arts and entertainment

Walls can talk — From COVID-19 to Black Lives Matter, street art thriving in the Denver area

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When Denver muralist Austin Zucchini-Fowler came up with the idea to create a mural depicting an angel-winged nurse in a fighter’s stance wearing boxing gloves last April, he did not imagine the extent to which the image would resonate in Denver — never mind around the world.

Back then, he was just looking for a way to pay tribute to the health-care workers putting their lives on the line to fight the COVID-19 pandemic — including several in his own family — while he was stuck at home during the pandemic.

“I kind of got to dig down into art and had this concept to really encompass the community’s gratitude to health-care workers and also just show with the pandemic their fight and the challenges they are facing,” Zucchini-Fowler said.

Zucchini-Fowler’s image debuted on Easter weekend in Capitol Hill at Colfax Avenue and Williams Street on the east side of a building along the alley adjacent to the Taco Bell at that intersection.

But even many of those who haven’t been anywhere near Colfax since the start of the pandemic will likely recognize the image, which has been featured everywhere from CNN to The New York Times to a new commercial for USA Basketball. An Oregon farmer has even created a corn maze based on the mural.

“It doesn’t feel like my mural, it’s like the community’s mural,” Zucchini-Fowler said. “People were feeling so many different feelings and challenges during the pandemic and I think a mural can be the perfect way to express what the community as a whole is feeling.”

Social distancing, time outside fueling art

In recent months, Zucchini-Fowler and other muralists have shown their art is uniquely positioned to both document and respond to the pain and promise of recent events, as COVID-19 and the protest movement that sprang up following George Floyd’s murder have given new fuel and urgency to the mural movement that has gained steam around the Denver area in recent years.

Among the Denver-area muralists who have been leaving their mark on the city recently are Adrienne Norris, whose work often focuses on significant women from history. Norris returned to that subject for her two most recent murals, which she completed for Babe Walls, a mural festival celebrating the work of women and non-binary artists held Aug. 13-16 in Westminster.

Both of Norris’ Babe Walls murals depict black women who were leaders in important social movements. One honors Storme DeLarverie, a leader in the early gay rights movement in New York, and the other depicts Ella Baker, a civil rights activist who spurned “charismatic leaders” in favor of encouraging blacks to advocate for themselves.

Norris was also one of two local artists tapped to spearhead the creation of a Black Lives Matter mural on Broadway in front of the state Capitol last June. That temporary street mural, which read “Black Lives Matter: Remember This Time” was painted with the help of more than 100 volunteers.

Norris said that while street artists have always been the documenters of history and culture, the pandemic lockdowns made the value of such art “more apparent than it has ever been even though we’ve always been here.”

“Because people are keeping distance socially and spending more time outside than they ever have been, it really makes sense to have art that is outside as opposed to in museums and stuff,” said Norris.

Murals coming to burbs

While the Denver area’s recent street art explosion has largely been focused on city neighborhoods like River North and corridors like Broadway and Colfax where such art has long thrived, the inaugural Babe Walls festival also shows that it may also be making more inroads into a largely unpainted frontier: the suburbs.

During Babe Walls, artists painted 12 new murals on buildings around the intersection of Federal Boulevard and 71st Avenue (a map can be found at babewalls.com).

For the last four years, the West Colfax Mural Fest (now the West Colfax Arts Fest) has also led to the creation of many new murals on and around West Colfax in Lakewood. Although that festival was canceled this year, organizers expect it to return in 2021.

New murals have also popped up in recent months on South Broadway in Englewood and along 44th Avenue in Wheat Ridge (where the city currently has a mural program that provides funds for new art).

“I love the team for figuring out this location because everywhere can benefit by having more art and color in their world,” Babe Walls artist Koko Bayer said of the festival. “And we’ve gotten so much positive feedback already from the people in the neighborhood who like having something different and I think we need a lot more of it. It’s not just for RiNo and downtown Denver, it should be for everywhere.”

Here is a closer look at a few of the many murals to recently pop up around the Denver metro area.

It’s Gonna All Be Okay mural

Located in the alleyway behind Denver Central Market (which is one of the most mural-filled in the city) at at 27th and Larimer, this mural depicts an angel-winged baker holding a peel beside the words “It’s gonna all be okay.” The mural, which was created by Austin Zucchini-Fowler, is part of a project honoring the contributions of essential workers that grew out of the success of his angel-winged nurse mural on Colfax. A map of all of the project’s murals can be found at austinzart.com.

Interwoven mural at 14th and Colfax

Although the Black Lives Matter street mural has come and gone, this colorful mural that was painted in front of the Denver City and County Building earlier this summer has a similarly epic scale. Artist Pat Milberry told 9News that the pinwheel and sundial at the center of the 28,680 square-foot mural is meant to “create an energy of positive rotation to transition us out of these uncertain times.”

Out in the burbs

Chelsea Lewinski mural at Broadway and Oxford in Englewood

This new mural on the side of the Goodwill store on Broadway illustrates a Black man finding peace by balancing his masculine and feminine sides.

Bluebird mural in Wheat Ridge

A bright mural of a bluebird surrounded by flowers appeared on the side of Swiss Flower and Gift Cottage, at 44th Avenue and Jelliston Street, in June.

Zoe Tessier murals at Orchard Town Center in Westminster

Last month, artist Zoe Tessier completed three murals at the outdoor shopping and entertainment complex in Wheat Ridge. One is a floral scene featuring a bird while another depicts several flamingos and the third consists of several potted plants along with the words “grow love.”

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