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Profile: Shelley Popke

Shelley Popke is chatting on the phone with a potential art client from the East Coast who’s looking for a specific painting of poppies seen in the gallery last autumn. She’s surrounded by the rich colors of flowers swaying in summer breezes, pristine alpine lakes, majestic scenery and portraits of gardeners, wanderers and people doused in realistic light that cover the Oh Be Joyful Gallery from wall to wall, ceiling to floor.
The gallery is her other fascination and the interest that allowed her to move back to Crested Butte after a too-long hiatus in a Denver neighborhood.
At the moment, Shelley is finishing up the massive inventory of the art gallery, updating new paintings arriving and those being shipped to the walls of homes from coast to coast to overseas, and although art is a large part of her life, her true love lies in architecture and history. She is now the new director at the Crested Butte Heritage Museum, and that suits her well.
Shelley was born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, to parents who were World War II refugee immigrants. Her father was a geophysicist and her mother ran the household and, as Shelley points out with a smile, still does. “She’s in charge. My parents were both born to ethnic Germans living in [what is now] western Ukraine and eastern Poland and we moved to Germany when I was six. My parents wanted adventure and since they spoke fluent German, that’s where they decided to move. They put me right into public school so I learned to speak German without an English accent,” she says, with no hint of a German accent in her English either.
“It was amazing over there. We lived in an immigrant apartment complex with people from Poland, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Spain and Germany,” she says of her childhood teeming with cultural diversity.
The housing, which was built in the 1960s, was nicknamed Lego Land because all the balconies were painted in different, bright colors and in the center was a big playground where all the apartment kids would play. “It was fun to get to hang out with kids of all these different cultures. We traveled a lot all over Europe. We had about eight weeks of vacation a year and all we did was travel—lots of museums and historic buildings. I attribute my love of architecture and history to that. Europe is steeped in history and people value history there.”
In the early 1980s, when Shelley was ten, her parents decided to move to Denver because her dad wanted a job change. “I had forgotten a lot of English by then but my parents threw me into public schools so it was full immersion,” Shelley says, but adds that the language came back quite easily for her. In school, she participated in track, cross country running, skiing, biking, and lots of hiking.
“It was a real disappointment for me though with the American work ethic,” Shelley says. She didn’t like the idea of the abbreviated American vacation time because it hampered the family’s travel time and the time they spent together. “But we explored Colorado and the U.S., we just took shorter trips. I became obsessed with history, literature and architecture in high school and went to Germany as an exchange student, where I lived in Ratingen, in northeast Germany.”
She came home and graduated from Arapahoe High School in 1989 and then went off to study literature at Trinity College at the University of Toronto.
“One of the reasons I wanted to go there was because the buildings were so wonderful and it was considered the Harvard of Canada. I was charmed by its architecture. It’s just like Harry Potter,” she says of the turrets and staircases to nowhere, medieval arches, stained glass windows and large portraits of provosts and deans, which, unlike Hogwart’s, didn’t talk or move.
“There was ancient carved wood, an enormous dining hall with huge oak tables. We had to wear robes for meals.” After two years at Trinity, Shelley began to miss Colorado and transferred to CU Boulder, where she graduated in 1993 with a bachelor of arts degree in literature.
Taking a year off to travel through Europe, Shelley landed in Prague, working at the James Joyce Pub. “I think they hired me because I had actually read James Joyce and could speak German… there were a lot of German tourists there. I returned to Denver and worked at the Tattered Cover Book Store in its heyday. I met David Russell in that store in ‘95. He was working at a restaurant on the fourth floor of the Cherry Creek Tattered Cover Bookstore. A mutual friend of ours was directing a play that David was in called Psycho Beach Party… it was a really funny play. We recognized each other from work, went out for a drink and the rest is history,” she says of her now husband, who was responsible for introducing her to Crested Butte.
“David had lived here before going to Denver. I fell in love with the town, the community, the landscape, and the people. It just was perfect,” Shelley says.
She was living in Denver, dating David, and was the periodical buyer (magazines) manager for The Tattered Cover, while working on her master’s degree in history at CU. The couple started coming up to Crested Butte quite a bit and in the summer of ‘98, David was directing a play, Feathertop, at the Mountain Theatre.
“I had finished my course work and only needed to finish my thesis so I figured I’d move up for the summer,” Shelley says. She was so smitten with the town and the area that she decided she wanted to stay and moved up.
“David had gone back to Denver. I worked the regular 18 jobs like everybody here,” Shelley jokes, although, three and four jobs is what she actually worked. One of those jobs was at the museum at its old location on Sopris, formerly Botzie Spritzer’s house. She and David married at the Old Town Hall and their daughter, Isabel, aka Bella, was born 2001.
“At that point, the museum had been fundraising to buy Tony’s Conoco building, and I continued to work there during its transition,” she says. The new museum opened in 2002 in its current location and she became the museum store manager and buyer. But David wanted to get back to Denver for his profession as an actor, and along with Bella’s asthma issue, they moved back to Denver in 2005. Shelley finished her thesis, earning a master of arts degree in history from CU.
Shelley went to work at the Colorado Women’s College at the University of Denver as executive assistant to the dean, later moving into special assistant to the dean for development and strategic projects. She laughs about that title: “That’s a mouthful! I didn’t choose the title but it was an awesome job.”
They moved into the neighborhood she worked in so she didn’t have to drive every day. “I worked in a beautiful building. I have this thing about making choices based on buildings,” she laughs, “but it means I get to work in really beautiful spaces and since I like to work, I think that’s important. I’d hate to go to work every day in an ugly building. Part of the DU benefits in working there was you got to take coursework for free so I started on an international MBA through the Daniels College of Business at DU.”
But when Bella started middle school, Shelley found herself working 24/7 and driving her daughter around the city for activities. “And neither David nor I have any soccer mom blood in us whatsoever. Then my mom got breast cancer, which was a wake-up call, and I knew I didn’t want to live that way. So I started working toward moving back to Crested Butte for the quality of life and community.
“Bella had always wanted to move back. She had been participating in the Crested Butte Music Festival’s Opera Children’s Chorus program for three years every summer. I had left my job and we planned on moving back for that summer of 2014. In the meantime, I was able to work with Oh Be Joyful Gallery, specifically helping to organize the Plein Air Invitational. I was also doing online business consulting which allowed me to remain in Crested Butte.”
At the end of the summer, they decided to enroll Isabel in Crested Butte Community School, much to the delight of their daughter. “It’s been amazing. The school here is fantastic and she loves it. She finally got her wish after nine years of trying to convince us to move back home,” says Shelley.
Coincidently, the museum was looking for a new director to replace the retiring Glo Cunningham, who transitioned into outreach coordinator. “I applied for the job. It felt like serendipity,” Shelley admits. “Between my educational background and the experience I had gained in Denver and my love for the museum, I was really excited and wanted the job. I was fortunate enough to be hired and I’m thrilled to be back. I really admire Glo’s leadership at the museum and everyone has been so welcoming. It’s an amazing team. Even though I really enjoyed the online work, I wanted to be a more active member of the community. I love this place and I want to give back to the community, so being able to be a part of the museum again is, for me, the perfect way to do that.
“It’s such a vital community right now with for-profits and non-profits and new people coming to town, a lot of new guests and visitors,” Shelley continues. “I think it’s really a chance to show and celebrate our history and bring the past into the present. The history is part of everything here. We’re an historic town. I’m grateful I can play a role in bringing that alive. It feels like coming home. Even when we lived in Denver we kept coming up here all the time and maintained close friendships up here. Whenever we had to leave it always felt really sad, so now we just get to stay.”

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