Bill Vielehr won’t be at this year’s BIFF, but his work will be.
The BIFF Chairman and longtime Boulder metal sculptor left this planet unexpectedly last October — a shock to the system for his staggeringly wide circle of friends, including this writer — but Kathy Beeck, BIFF co-founder and a friend of Vielehr’s for years before there was any such thing as BIFF, told us that an eerily miraculous thing happened a few weeks after his passing.
The BIFF Award statue, for anyone who doesn’t know, is named after the artist, who designed and crafted unique statue awards every year at his studio on West Pearl. We chatted with Beeck at Bill’s memorial service the weekend after his passing (well, it was a party, which at the risk of relying on a cliché, was what Bill would have wanted) about what she and her sister Robin were going to do about this year’s award.
“Well, here’s the wonderful thing,” Beeck told us last week. “After that party, [Vielehr’s brother] Chuck and the family were going through Bill’s shop and found one mold of an award that Bill had done for BIFF… It was just an early mold — maybe it was experimental, I don’t know — so we took that and went to a foundry in Berthoud and had 15 of them made for this year’s BIFF.
“I just saw one for the first time last night, and it is unbelievable. The best work Bill had ever done for us… I’m guessing he must have done it in September or early October, but I really don’t know….We did them in bronze this year, and they’re gorgeous. Totally Bill. ”
Vielehr’s association with BIFF came through a long friendship with Beeck, who helped the artist years ago with installment commission funding proposal letters; later, through his wide network of artists and artist patrons, Vielehr came to help the Beeck’s in finding patrons and sponsorship to launch BIFF. It started as a dollars and cents thing — most of these things do — but Vielehr’s tireless creativity and fearless optimism endure as a hallmark of the Boulder International Film Festival.
“As long as there is a BIFF,” Beeck told us, as if we didn’t already know, “the award will always be a ‘Vielehr.’”
I first came to know Bill Vielehr around Father’s Day of 1989, when a friend persuaded me to join him and his rafting buddies for the annual FIBArk river festival weekend in Salida. They called themselves The Loons, a loose association of Boulder area and Western Slope 20 and 30 somethings, variously connected through locale and roommates, fishing and trade. Some drew their pay checks in construction, a few from Ball Brothers, a few through the burger-bar industry.
Friends were welcome at FIBArk, as long as they respected their boat captains and pitched in: lift a cooler, run a shuttle, chip in for beer or gas. We camped on a scratchy, cactusmined hillside outside Salida, the part-time home of an old artist friend of Vielehr’s who opened up his property every Father’s Day weekend to The Loons, their friends and their brimmed-up coolers of Budweiser.
The punchy splash of Browns Canyon by day, the country fair atmosphere of the festival grounds in town by evening and bonfires all night.
Part Colorado thrill-sport euphoria, part sudsy sitcom chaos, Vielehr was at the center of this yearly ritual, gently stage-managing boat passenger itineraries and shuttles, taking the lead boat down the Class IV Browns Canyon run or throwing casual rafting tips over his shoulder at shaky rookie oarsmen. He’d been immersed in this sport since the early ’70s, when the equipment was primitive, safety rules were little more than good ideas and river access was often a dicey proposition.
Lifelong friendships were forged here, sealed by the icy waters of Collegiate Range runoff.
Many of us will always remember Vielehr by the light of a FIBArk weekend bonfire. For me, that first FIBArk ignited a passion for riverrunning that continues to this day: two wives, three rafts, four trucks and hundreds of river miles later.
Beyond the friendship and many years of boating and parties at his studio on West Pearl, Vielehr’s warmth, unique humanism and his unqualified welcome at my first FIBArk gave me something that’s now an irreplaceable piece of my life.
The river goes on forever.
Thanks, Bill. We miss you.