About the series: Colorful Colorado introduces readers to some of the quirkiest— and often overlooked— people and places in the Centennial State. Explore more of the most interesting places in Colorado here.
HUERFANO COUNTY - Ray Shaw is passed by every day.
Anyone who's driven down Interstate 25 toward Walsenburg has seen his name on the wall of the little building beside the highway, alone in the fields. The long abandoned outpost of cow pies and graffiti is now the wildlife artist's vibrant gallery and workspace.
Acrylic paintings capture animals in every habitat, from the jungle to the desert, from the wintry plains to the ocean. They capture the imagination in an elegant setting of peacock feathers and leather seats around a cheetah rug, over a cement floor painted to look wooden. The room is ready to host.
But in the two years since Shaw moved in, few have stopped to see him. By the time Colorado Springs and Pueblo travelers spot the building, they've gone beyond exit 64, the unadvertised outlet to the gallery.
No less, Shaw feels the love.
"I've realized how powerful that is," he says over the rush of traffic, nodding to his display. "Everybody knows me!"
At least, they know the name. It sounds familiar to many when Lauren Scharff tells them whom she's dating. Recently they were at a yard sale when Ray Shaw gave the homeowner his name, resulting in him posing for a family photo. "Everybody knows me," he told his surprised girlfriend.
"It was like, yeah, OK, egotist," says Scharff, who now realizes the recognition means something to him.
"As an artist that's worked for so many years, there is a sense of fulfillment or gratitude. It feels good that people recognize him. I think it's true of any human really."
Kinship with nature
Shaw has been building his reputation since 1992, when he returned to Colorado Springs after tiring of the artist life in California. This was the city of his career's first, proudest moment: At 18, the Air Force Academy paid him for a painting of a peregrine falcon.
He honed his skills at Palmer High School, where he never cared much for class. One winter, he talked administrators into letting him leave for Wyoming so he could observe elk.
Art and nature - they were the only constants through childhood. Shaw estimates he moved 30 times before he started high school, around the time his parents divorced.
"My dad was like a conman, like a salesman conman," he says. "He would talk anybody into anything. He had a different job every damn month."
All that moving didn't lend itself to friendships. "I got my ass my beat all the time," Shaw says. "I had to learn how to fight."
But out in the woods, he didn't have to fight. He took to nursing wounded birds and capturing falcons, so he could closely examine their beautiful details and live with them, there in his yard in Mendon, Utah. A newspaper article about the boy's interest got the attention of wildlife officers and classmates.
"Then all the kids in school were like, 'We saw you in the paper!'" Shaw recalls. "All the sudden you're the popular kid."
He liked popularity. "Living in all those places, it taught me how to get along with people, not just fighting," he says. "How to make people like you instead of not like you."
With the Navy out of high school, he schmoozed his way to an ideal job. He learned about the Combat Art Program and wondered if he could paint full-time aboard the AD-15 destroyer tender that stayed docked in San Diego, not out at sea as Shaw had hoped.
He managed to get a meeting with the captain, who Shaw says was so impressed with his portfolio that he arranged to have the lowly technician paint for high-ranking men of the Seventh Fleet. Shaw says he did just that during most of his four-year service.
"No one could believe my job," he proudly says. "I would blow people away all the time."
He satisfied wanderlust out of the Navy, tagging along far-flung trips with white-collar customers of his. At his ranch house near the gallery, he keeps photographs of those trips - important references for his art.
"It actually deceives," praises one owner and longtime friend, Mark Nanninga. "Is it actually a painting? You kind of want to touch it."
It's achieved by poring over those photographs, by hours of trying to duplicate the impossible perfection that Shaw envies in the wild. Travel's influence on his work is best described in a show made for TV, the first and final part of a series he thought would bring him fame.
In it, he's paddling a boat through the Everglades in full safari attire, his eyes searching as a wind instrument plays in the background. "People ask me, 'Where do you get ideas?" he says. "Well, this is what I do."
"Art Safaris with Ray Shaw" never took off. But he continues to travel, stocking up on ideas while fitting into yet more unfamiliar places. Last year, he and Scharff went all over Asia.
"It doesn't matter if it's a road trip in the United States, he's always looking around," she says. "'Did you see that rock formation, did you see that hawk?' He just notices the landscape and everything in an intense, explicit kind of way that most people don't."
His happy place
Shaw is amazed by his own backyard, the openness and everything it attracts. "That bear there?" he says in his gallery, pointing to a painting. "He was a friend."
The bear loafed for days near the house, which sits alone among cottonwoods where eagles roost. Shaw doesn't consider himself alone. He has three dogs, three cats, tanks of big pacu fish and Marilyn the macaw, along with 17 peacocks he also knows by name.
He comes home to their warm greeting. They surround him as he bends to pet their heads, running his finger through their feathers and smiling as he looks them in the eye.
Later, one of them dawdles in and stops by the piano. Shaw is playing something that sounds classical, something that he says he's just making up as he goes. It's beautiful. And other friends come near to listen, another peacock and the dogs and a cat that curls up next to him.
"Oh, look," he says, "everybody likes the music."