One thing ties our honorees together through the years: they’ve always been about community. This year’s Salutees are no exception. 

Rita Blitt:

Art and Kindness

Internationally acclaimed artist Rita Blitt grew up in Kansas City and first came to Aspen with her husband, Irwin, in 1960. “We wanted to visit Colorado and had heard about the wonderful music festival and lectures in Aspen,” she recalls. “That, plus the love of nature, is what has made us return every year since then.” Blitt says that she has created some of her most important pieces in Aspen, many while listening to the Aspen Music Festival.

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Image: Ross Kribbs

During their fifty-plus years here, Rita and Irwin have become national council members for the Aspen Music Festival and School, Anderson Ranch, the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, Aspen/Santa Fe Ballet, and Theatre Aspen. They were original donors to the Aspen Art Museum and longtime members of the Society of Fellows of the Aspen Institute. All told, they are a powerhouse of support for the local arts and humanities.

When Rita was awarded the 2012 Red Brick Center for the Arts Artists Tribute, executive director Debra Muzikar said, “Rita’s entire life has been dedicated to art, rivaled only by her commitment to her family, her faith, and a genuine concern for the global community.”

“I grew up imbued with the desire to help because of the environment in which I lived,” Blitt says about being inspired by her mother’s volunteerism. “Many years ago in Aspen, my activist friend Beth Smith stopped me on a bridge and asked me to create something we could send all over the world to help make the world a better place in which to live.” Five years later, Blitt came up with the phrase, “Kindness is Contagious. Catch It!” She made a Kindness poster with those words and one of her signature free-flowing-lines designs (available online at ritablitt.com for free download). Blitt sent it to friends around the world who could display the posters publically, and eventually every member state of the United Nations, hoping to create a viral effect. The words led to the creation of a Kindness program that Blitt says “has encouraged kindness all over the world.”

Blitt has gifted the Aspen Institute with two outdoor sculptures that were part of her 1992 exhibition there: a six-foot-tall, white-painted aluminum ribbon and a three-part corten steel construction. She has also installed five sculptures at the Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs and is giving the Red Brick a sculpture in honor of Cindy and Bob Camp. And the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet recently received a suite of three of her works on paper, part of her foundation’s program of loaning art to nonprofit organizations.

Blitt has also given workshops in movement, dancing hands, sculpture, and kindness. Believing that everyone can create, she takes great pleasure in “inspiring people to let their hands dance on paper.”

Her own art has long focused on liquid-looking lines with deep connections to dance and music. Art and kindness flow together through Blitt’s life, much like those intertwined lines of her paintings and sculpture.

Willard Clapper:

An "Others" Person

No doubt Willard Clapper would have been an “others” person, as he calls it, wherever he lived: Leadville, where he was born; any of many places around the world to which he has traveled; or Aspen, where he has lived for most of his sixty-one years. “This valley gives me all that I want and need at this point in my life,” he says, observing that he loves the mountains and climate, of course, but also the people. “I was always the guy who was helping ‘others’ in some way. I find myself consistently involved with people and what they need.”

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Image: Ross Kribbs

Clapper went from being very active as a student throughout his Aspen school tenure to teaching here for twenty-nine years, inspired by Aspen High School teacher Doug Rhinehart and coach Pete DeGregorio. “Every teacher hopes and prays that they will have at least one Willard Clapper in a class,” says Rhinehart. “For me, Willard was the type of student who helped to make teaching fun, challenging, and rewarding. He wasn’t the smartest kid in class—that may come as a total shock to him!—but he worked as hard or harder than any of his classmates.”

Clapper also coached high school football and baseball for fifteen years, was director of the Outdoor Education program at the middle school, and started the middle school girls’ basketball program. What made it all worthwhile? “Simply when I see one of my many past students and they introduce me to their new wife, kids, friends as ‘the most influential person in my life,’ or something to that effect. When you know that you have positively impacted a young person’s life, that truly is what matters.”

