If you’ve ever watched a Hollywood film about college life, then you’ll know the bulky plastic cup kids chug beer from. Bright red in colour with a utilitarian design, cheap and mass-produced, the Solo Cup is as ubiquitously American as pick-up trucks and blue jeans.

But it’s still not something you’d expect to see immortalised in sculpture on a pristine mountainside. And yet that is exactly what you’ll find if you head to the celebrated mountain town of Aspen, Colorado, this summer.

The ways artists express themselves or their surroundings are similar to how we express ourselves on snow”

Chicago-based artist Paula Crown has transformed this iconic object into a grand-scale public work of art, using 3D scanning and CAD programming. Currently installed at the foot of the Aspen Mountain in Colorado, Jokester builds on the work done previously by the Aspen Art Museum and Aspen Skiing Company (SkiCo)’s collaborative art initiative, Art in Unexpected Places.

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Jokester is unveiled to the general public. Photo: Courtesy of Aspen

“The best place to show public art in Aspen is our mountains, where people are transient and skiing,” explains SkiCo’s Managing Partner James Crown. He describes their mission as introducing art into everyday life. The giant Solo Cup of Jokester is a part of this – as is their ongoing lift-ticket art project.

“We saw the ski pass as an empty canvas and asked artists, such as Mark Bradford and Peter Doig, to create an image that would identify the ticket.” The current artwork on the ski pass also belongs to Paula Crown, whose ongoing Solo Together project of life-size, hand-painted, cast polystyrene cups has so far travelled as far as London and Venice.

“Fine art and skiing might seem like strange bedfellows, but they have more in common than you think”

Fine art and skiing may seem like strange bedfellows, but according to SkiCo CEO Mike Kaplan they have more in common than you might think. “The ways artists express themselves or their surroundings are similar to how we express ourselves on snow. This sport is full of unexpected interactions, just like art,” he noted as the sculpture – which stands at a mighty three metres tall  and weighs over a ton – was unveiled with some fanfare.

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Two examples of Aspen’s artist lift ticket collaborations by Mark Grotjahn (left) and David Shrigley (right). Photo: Courtesy of Aspen

Coinciding with the week-long annual think-tank Aspen Ideas Festival, the inauguration benefitted from exceptionally warm late-June temperatures, and the presence of the mountain sports enthusiasts who flock here every summer armed with hiking boots, mountain bikes and/or camping gear.

Although the influx of visitors isn’t as big as in winter, summers here are warm with perfect temperatures for outdoor activities during the day, while mild breezes at night make relaxing and sipping a drink outside very pleasant. So it’s small wonder Aspen’s permanent population of 7,000 is swelled by more transient visitors.

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Downhill mountain biking is one of Aspen’s more obvious summer attractions. Photo: Courtesy of Aspen

The facilities for a luxurious outdoor holiday here are second to none. There’s the famous five-star Little Nell hotel for example, and places like Bosq, which becomes a post-hiking hotspot serving late-afternoon tapas and wine on its spacious patio: perfect for people-watching. Run by Aspen native Barclay Dodge, the casually chic restaurant showcases the skills learned from years of working in kitchens like the world-famous El Bulli.

Aspen was established in the late 19th century as a silver-mining community. After a few lucrative years, during which most of the town was built, the mining business weakened and economic decline set in. The 1930s however, brought the emergence of the skiing industry, and the town hasn’t looked back since. In recent years, Aspen’s brand as the top skiing destination in the United States, and as the place to see and be seen, has brought the real estate market to record highs. The prices people pay for property here can exceed those in New York or San Francisco.

Aspen Art Festival (3 of 5)

Trial running is just one of the activities enjoyed by Aspen residents in summer. Photo: Courtesy of the Aspen Skiing Company

On the bright side, this influx of money has meant an influx of art collectors and patrons, creating a system that sustains top-notch arts, music, dance, and theatre programs despite the remote location. The town is home to some exceptional classical music, opera, and ballet companies, with strong educational programs spearheaded by star names recruited from the country’s top metropolitan institutions.

That’s not to say that hiking and mountain pursuits aren’t important here. This is very much a town for those who love the active lifestyle. But there’s another side to it. Trekking through the Coloradan flora at one point, my path leads me to the Aspen Institute, a centre established in 1949 to incubate free-thinking and an exchange of ideas around the environment, culture, and politics.

Spread across a greenery inviting enough to perch on, the Institute serves as a hub for the Ideas Festival hosting events like a “Town Hall Meeting” organised by New York-based civic engagement platform For Freedoms. Paula Crown is among the speakers, as are artists and founders Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman, who talk about the organisation’s “50 State Initiative” which raised money on Kickstarter to place an artist-designed billboard in every American state.

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Jokester from another angle. The plan is to move the sculpture higher up the mountain in time for winter. Photo: Courtesy of Aspen

Cultural programming may not be the main reason most people visit Aspen, but it’s an ever-growing part of this town’s appeal. The Solo Cup sculpture is perhaps the most visible evidence of this. Plans are currently afoot to move it up near the peak in time for winter, where it will be hard to miss. A gigantic, snow-covered, bright red reminder that there’s another side to Aspen.

Osman Can Yerebakan is a curator and art writer, based in New York City. Keep up with him on Instagram.

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