for this momentous achievement.