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The Big Picture: Denver's Urban Arts Fund Fights Graffiti with a Diverse Army of Skilled Muralists









In its 10th year, Denver Arts & Venues' Urban Arts Fund has gotten bigger, better and more diverse. The program has paid artists to create hundreds of murals across the city, and the investment creates a ripple effect.

Launched a decade ago, Denver Arts & Venues' Urban Arts Fund builds on a century of tradition.

 

"At the heart of the mural art form, it was a way to make art accessible to all," says Tariana Navas-Nieves, director of cultural affairs for Denver Arts & Venues. "The mural art form is not the typical art form you see in a museum."

 

Modern muralism can be traced to Los Tres Grandes: Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco emerged as the godfathers of the style in 1920s Mexico City. In the wake of a socialist revolution, their aim was to create politically relevant art for the masses.

 

"This is very much what this program is about," says Navas-Nieves.

 

Mary Valdez has served as the program administrator for the Urban Arts Fund since the beginning, when then-Mayor John Hickenlooper convened the so-called "graffiti summit" in 2007, she says.

Over the last decade, the Urban Arts Fund has paid about 300 artists to create roughly 250 murals. Photo provided by Denver Arts & Venues.

 

An idea coalesced: The city would fund murals on oft-tagged walls to deter vandals. Street artists have too much respect for one another to mar one another's masterworks. "There's a code among artists," says Navas-Nieves.

 

A group called Your Name in Graffiti painted the first such mural on the Argo Park pool house in Globeville. The budget was $9,000 and the community response was enthusiastic.

 

Denver Arts & Venues officially launched the Urban Arts Fund in 2009 with a budget of about $50,000 for seven projects. "The bulk of the money went to artists," says Valdez.

 

It's grown from there. Over the last decade, the Urban Arts Fund has paid about 300 artists to create roughly 250 murals. A project usually gets $1,000 to $8,000 from the fund. In 2017, the $85,000 budget funded 20 projects selected from 60 applications, a total of about 80 murals.

 

The anti-graffiti intent has been realized: A total of 350,000 square feet of wall space has been abated in the program's history. "It is very significant," says Valdez.

 

"Paint bigger"

 

The impact of the Urban Arts Fund's murals extends beyond their anti-tagging origins. "These incredible works of art bring smiles to people's faces," says Valdez. "It changes the landscape."

 

Navas-Nieves credits Valdez's proactive approach with the program's success. "I have never seen her at her desk," jokes Navas-Nieves.

 

That's because Valdez is more often than not engaging with artists in person across Denver, like Seymon Gurule, who goes by the moniker of UC Sepia for her often whimsical street art. Gurule's murals grace the walls of Mulberries Cake Shop on East Colfax Avenue, Azucar Bakery on South Broadway and numerous other locations throughout the city.

Mary Valdez is program administrator for the Urban Arts Fund. A total of 350,000 square feet of wall space has been abated since the UAF began supporting murals. Photo by Kara Pearson.

 

Gurule's husband first exposed her to street art. "He gave me a can of paint and said go paint something and that's just what I did," she recalls. "Years later, he told me you need to paint bigger, so I did just that."

 

It's become a way of life. "I love the art form because I love to paint, I love to be with my children exposing them to the street life culture, the people, the good vibes, the amazing artists, both street artists and graffiti artists," explains Gurule. "I love the colors that come from the spray paint can and the way it blends. I love challenging myself by painting bigger and better art each time. Most of all, I love painting with family and friends and making a day of it, pulling the grill out and just painting what I want to paint, painting for myself."

 

After two unsuccessful applications, Gurule won a $4,000 grant from the Urban Arts Fund for a mural at Nuggs Ice Cream on East Colfax in 2017. "They say third time's a charm," she notes. "The program is a wonderful outlet for artists to get exposure and to feel like they can actually pursue a career in public art."

Seymon Gurule, who paints under the name UC Sepia, won a $4,000 grant from the Urban Arts Fund for this mural at Nuggs Ice Cream on East Colfax. Photo by Kara Pearson.

