Special Report: In Grand Junction, connecting creativity to all aspects of civic life

Grand Junction has plenty of sculpture on its downtown streets, but what other kinds of creativity can move the remote Western Slope city forward? Change doesn't always come easily in Colorado's more rural and remote places.

Grand Junction may be Colorado’s first city of sculpture but it got that title almost by accident.

The story goes like this: Back in 1984, the city’s downtown was in something of an economic crisis. Local artist Dave Davis thought a few nice pieces of sculpture might raise spirits and spark some excitement in the ailing commercial district. So, he offered to exhibit one of his works for free and asked a few colleagues to join him.

That casual move proved popular. Very popular. Thirty-five years later, the Art on the Corner program Davis founded continues to thrive with more than a hundred sizable sculptures lining the streets and defining the city’s unique place on the cultural landscape.  

Caitlyn Love coordinates events for the Grand Junction Creative District. Photo by Ray Mark Rinaldi.

These days, Grand Junction’s efforts to support art are more organized. It has an active Commission on Arts and Culture and an ambitious Downtown Partnership working to integrate the efforts of creatives into new and existing development. In 2018, the downtown area was designated as an official Creative District by Colorado Creative Industries, a division of the state’s Office of Economic Development.

That designation is a reflection of some new thinking in Grand Junction. On one hand, there’s a recently created strategic plan, an official document that connects culture to the important goals every city strives to achieve, from improving the quality of education to fostering the well-being of creatives to helping citizens feel valued and included in civic life.

Going a little deeper, and certainly more informally, there are efforts to broaden the kind of culture that can thrive in an isolated place like Grand Junction where, like a lot of small cities and towns in Colorado, art tends to be on the conservative side. It’s not always easy.

“Our biggest asset, hands down, in the creative district is Art on the Corner. No question about it. We were one of the first outdoor sculpture exhibits in the nation,” said the Downtown Partnership’s Caitlyn Love, who helps to coordinate activities for the district.

Grand Junction has built its cultural reputation on public art. Photo by Ray Mark Rinaldi.

Still, expanding the definition of creativity, and figuring out ways to bolster that, is a top priority. It’s great that artists make bronze statutes of wildlife and recreate lush mountain landscapes in oil paint, but what about those other creatives, the chefs, filmmakers, tattoo artists, brewers and others? How can the Grand Junction support their work and leverage their presence for the greater good?

Creative District organizers hope to figure that out. “You don't really have a roadmap of what that’s going to look like,” said Love.

New meets older

Downtown Grand Junction, which runs along the spine of Main Street, has plenty of old Western charm. It’s a low-rise city with more than its share of local cultural icons, places the red-brick Avalon Theater, or the vintage Mesa Theater with its prominent marquee, or the Museum of the West.

Graphic by Daniel Tseng.

But 21st century sophistication is also making a place there, especially in the past few years. There’s the Rockslide Brewery, which makes beer on-site, there’s Omnia Contemporary, probably the most progressive visual arts space in the region. There’s Taco Party, a restaurant that mixes a syrup made from regionally-grown Palisade peaches into its craft cocktails.

And there’s Kiln Coffee, which has sleek, stripped-down interior architecture and does its pour overs right on the counter to show customers that it is peddling an upscale beverage and not diner coffee. The place opened in May of 2017.

“We went from business plan to being open in about a seven-month process. It’s kind of unheard of,” said owner David Foster.

But he saw opportunity waiting to be seized in Grand Junction, the only urban area in a Western Slope region best-known to outsiders for its outdoor recreation options — and a place where long-time residents suddenly find themselves sharing the city with newcomers, Foster said.

David Foster invites the community to his Kiln Coffee shop. Photo by Ray Mark Rinaldi.

“You’re seeing a lot more young people moving here because Denver is getting overcrowded,” he said.  “Grand Junction still kind of offers that small town feel while also offering a lot of great activities.”
Conflicts do arise between long-time residents and transplants, though nothing approaching culture wars. It’s just more about everyone adjusting to change. Foster operates Kiln Coffee with a contemporary business sensibility, which means engaging with Grand Junction in a socially responsible way and providing a space where everyone can meet and greet and get along.

Sometimes that requires taking direct action. The shop, for example, recently served as a site for a community-wide conversation on preventing suicide, which has emerged as a particular problem in that part of the state.  

