An El Mac mural depicts Floyd Tunson at the Manitou Art Center. Photo by Kara Pearson Gwinn.
At the foot of Pikes Peak, the Manitou Springs Creative District is building on one of Colorado's original arts economies. The key concepts: authenticity, collaboration and connectivity.
To say Charles Rockey
is a Manitou Springs legend is an understatement.
"He is Manitou," says Floyd Tunson, a nationally known artist who's lived and worked in Manitou Springs since 1976. "Charlie is quintessential Manitou Springs."
Other locals call him "a treasure” and "the patron saint" of Manitou. ("He's as old as time itself," whispers a local artist. "He is time," comes the quiet retort.)
Rockey, 85, has painted hundreds of storybook pictures of local homes, alleyways and landmarks in the five decades. "I've painted scenes of Manitou 900 times now, and I never run out of things to paint," he says. "There are no two homes alike. It's perfect for an artist."
Manitou Springs has that elusive sense of place, a blend of topography, history and eccentricity that makes it ideal for artists. Rockey calls it "a Tolkienesque land" that straddles the line between the magical and the mundane. "It is the Shire," he says. "It's a very special place." He points to a desk facing the front window of his downtown studio. "My scenery is the clocktower and the mountains. I sit right here."
Charles Rockey talks shop in his home studio. Photo by Adam Williams.
In Rockey's cluttered home/studio/gallery at 10 Canon Ave., there's a pterodactyl soaring above, a doll in its clutches; a large-scale model of a nude Zebulon Pike for a planned bronze that never came together; and a small-scale model of a castle in a front window. A longtime art teacher, Rockey bought the building for $17,000 in 1972 after getting divorced and relocating from Colorado Springs.
"That was the best thing I ever did," he says. "The second I came over the hill, I said, 'This is where I'm going to live for the rest of my life.'"
Rockey's far from the only artist who's had that sentiment over the years. Tunson tells a similar story, as do plenty of other artists who live and work in the Manitou Springs Creative District.
It has sometimes been a victim of its own success. Manitou Springs' first application to Colorado Creative Industries (CCI) was rejected in 2016 partly due to Manitou's longstanding status as an artists' mecca, says Natalie Johnson, director of the creative district and the Manitou Art Center (MAC).
But Johnson and other local leaders persevered and CCI officially certified the Manitou Springs Creative District the second time around in June 2017. The district motto: "Always was. Always will be." Some see it as a response to the the district's initial rebuff.
Natalie Johnson is at the helm of the Manitou Springs Creative District. Photo by Kara Pearson Gwinn.
As owner of Black Cat Books for eight years, Johnson says she "got really involved in the community," she says. After joining the MAC board in 2010, she realized she wanted to run the arts center and took over as director in 2012.
Dustin Booth, MAC's general manager, credits Johnson with taking the facility to the next level. "It's been her baby," he says.
Johnson is likewise looking to do the same thing with the creative district. She says CCI has helped with professional development, wayfinding and in-kind support, and sees economic development as the creative district's critical function.
After the recession, local leaders looked at ways to jumpstart the local economy and came to the same conclusions that were reached in the 1970s. "Our assets were our artists," says Johnson. "Unfortunately, they're older. There aren't a ton of young people."
She says that's compounded by another trend: "We've lost a number of galleries and haven't gotten any new ones." The 2013 floods also knocked out a few creative businesses, including The Dulcimer Shop, a Manitou mainstay for 40 years. A candy shop moved in to replace it.
Another challenge: "Affordable housing is a big deal," says Johnson. So is space: Manitou Springs has only 20 developable acres. That means making the most of some marginal parcels of land. While the first application defined the creative district as downtown, it includes the entirety of Manitou Avenue.
MAC is at the center of the strip, and it's an enviable anchor for the creative district. Once a roller rink and an adjacent taxicab garage, MAC is now one of the state's most formidable arts compounds. There are two galleries up front, and the classroom of preschool E11 Creative Workshop is across the parking lot.
It is also home to MACshop, a 75-member makerspace with everything from a darkroom and an etching press to a 3D printer and laser cutter to table saws and industrial sewing machines. "Our mission is skill-sharing and tool-sharing," says Booth.
As monthly dues are just $50, Booth says it's great for recent college graduates who have lost access to equipment they took for granted at school, as well as retirees "We're really lucky," he says. "We have three or four guys who drive down from Denver."