 

Gurule is a prime example. "Before this, I was just painting where ever I could, legal spots of course, and then it gave me the confidence to reach out to the business owners on my own and get compensated for it. I feel that there should be a lot more funds available and wall space for local artists."

 

The investment goes a long way. "The impact of a mural is huge on the community," she notes. "It makes them feel proud of where they live. White, blank walls are ugly -- who wants to see that every day? . . . Art is beautiful, it should be everywhere. Art inspires and makes people happy. It lets us feel like a kid again, it gives us our imagination back, even if it's for a short while."

 

"Murals to me are magical," muses Gurule. "They give you a voice when you are silent."

 

Elevation through diversity

 

Denver City Council increased funding for the Urban Arts Fund in 2016. The 2018 budget, about $130,000, will match the 2017 output (the application period closed on March 19; it reopens February 2019), but also allow for a new initiative.

Frank Garza's mural at Denver Health's methadone clinic. He says: "My approach is simple: research, community involvement, and humility as an artist." Photo provided by Denver Arts & Venues.

 

Instead of just taking a "more money, more murals" approach, Valdez and Navas-Nieves teamed up to foster partnerships emphasizing emphasize diversity, equity, and inclusiveness.

 

"This was an opportunity based on values and Mary's way of doing things," says Navas-Nieves. "It just seemed like the right way to elevate the program."

 

For the first push in 2017, the Urban Arts Fund Diversity, Equity and Inclusiveness Partnerships initiative funded ambitious mural projects at schools in Westwood and Sun Valley, the Gilliam Youth Services Center and Denver Health's methadone clinic.

 

Frank Garza, the artist commissioned for the project at the clinic, has been a muralist since the late 1990s. His distinctive work, utilizing paint as well as metal, fabric and glass, is on walls all over the Front Range.

The Urban Arts fund strives to be inclusive. "Our goal is to go out into the community and engage the artists who might not feel welcome," says Tariana Navas-Nieves, director of cultural affairs for Denver Arts & Venues. Photo by Kara Pearson.

 

Murals "inspire our youth, they bring communities together and help create a sense of ownership and pride, they bring color to a sometimes gray world and they remind us that we are all part of something special -- something bigger than ourselves," says Garza. "My approach is simple: research, community involvement, and humility as an artist. I love watching new works going up by different artists -- it's inspirational and motivational."

 

Valdez reached out to Garza about the Denver Health project in 2016. "After hearing the sincerity and passion in her voice about this particular location, I knew we were gearing up for something special," says Garza.



He was right. "The project became a full-on collaborative effort with the staff, the patients, and myself," says Garza. "I laid out a bit of the framework with the general concept and some central themes, but it's the artwork the patients and staff added that breathed life into the murals."

 

Garza describes the project as a form of therapy for his social anxiety. "I’ve become more and more reclusive and I do believe it is why I’ve turned to installation forms of mural art," he explains. "It allows me to work alone and to install in the middle of the night if I wanted."

 

The clinic project was different. "I needed to step outside of my comfort zone and just dive in," explains Garza. "Everyone involved and especially the patients made me feel like I was part of a tight-knit family from the start -- there was no judgment, just support, kindness and an occasional hug hiding around the corner. All I can say is I hope the addition of these murals made a difference to the patients and the staff. I know it made a positive impact on my life in ways they may never know."


Seymon Gurule next to her mural at Nuggs. She says: "I love the art form because I love to paint, I love to be with my children exposing them to the street life culture, the people, the good vibes, the amazing artists, both street artists and graffiti artists." Photo by Kara Pearson.

 

And that's exactly the point of the initiative. "We really want to build a bridge for people," says Valdez.

 

"Our goal is to go out into the community and engage the artists who might not feel welcome," adds Navas-Nieves. "Our focus is to work with the community, not for the community."

 

This story is part of a series sponsored by Denver Arts & Venues.

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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