Sunday, June 24, 2012

Fair Audrie of Telluride

"Audrie" by Jim Shane
On loan from Kim Sheek

The story of this iconic portrait begins with a wayward drifter, James Shane. Struck by gold fever, he stumbled into Telluride in the 1890s looking to secure a ‘grubstake’ (prospecting supplies or a money advance in return for a promised share of profits). Not a soul would lend to him though, for they had already judged his character by his well-groomed hands. Jim turned to the piano instead, playing in the red light district at parlor houses and saloons for small wages and a warm bed.

Audrie Shane c. 1900
Courtesy of Robert Wilson
Jim sometimes spent weeks at a house. The ladies cared for him, fed him, and were entertained by his music. After a fortnight of entertaining at the Pacific Avenue house in Popcorn Alley, word spread that he was also an artist. One lady of the night in particular, Audrie Fort, took special interest in his artistic ability and proposed an attractive business deal: if Mr. Shane would paint a portrait of her, he could sell it to a local establishment, giving him enough money for prospecting. In return, the portrait would serve as advertisement for Audrie hanging in a proper establishment about town.

During the course of completing the painting, Audrie Fort and Jim Shane fell in love. He sold the painting, went prospecting, struck gold, and married Audrie. With a successful business of buying and selling profitable claims, they built a respectable life together in Telluride until 1936. It was a true love story.

Jim, Audrie and daughter Nina, at their Telluride home, 1896
Photo courtesy of Robert Wilson
The painting was displayed in about every saloon in Telluride including the Diamond, the Roma, the Beer Garden and eventually in a private gambling room above Frank Wilson's drugstore, the Busy Corner Pharmacy. Audrie had been around town, but when the Colorado attorney general cracked down on private gambling, the club closed and she was left abandoned. 

Over the next 20 years, Audrie endured the filth and grime of time. She was headed for the dumpster when Robert Wilson saved her. He cleaned her up and hung her downstairs in the Busy Corner Pharmacy. There Audrie hung until the business closed in 1968. The portrait was then loaned to the Sheridan where, after some unfortunate damage, she required professional conservation. Robert had gifted the portrait to his daughter, Kim Sheek, who gave the portrait new life at the Rocky Mountain Conservation Center in Denver.

We continue to learn more about the story behind this iconic portrait. Audrie's name, for example, was long known in Telluride to be spelled "Audrey Ford." After meeting with two of Audrie's grandchildren, Robert Wilson learned the correct spelling was in fact "Audrie Fort."

Audrie can be seen up close and personal at the Telluride Historical Museum in all her colorful, lady of the night glory.

Shine on Audrie! Shine on...

~ Cameo Hoyle
Exhibits Manager
Telluride Historical Museum