Artist Series 2023: Roger Mason
Listening to Telluride artist and renowned musician Roger Mason—who’s also Wagner’s newest topsheet artist—is like sticking your head out the car window while driving down the highway. There are so many incredible stories rushing at you, it’s hard to catch your breath.
Whether it’s because he’s lived a life as colorful as his paintings or he’s super excited to talk to you or–most likely–both, Mason is such a gem you cannot believe writing a memoir isn’t No. 1 on this to-do list. (Roger, are you listening?)
There was the time he toured around in Bob Dylan’s Dodge van and had to fight the urge to tune his out-of-tune guitar for him. Or the time he met 14-year-old Bela Fleck and said, “Get that kid an electric 12-string—he’s a rock star.” Or the time he met Ellsworth Kelly while painting out by the railroad tracks near Chatham, N.Y. And he tells it all in his humble, self-deprecating way (“I’ll try not to be boring”), his New York staccato crackling with humor and energy.
Roger Mason takes a break while painting the iconic phone booth in Telluride, Colorado.
Though Mason graduated with an art degree from the Pratt Institute, painting remained a hobby for him while playing bass with the likes of Dylan, Itzhak Pearlman, John Denver, Peter Rowan, Kenny Kosek, Tony Trishka, and The Band. He discovered Telluride at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 1979 and fell in love with the town and the people. Ever since, he’s been painting Telluride’s famous historic buildings in his signature style, becoming the town’s artist laureate.
Check out his work at the New Sheridan Hotel, or, better yet, put it on your new Wagner Skis.
Roger Mason's 2023 line of Wagner Custom graphics.
Meanwhile, we caught up with Mason at his home in Chatham, N.Y., where he lives when he’s not in Telluride. Here’s what he had to say.
Wagner: How did this collaboration with Wagner happen?
Roger Mason: It all came from [Pete Wagner]. I was sorta knocked out. Telluride is a small town, so you know everybody, but I never thought of that application for my work. I very seldom think of any application for my work, except for paintings on canvas. I think they did a really good job. The dimensions of skis are tough, but they made it read like paintings. And they got the color right.
Wagner: Are you a skier?
Mason: I’ve always considered myself to be the only person in Telluride who has never skied. It’s not about fear, it’s just that I’m clumsy. Telluride’s town cowboy Roudy Roudebush once told me that if they ever let me up on the hill, innocent people would get hurt. We slapped each other five.
Wagner: You were a professional musician before you were a painter. Is there any symbiosis with your painting and music?
Mason: They absolutely dovetail. There are pictures of me at 8 years old painting and playing my first guitar. I remember when I left art school, someone asked me, “Hey man, you a musician or a painter?” and I didn’t even answer the question. Whenever the music and painting go together, sparks fly and good stuff happens to yours truly. I paint like a musician, and when I used to mix recordings, my edge was that I mixed like a painter.
Roger Mason (bass) on stage with David Carradine (guitar and vocals), Jim Weider (guitar), Randy Ciarlante (behind David Carradine on drums), and Levon Helm (visible on drums).
Wagner: How are painting buildings and playing songs similar to you?
Mason: You could paint a building and play a song 150 times and have it be different every time. It’s the process, not the subject matter for me.
Wagner: When did you start thinking that your paintings might become more than just a pastime?
Mason: Oh this is a good story. [I was playing in Broadway musicals and] we were touring with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, who we called Mr. and Mrs. God behind their back. I got to Denver and didn’t realize how the weather changes. It was sunny, so I went and immediately bought paint. I started the Lincoln building on Larimer Street, and the next day the weather changed. It snowed. So I went to Tony [Trishka]’s room to paint, because he had a good view of the theater marquis. Then here comes Hume and Jessica, leaving cool footprints in the snow. I had a postcard made of that painting, and one day [it showed up in] Hume’s dressing room. The boss appropriated it. After that, it seemed like there was a little light from above, and suddenly I was in the art business. Next up on our tour was L.A., and at that point a woman I met stole an easel and gave it to me, and now I was rocking. I would do my show, and after the show, I would paint at night.
(See a clip from "Foxfire" with Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, Roger Mason, and John Denver here. Roger is on the stand up bass.)
"Panorama" by Roger Mason and Wagner Custom Skis.
Wagner: What is it about Telluride that drew you in?
Mason: When I first came in 1979, I saw that the light’s really good in Telluride. Telluride also has a good sense of history; it’s palpable there. That helps. After everybody left [during off-season], I stayed for a month. It was October, and what I didn’t know was that you’ve got more sunny days in Colorado than we have in New York by leaps and bounds, and my work is all based on light. There was beautiful day after beautiful day. Every little house on Colorado Ave. was boarded up and all for sale for $10 grand. The ski lift wasn’t in yet, there was only a rope tow. I came up with the town. My timing was really lucky. Then, years later in 1991, [actor and musician] Keith Carradine brought me back to Telluride. He brought me back for music, but that’s when the painting and music totally collided.
Roger Mason and Roger Mason on Main Street in Telluride.
Wagner: You have a son, your namesake, who’s also an artist?
Mason: Yeah, now my son is doing the same thing. The convos we have are hilarious. He went to RISD, and when he got out of art school, I was biting my fingernails: Is he gonna think his old man is completely irrelevant? He does what he calls realism. I’ve been doing realism my whole life, but when I was in art school, anything representational, you just didn’t do it. He wanted to know all about the family business, and now he’s been going out to Telluride, and he’s really good. He can do stuff I can’t do. He can sit down in a bar and do a portrait that looks just like you in like three minutes. I approach it a different way. I never said I invented realism, but I’m comfortable there.
Wagner: You’ve been painting for a long time. Do you still feel like there’s anything you’re still learning?
Mason: I’m always learning. I’ve always said that technique is for the tourists. I’m a clod, but when you get the light right, it’s exhilarating. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. There’s never one way to get there. I just love paint.
Article by Kimberly Beekman
Kimberly Beekman is the former editor-in-chief of the late, great Skiing Magazine (RIP), and a longtime editor of SKI Magazine before that. She currently uses the title of “freelancer” as a beard to ski powder all over the world. She lives in Steamboat, Colorado, with her wonderful daughter and terrible cat.