It’s 5 a.m., and the city is still. Under the Sun doesn’t open until the afternoon, but among the empty chairs sits artist Bryce Widom. With a cup of coffee in hand, he stares at a blank chalkboard.
Widom has spent the past 19 years creating chalkboard designs for the Mountain Sun brew pubs. As the seasons change, he creates new artwork to complement the shifting environment.
He comes in during the late night or early morning hours to focus.
“I can feel how quiet it is. The cars aren’t going by and most people are sleeping,” he says. “There’s this deep space, where I feel like I’m not rushed. Time drops out of the equation. I go deeper into that intimate space of creativity.”
A blank canvas can be intimidating for artists, but Widom embraces the void and the charged unpredictability of its potential. He came in this morning with no plan for what the chalk drawing will be, but he’s already spent a half hour meditating to find the answer. Meditation brings Widom’s focus to the present.
“Most of us, we just track the things from moment to moment without noticing or bringing awareness to the space in between thoughts, the emotions and that emptiness,” he says. “So for me, this right now is that moment, in which anything can happen.”
As the early morning sun begins to pour through the windows, Widom unpacks his chalk pastels. He meticulously lays them out on the window sill, separating the colors he’ll be using most. Then he grabs his sketchbook and draws a small blueprint of the final product.
“There’s the yin and yang symbol stuff. And I think that what’s gonna happen is there’s gonna be a woman holding these two swans, one black and one white,” he says. “So she is holding the entirety of emptiness to fullness.”
For Widom, an empty chalkboard is just as meaningful as one with art. And one is no more important than the other.
“The whole process itself is of working with that fundamental duality of emptiness and fullness and that awareness that they are one in the same” he says. “They’re two sides of the same coin.”
He picks up a red pastel and gets to work drawing the outline of the overall piece. As the time passes, he slowly fills in the painting, starting with the face and working outward.
Several hours later, Widom stands in front of a completed drawing: A regal black woman holding two swans. She blooms out of a flower as hummingbirds fly around her and drink from trumpeter vines. The sky is a warm blue and peacock feathers sprout from the background.
He later titles the piece “Hold Everything.”
• • • •
Widom has been a staple in the Boulder art scene for the past two decades. He happened upon a job at Mountain Sun in 1997 as a waiter/cook and soon after drew his first chalkboard. The tradition continues as Widom changes the boards at the local chain’s five locations every season.
He appreciates the chance to showcase his work, especially in this particular space, calling it his own version of public art. Unlike a gallery, which can feel elite and intimidating, a restaurant atmosphere allows for a relaxed appreciation of art and an opportunity to reach those who might not normally visit an art museum.
“And they’re actually in a more permeable space to take in something like artwork,” he says.
Widom has been an artist since he was a kid. Though he was born in Colorado, he grew up in Alaska, where he developed a deep love of nature. His mother was a painter, and he followed suit at a young age. Demonstrating his talents early, Widom began winning awards for his work.
But as he got older, he noticed a desire for perfectionism taking hold.
“I just felt tighter and tighter inside, instead of feeling more and more free as an artist,” he says. “It was driving me crazy because my perfectionism was so intense that what was once fun had become unbearable. So I just stopped totally.”
He abandoned art and pursued other interests. A few years later, he returned to Colorado and attended Colorado School of Mines for astrophysics, later transferring to the University of Colorado Boulder to graduate with degrees in psychology and creative writing.
Then Widom cycled through a variety of jobs — school bus driver, ice cream scooper, telephone psychic. When deciding his next step, he stumbled across Mountain Sun.
The day he walked in to apply, he noticed someone working on one of the chalkboards and he says he thought to himself, “Oh, that looks cool.”
The managers found out he could draw and Widom was invited to try his hand at a chalkboard. While his boards nowadays are filled with symbolism, the first inspiration came from his pub surroundings. Even 20 years later, Widom seems mildly mortified remembering the drawing.
“There was still a little bit of the astrophysicist in me. So I painted a view of space, filled with planets, but instead of planets they were burgers, and pints of beer, floating through space,” he says with a laugh. “Technically, it was so horrific.”
With a little encouragement he tried again. The second effort came closer to Widom’s aesthetic, with a scene of a tree and a swordfish splashing out of water.
“There was some breakthrough, a little bit more of my soul coming through the artwork that felt really satisfying,” he says. “Creating that artwork felt so good, and I wanted to do it again and again.”
Since then, Widom has become a full-time artist specializing in chalk pastel and oil paintings. His work carries his characteristic style, a kind of nature-inspired surrealism. In one work a woman rides a tiger as her hair flows in the wind; in another, tree branches grow from a woman’s head as deer and dragons leap out from behind her.
The subject matter arises from his meditations, and the end result is typically representative of his personal life.
