Once poised for the Olympics for track cycling, today, after a decade of searching for her greater purpose, Sarah Uhl shares her creativity and love of nature with the world through her art.
Sarah Uhl is lying face down in a field of green grass and bright yellow flowers, her legs sprawled out behind her, chin no more than a foot away from her painting. The fingers on her left hand press backward from holding her work in place against the earth. She grips a pen in her right, meticulously drawing out a section. Her brown locks creep out the sides of her purple synthetic hoody. Eyes focused. Attention complete. Just like when she was cycling.
Her drive comes from the need to examine herself through exploring “the growth that comes with each new chapter of our lives. That’s what I do with my art, it’s a pliable canvas,” she says. “It’s a hunger to keep growing, to evolve, to push myself outside of my comfort zone.”
On the page is an interpretation of her surroundings, which “exists between the physical world and imagination, infusing real landscapes with vibrant colors and metallic,” Gale Straub, founder of She Explores, says of Uhl's unique style.
Uhl has identified as an artist her whole life, but only recently has she found her niche by expressing herself in the outdoor industry, she tells REI during a morning walk along the banks of Clear Creek above the town of Golden, Colorado.
We met up with her before she caught a flight from Denver to Iceland, Norway, Ireland, Scandinavia and Wales. The itinerary started out with the goal of meeting up with her parents, who would be vacationing in Ireland.
The night she booked her tickets from her studio apartment in Carbondale, Colorado, she had a whiskey in one hand and a map of the world in the other. “I realized that I’m my own boss and putting things on my calendar is something I can do without needing to check in with anybody. I can just GO,” she says. She began tacking on more stops to her travel and kept her itinerary loose: show up, paint every day and share her work with her followers on social media.
Sharing her work entertains her followers and attracts new clients in the conservation realm. Taking adventures, whether in the hills above her backyard or halfway around the world, has allowed her to develop her voice as an artist.
Leaving the parking lot in Golden, we down climb a narrow path, via a road cut of loose, red dirt and rock to reach the main trail below. I ask her about her background and she shares stories from her former life as a professional bike racer.
Raised an hour north of Philadelphia, in Perkasie, Uhl spent her youth camping, exploring caves and climbing at the Delaware Water Gap and the Gunks with her parents. She attended the University of Vermont from 2001 to 2002, took time off from school to train for the Olympics and returned to Pennsylvania State University to complete her degree in Kinesiology from 2004 to 2006. During this time she did not attend any art classes—her style is self-taught.
A decade ago she won a Jr. World title as a track cyclist as well as 24 National Championship titles across the disciplines of road, track and cyclocross. She raced hard from age 13 to 23, often getting autograph requests from young women who looked up to her. And she was a whisper away from competing in the Olympics, even winning the Olympic Trials in 2004, before deciding to leave the sport in 2007 for a variety of reasons. “As simple as ‘Why did you quit cycling?’ may sound, I do not have a simple answer,” she says. “It’s multifaceted and a quandary I continue to return to as I continue to grow.”
"You don’t have to win art, you just do it."
“In cycling, I felt like I was not known for my whole self. I was known as the fast one who won a bunch of races. I felt like I reached the edges of my ability to expand myself within the pro cycling bubble, so I had to move on.”
The ultra-competitive win-focused cycling world and an unbalanced relationship with her coaches were unsatisfying and confining. Her embrace of her artistic side is not a rejection of her sport but an extension of herself beyond her sport.
“I was competing against the world’s finest athletes, but I wasn’t getting the chance to grow in all the ways I wanted to, like making lifelong friendships built on something more than sharing spots on the national team or time training in the gym. I wanted to surround myself with people who had a similar appetite. When I look back, I see that yearning I hope to never lose—the yearning for something more and new and different and more applicable to me right now exactly as I am.”
Looking for a change, she began thinking about how she could contribute to the world in a bigger way, and also looked for ways to keep riding. So, in 2008, she moved from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins to work at New Belgium Brewery, a company that shared her love for bikes and also cared about promoting sustainable business practices and spreading social good.
We cross a bridge over fast-moving water and follow a winding fire road up toward cliffs of striated grey and white stone. “I’ve been searching for my identity for awhile,” she says. “It’s been hard to shed that mentality. Now I get to do my art. You don’t have to win art, you just do it.”
For the past six years in Carbondale, she’s grown her art business, churning out projects for the likes of REI, PrAna, Aspen Skiing Company, Yeti Cycles, Carbondale Chamber of Commerce, Go-Breck, Professional Ski Racers of America and Alpinist magazine.
“I strive to make artwork that captures that fleeting moment that I find in nature so that others are reminded of the last time they too felt this way.”
For inspiration, she rides her backyard trails in the Roaring Fork Valley, cruising under the shadow of 12,966-foot Mount Sopris. Riding clears her mind and being in the wild invigorates her. She rides hard and fast. Other days, she packs up her watercolors and heads for the hills by foot to paint on location.
I am so happy to be back in the belly of the mountains I call home, taking magic carpet rides on my Beti. This morning I woke up at dawn and rode through shoulder high wildflowers, met a baby bear, and thought about how I’m going to put more meaningful work into the world as a joy evangelist. I think Joy is as personal as it is universal. I am not sure how you get your fix but adventure biking in the mountains at dawn is a sure thing elixir for me. #yeticycles #joy ? @carlzoch
For the past year, Uhl’s made a full-time living as a watercolor painter and illustrator bringing awareness to environmental issues. One of her specialties is drawing maps that tell the story of an important place. Earlier this year, American Rivers commissioned her to make a map depicting the Lower Colorado River Basin using illustration as a storytelling tool that depicts scenes showing how farming, Latino-American culture and wildlife all play into the story of the rivershed.
“As an artist, I am able to be as curious and bold as I have always wanted to be."
Uhl also collaborates with the conservation organizations the American Alpine Club and the Access Fund where she designs infographics and “whimsical yet informative graphics that help these organizations perpetuate their missions and tell a story that provokes change and action for people,” she says. Uhl spends as much time on public lands as she can, allowing the wild areas to influence her work and well-being. “I hope this equation has a ripple effect and leads more people into the wilds—and therefore into their own stance of protecting the wilds.”
Back in Golden, we find a shady spot at the end of the crag and sit on the concrete embankment. Today, she says, instead of signing autographs at the side of the racetrack, she rouses people in a different, more personal way, using her art as a “tool to help with advocacy, education or get people to wake up and feel the world around them.”
Uhl’s future plans include writing and illustrating children’s books and continuing to travel. During her recent trip to Scandinavia, she decided to apply herself even more in the conservation realm. When she returned to the States, she presented at two live art events and at the end of the shows, her art was auctioned off, raising $2,500 for the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association and $3,250 for the Roaring Fork Conservancy.
“These two events showed me that this is exactly what I want to do with my career,” she says. “As an artist, I am able to be as curious and bold as I have always wanted to be and I get to wrap that up in a package that inspires others to be curious and bold themselves.”