For years now, Bonnie Norling Wakeman has wowed homeowners, restaurantgoers, hotel guests, and interior designers by transforming the most mundane feature of any sizable commercial space or home—yawning, two-dimensional walls—into bona fide masterpieces. Her medium is bas-relief—essentially, flat sculpture. You’ll find it on palaces in Babylon and at the temple at Angkor Wat. And at the Boatyard American Grill in Frisco.
On a warm spring day, the artist is seated on a chair at the back of the restaurant, admiring her handiwork from a year ago: two aspen trees glimmering brown on a mezzanine wall, and, over the soffit above the kitchen, a panorama of the local mountains, from Peak One over to Red Peak, as seen from Dillon Reservoir.
“You can touch it,” says Wakeman. “You can run your hand over it and feel the aspen and the bear. There’s the three-dimensional richness of it.”
It looks very real. Cindy Spaulding, the owner of the Boatyard, says her customers are regularly fooled. “People ask me if Bonnie cut an aspen tree in half and glued it to the wall,” says Spaulding. (She did not.) “It really adds something to
Wakeman started making art in Summit County in the early ’80s, designing T-shirts, ski pins, patches, and other throw-away tourist swag. Then, a trip to Italy changed the trajectory of her career. Admiring bas-relief on Roman temples, she had a crazy thought: why not stateside?
The answer, it turned out, is because virtually nobody in America had been doing bas-relief since the Gilded Age. So Wakeman singlehandedly decided to revive the medium. There weren’t any teachers, so she honed a technique all her own. She cultivated clients and found a loyal following in Summit, where Wakeman’s bas-relief has proliferated like beetle-kill pine in a national forest: from the Boatyard in Frisco to a stairway at the Grand Lodge in Breckenridge, the Springs lodge in Keystone, and private homes all over the area, as well as vacation homes in Vail and a museum in Austin, Texas. While she once worked in an art form that was lonely, now she’s in demand as a teacher—so much so that she’s not taking on any more students.
“It’s been building little by little, and now it’s just exploding,” Wakeman says.
Creating bas-relief is no simple endeavor. First, Wakeman meets with a client to discuss potential concepts; then, she photographs the blank walls to be adorned. Back in her Silverthorne studio, she sketches ideas onto the photos, and back-and-forth it goes until she has approval. Then she begins, mounding wet plaster onto drywall, and then ... and then ... Wakeman is cagey about the details of her process: the plaster, the paint, the glaze. After all, she’s a magician; magicians never reveal their secrets. But she will allow that her leaves, which look lifelike, are made of fine silk.
Wakeman sometimes works like a thief in the night. She “sneaks” into homes when the owners are away, and they return to find art. If she didn’t have their permission, she’d be Thomas Crowne in reverse.
Like here, at the Boatyard: Spaulding wanted the artist to sculpt while the restaurant was closed. Along with her team—husband Joe Wakeman and artist Jill O’Connor—Wakeman slunk into the restaurant at 2 a.m. The crew worked until exhausted, and they were gone long before the grill opened for lunch.
“We artists are willing to go to any length,” Wakeman says.
In her case, to raise the profile of a lost art.