“When I’m creating art as a microcosm or a moment in my life, it’s also a way to work with the meat of my life,” Widom says. “The way that I am with my art is ultimately and ideally a reflection of who I am with my wife and children and my business. Allowing what is here to be here and engage with it deeply.”
And usually everything he puts on the board is symbolic. He uses one of his latest works, “Burn Furnace: II,” as an example. In the painting a woman sits at the center meditating, as various animals gather around her.
“Every aspect of this, I’m relating to,” he says. “Like this totally calm, but also predatory piercing gaze of the panther, to the little cat, who’s like, ‘I just want to be held here in the lap of the mother.’ Or these skulls … I’m feeling directly, death, under the flesh, under the skin, beyond the life span.”
And while Widom never knows what he’ll be drawing beforehand, sometimes the realities of the world come out in his work. Before the 2016 presidential election, Widom created a piece for Southern Sun depicting Martin Luther King Jr. Reflecting back on that choice post-election, he says all of his impressions of election coverage seeped into his consciousness and this was his response — a peaceful message to the world.
Widom trusts his intuition throughout his process. He knows when things aren’t clicking, and he’s not afraid to start over.
He recalls one night of pouring four hours of work into a piece until he realized something didn’t feel right.
“It was already sketched in and ready for me to start bringing in color and details, and I sat back and I was looking at it,” he says. “This is rare, but I just wasn’t into what was happening.”
He weighed the options in his head: Would it be better to slog through the next eight hours creating an empty piece or to lose the time he put in and begin again?
“So I erased it and started over, and it was an excellent experience,” he says. “Because of course those original four hours weren’t wasted, there was something there working too. And it was like rocket fuel to the next image.”
Widom is committed to doing what the piece needs, and he doesn’t limit himself to a strict timetable. His finish line depends on when he feels like a piece is done.
“If I’m in my 17th hour and I thought it would take 12? It doesn’t matter. I’m here through the end of it,” he says. “Until I feel a sense of fullness when I look at the work. Then there’s a relaxing in my body, and then I know I’m done. Until that point, I won’t give up, and I cannot give up.”
His practices have evolved over time, and one of the most significant changes is giving up control and succumbing to the process. Early on, he tried to think his way through it.
“For like a week ahead of time I used to be like, ‘OK, what am I gonna do? OK, it’s gotta be good. It’s gotta be perfect,’” he says.
Brainstorming a list of ideas, Widom would come in prepared. But when time came for execution, they would all fall away.
“I would never do what I thought I was gonna do. When I tried to hold onto something, it would turn stale and old,” he says. “It would crumble in my hands and be the ghost of something rather than something that feels really alive and immediate. I feel like I’ve learned to trust a greater perfection. Whatever comes, this is what I need to do.”
It’s easier after some time has passed for Widom to recognize the significance of the choices he made in an artwork. But in believing in the process, Widom rids himself and his work of rigid definitions.
He calls his art therapeutic, but instead of being in a room analyzing his life in private, Widom puts his revelations on display. He says he feels fortunate for the opportunity to take his inner experience and shape it with art.
“Because if I didn’t paint or I didn’t make these images, I’d be lost to some degree,” he says. “This is how I find myself. And then I can share that. It’s not just other people looking at my artwork and seeing who I am. … I love when people see the artwork and there’s some impact and resonance and maybe even some inspiration.”
As the years have gone by, his work has continued to become even more personal. It’s an evolution he likens to nature.
“There’s no end of the movement of creativity,” he says. “Every spring there’s still something that wants to be spoken by every blade of grass and every blossom on a tree and every little egg in a nest has something to give that’s never been given before.”
• • • •
A few months have passed since Widom created the woman with the two swans and soon he’ll be erasing his work, which always shocks people. Customers often ask if he is going to take down a chalkboard instead of wiping his work away. A recent customer watched the whole process, commenting, “Dude, it hurt to watch you do that.”
But Widom says it’s never been hard for him to clear a board. It’s all a part of the cycle. When he’s ready to erase a piece, he steps back to reflect on the feelings behind it, the work and energy that went into it, the months it has spent on the wall and the people who might have connected with it.
“It feels as natural to me as the turning of the season,” Widom says. “The letting go of this current piece and allowing what is moving in to be here.”
Acknowledging both sides, the creation and destruction, is an integral part of his work.
“I erase the chalkboard and there’s the fear of the blank canvas that I’ve grown to love — the excitement and intensity of anything could happen and I could totally fuck it up. Maybe nothing will happen, but I know from practice that something always happens,” he says. “There’s an aliveness there in that nothing and a freedom to turn it into something specific that is full and concrete.”
In a few weeks he’ll return to the swan painting, rag in hand, and from the outside moving in he’ll wipe away the piece, leaving the eyes for last, calling them his primary sense of connection.
And then it begins again.