GRAND LAKE, Colo. — Leave it to an artist to capture an amazing amount of beauty in the wake of immense destruction.
“This is the first piece I painted after the fire,” said oil painter Laura Kratz as she described her vivid painting of purple flowers popping through a scorched forest of dead and blackened aspen tree trunks lying on their sides. “There were baby aspen trees all over and the forest floor was buzzing with bumble bees and hummingbirds. It was really beautiful.”
Her husband, Keith Kratz, snapped a photo two weeks after the East Troublesome Fire, composed of row after row of matchstick-like blackened lodgepole pine trees set against a blanket of freshly fallen snow and a stunningly blue sky.
“It just kind of came up and spoke to me,” Keith said. “A lot of people find electricity running through this area of it.”
Keith and Laura have owned the gallery Studio 8369 on Grand Avenue, the main street in Grand Lake, since retiring from corporate jobs in Kansas City five years ago.
“This is what retirement’s all about,” Keith said.
But on this day, they are moving out.
“It’s hard to close something that you’ve built and worked so hard on to make it special,” Laura said.
“I mean in high school, all I had on my mind was Colorado,” Keith said.
This studio was a dream for Keith and Laura, and it was a hit with locals and tourists.
“It’s been really popular with people,” Keith said.
It was a dream singed by that same fire they found so much beauty in.
“It was early October 2020 and he gave me the deed to our house and said, ‘It’s paid off. And we don’t have to work so hard,’” Laura said. “And then, two weeks later, we lost everything.”
“Family photos, I mean, we don’t have any of that,” Keith said.
They were both in Denver delivering art on Oct. 21, 2020, the day the fire ripped across an estimated 100,000 acres in Grand County in six hours, destroying 366 homes in its path.
“It’s just been devastating,” Keith said.
“And then the challenges of losing our lease, essentially, here at the gallery and realizing that we couldn’t afford to buy a house, or build a house, and buy the building that the gallery was in,” Laura said.
While others have found peace and healing through rebuilding, Keith and Laura know in their hearts, it’s not in them to do the same.
“We have great friends here that have rebuilt beautiful places already and we love that they can do that and they have that in them to do that,” Keith said.
“But we can’t really grow and flourish in the middle of this,” Laura said. “We pretty much do have to leave.”
“To get onto the healing process, we need to be in a totally different environment,” Keith said.
Construction costs and insurance delays have simply made rebuilding too difficult for some victims, not to mention the emotional pain.
“You know, it’s really hard to heal in the middle of a burn scar,” Laura said.
“Your heart and soul and everything is in it, and then the community — as wonderful as they are — that just adds to it,” Keith said. “It’s a big package. And then to lose all that in a fire, we have our community, but we don’t have anything that’s us. You know, just simple things like any little card or letter from my mom and dad. Personal. Gone.”
So, they are off, heading to Washington state to be closer to grandkids.
“With the grandkids and our daughters, in an area that’s beautiful — that’s where we need to be,” Keith said. “There’s going to be an office in the basement of the house that’s going to be my Colorado.”
It's a change in direction thanks to Mother Nature’s destructive beauty.
“We never really thought we would leave Colorado,” Laura said. “We had no plans to leave Colorado, but this is the right move for us. It will always be a part of us.”