When Clapper retired from teaching, he and fellow teacher A.O. Forbes created Tomorrow’s Voices, now an eleven-year-old nonprofit focused on fostering “responsible citizenship and ethical leadership” in local youths valleywide. As a part of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, Voices provides dual-credit classes in environmental education as well as civics and ethics.

By being voted into membership for Aspen’s volunteer fire department in 1978, Clapper began to follow in his father’s substantial footprints (twenty-five-year member, fourteen as its chief), and was recently selected as chief himself. “I believe wholeheartedly in the spirit of volunteerism and feel that it is really one of the core values of Aspen,” he says. He also does it because, “I am basically a little kid with big toys. Very, very big toys!”

Clapper and his wife, Anne, are longtime Aspen Skiing Company Mountain Ambassadors as well. She has been one since the program’s inception, and Willard joined her eleven years ago. “I love ‘playing with people.’ I love talking to them, listening to their stories and having them listen to mine.” Most recently he was on the founding committee that created the Crown Mountain Recreation District in the Emma area, and says he is “really happy to see it continually becoming a greater recreation amenity for the midvalley.” Clapper’s “others,” it seems, is really just another word for community.

Michael Kinsley:

Community Diplomacy

Explaining how he landed in Aspen, Michael Kinsley says, “I hitchhiked into town in November of 1970 because I’d heard about a Kundalini Yoga ashram and restaurant here and had just read the Rolling Stone magazine piece about Hunter Thompson’s sheriff’s campaign.” It’s a statement that perfectly encapsulates both Kinsley’s roots and the town’s ethos at the time.

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Image: Ross Kribbs

That he has stayed here he attributes to “the fine people I’ve known for two, three, and four decades.” His time has been devoted primarily to public service and community, including a significant stint as Pitkin County Commissioner from 1975 to 1985; twenty-nine years with the Rocky Mountain Institute; ten-plus years on the board of the Capitol Creek Caucus; current board member of the nonprofit Clean Energy Economy for the Region (CLEER); and his most recent posting as a “community diplomat.”

Arriving at one of the most “fundamentally transformative” moments in local county government had a profound influence on Kinsley. Joe Edwards and Dwight Shellman were elected county commissioners in 1973, taking a whole new attitude toward county government. “I had been part of their campaigns,” Kinsley recalls. “As the subsequent election approached, no one supporting their ideas came forward, so I did.”

During their tenure, the three commissioners accomplished much that still defines this valley today. Kinsley is proudest of the affordable housing program and the bus system he helped establish; of basing future growth on environmental and community goals, in addition to economic objectives; and of “preventing Aspen from sprawling down the highway corridor.”

After politics, Kinsley joined Amory Lovins’s Rocky Mountain Institute in Old Snowmass. For twenty years, he has “worked with communities in forty states who were moving toward more sustainable communities. As part of that, I developed, taught, and wrote a book about collaborative decision making in communities.” The thread of community in his life was becoming apparent. “I can’t imagine not being active, which is essential for maintaining community, which is the reason I’m here,” he explains. His ongoing work at RMI has included moving the organization to new headquarters in Basalt and overseeing its college-campus energy work.

“Michael Kinsley is one of our community’s unsung heroes,” says RMI founder and chief scientist Lovins. “He co-led the land-use philosophy and policy development that have protected much of what is most precious about this place. His mediation has brought many contentious issues to resolution. His art and sport have uplifted many. And every day, his quiet, persistent citizenship makes us more informed, civil, and neighborly.”

Kinsley is also active with Carbondale-based CLEER, which manages the Garfield County Clean Energy Program, providing energy coaching and advice for homeowners and building managers throughout the county. And his latest role in community diplomacy is as a part-time consultant, as he explains, “invited to intercede in community issues to help develop better and less contentious outcomes. I feel as if most of what I’ve done for the last forty years has led naturally to this work. Civility is part of it, but also central to it is more rigorous ways of attacking problems.” And the heart to want to help, which Kinsley clearly has.