"You're not going to hear us being super political, but you'll probably hear us when it comes to things like empowering people,” said Foster.  “If we're not being proactive about our community in that way, then I don't think we should exist. What's our purpose?”

Graphic by Daniel Tseng.

What is possible?

Grand Junction is plugged-in and connected. The city has its own airport and several international businesses. But it’s still remote. Nearly four hours  away by car to the closest major city, Denver, and just over four to the second biggest, Salt Lake City. There are not suburbs to speak of, though there are plenty of farms nearby.

In that way, it remains isolated, and with a population of 63,374, it’s not always easy to get creative projects off the ground.

Meghan Bissonette makes art and teaches at Colorado Mesa University. Photo by Ray Mark Rinaldi.

“Grand Junction is a typical small town in that you have your very conservative, older artists and you have your conservative, older art establishment,” said Meghan Bissonette. Everyone else has to make their own way. There are challenges to that, but also opportunities.

She’s a talented visual artist herself, though decidedly on the contemporary, abstract side of things. She teaches at Colorado Mesa University and runs the school’s gallery, which is off-campus and in the heart of the Creative District. She’s been in a few group shows at Omnia. “It's nice to have a few opportunities to do things here. And I feel like that would be a lot harder in a bigger city where it's more difficult to make those connections.”

But, the reality is, there aren’t a lot of places to exhibit progressive art and no one has developed the kind of gallery where it actually sells.

Bissonette does see a new batch of artists emerging, and she’s not waiting around for things to happen. Last month, she and her partner, Trevor Adams, set up their own exhibition on the walls of Copeka Coffee, over on 5th Street.

“We just decided we wanted to put some work up and we had an evening where we invited all our friends and family.”  Adams has a new band and they did their first performance at the opening event. “So, it was  just this really fun evening of art and music and friends and family. It reminded me of why we do this.”

Taco Party mixes local ingredients into its craft cocktails. Photo by Ray Mark Rinaldi.

Pianos and crosswalks

Going forward, the Grand Junction Creative District will be looking for ways to connect the dots, not only among creatives by supporting exhibition, performance and food opportunities, but between culture and things like recreation and tourism. The initiative to earn the Creative District designation was lead by the Downtown Partnership so there are business interests involved, as well.

Already, the district has made some colorful moves.

Recently, Love came across an historic photo of Main Street that featured a piano on the sidewalk. She got to thinking that maybe it was time to bring it back. So, she called the Grand Junction Symphony Orchestra and asked if they had any extra pianos.

The Creative District put out a call to local artists to decorate its street pianos. Photo by Ray Mark Rinaldi.

“They were like, ‘We have a whole warehouse full of pianos. How many do you want?’ and I said, ‘Well, I'll take three.’”

That was the start of the district’s “Street Beats” program. The instruments were painted in bright colors by local artists and set up on prominent spots along the sidewalk. Amateur pianists are invited to give impromptu public concerts.

“They have this really hokey street sound to them,” said Love. “We've had a few emails from people saying, ‘You need to tune those. Those are terrible.’ But it's like, no, it's kind of cool. People like that.”

Next up, is an “art line,” a series of intersection and crosswalk paintings  that will form a sort of trail through the downtown running to the banks of the Colorado River.

After that, anything is possible, Love said. The district plans to start with a few humble moves that use existing creative enterprises, and explore funding opportunities for other objectives. Then, is will let the best ideas propel the action forward.

“We’re still asking ourselves: what actually is in our bounds?,” she said. “What is a creative district?”


Grand Junction Q&A:
Talya Dewey, guitarist, singer

So, how long have you been performing?
I've lived in the Valley for about 10 years and I've been playing shows in the Valley for about nine years. I’ve been in a couple bands, played by myself a little bit, as well.

Is it easy to get gigs Grand Junction?
The Goat and Clover has live music. The Rockslide has live music. So there are definitely places around downtown to play.

I’ve seen several musicians just playing on the street.
If you walk around, especially during the farmer's market and events, there are always people just busking with their cases open on the ground. So, it's not necessarily finding a place to play. You can even play on the street and people will still stop and listen to you.

What kind of music is popular here?
I mean, it's very eclectic, like metal, country, all the things in between.

Do you get support for your creativity here?
I feel like we're very little, tight-knit musical community, because everyone's kind of been in bands with everyone else, which is pretty awesome honestly.

Editor's note: Question and answers were edited for brevity and clarity.

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