MACshop MakerSpace has 75 members with access to a wide range of equipment. Photo by Kara Pearson Gwinn.
There are also 10 studios at MAC that rent for just $150 a month. (The waiting list is more than two years, says Booth.) Food and drink are available at the newly opened Create Cafe. There's even a resident cat, Mabel Desdemona Esmeralda Whiskerforce III, who made herself home one night when a window was left open to dry some fresh paint.
Booth, who first moved to Manitou Springs from Salida with his old band, Molten Audio Experience, in 2004, says he's seen dramatic changes in town in the years since. "You could say it's gentrified or you could say it's grown up," he says. "It has changed, but it's changed for the better in a lot of ways."
But long-timers like Rockey and Tunson "have really established a framework here that has made art the fabric of this town," he adds.
Juanita Canzoneri, a mosaic artist and marketing manager of Commonwheel Artists Co-op, credits Johnson for catalyzing collaboration in the creative district. "What we needed is someone in Natalie's position who could spearhead that effort and get people to come together," she says.
It's a common theme. Commonwheel "is an organization where everybody speaks their mind and sometimes it gets contentious," says Canzoneri. Same goes for the town as a whole. "In Manitou, we're very community-minded. We discuss everything. We are maniacally democratic."
The co-op launched in 1974. "It was the '70s and hippies were the thing. Manitou Springs was really a hippie enclave," she says. "The name, Commonwheel, is very hippie: We're all spokes of a common wheel."
Interest was high, and the co-op launched with about 60 members, visual artists as well as poets, musicians and performance artists. Economic development wasn't the driving force, says Canzoneri. "It was a push to express yourself."
In its first year, it established a pair of festivals that are still going strong more than 40 years later: the Commonwheel Arts and Crafts Festival on Labor Day weekend and Carnivale in February.
Today the organization's membership is comprised of 37 visual artists. Canzoneri joined in 2004 after getting laid off from her corporate job as a graphic designer. "I realized, 'I'm sick of doing stuff I don't love,'" she says. "I did a mosaic and said, 'Yeah!' There was no looking back."
Canzoneri lives in Colorado Springs, and Commonwheel casts a wide net. Members have lived as far away as Buena Vista in the past. "If you're drawing your artists strictly from Manitou, I can see that could be a problem. If you can drive here, you can be a member."
That's been more challenging lately, adds Canzoneri: Road construction seems neverending. She says rebuilding the "no man's land" around the Manitou Springs-Colorado Springs line is the latest target, with the $30.9 million Westside Avenue Action Plan (WAAP) underway.
"It's supposed to be gorgeous, it's supposed to be walkable," says Canzoneri. "I'm confident it'll get done. It just feels like it's taking forever."
East and west
Steve Wood, director of Concrete Couch, has lived in Manitou Springs for more than 25 years. He works with local schools, community centers and nonprofits to build everything from public art to benches to bridges.
Wood was a Commonwheel artist in the late 1980s. "Then it was: 'How can we get tourism to go up in the shoulder seasons?'" he says. "That was our mantra."
He says the solution came in the form of a multi-phase project of Manitou Avenue that widened the sidewalks and reduced two lanes of vehicular traffic in each direction to one, with a shared center lane for left turns and unloading.
"Traffic moves along fine," says Wood. And the human-friendlier downtown is at full occupancy. "Now there's no offseason. Summer's insane and there are tourists the rest of the year."
Can placemaking history repeat itself east of downtown? Farley McDonough, owner of Adam's Mountain Cafe and a member of the board of the creative district, thinks it can. She moved her longstanding downtown eatery about two miles east to the heart of the WAAP project after the floods in 2014.
"Adam's is a Manitou restaurant at its heart," says McDonough, a longtime employee who bought the restaurant in 2001. But after the flood hit the previous location at the Manitou Spa Building downtown, she considered moving to Old Colorado City or downtown Colorado Springs.
Then her husband pointed out that the old Manitou Pancake & Steak House was on the market. "I said, 'I will never move Adam's into that old pancake house," she laughs. "He said, 'The price is right -- and it's not in a flood zone.'"
Adam's Mountain Cafe moved east after 29 years in downtown Manitou Springs. Photo by Kara Pearson Gwinn.
Since the move, walkability has been a big issue. "We're next to all these big lodgings," says McDonough. "Even those lodging properties struggle to get to us on foot."
McDonough says the WAAP project will help connect downtown Manitou with the communities to the east, and highlights a recent $100,000 grant to improve the Manitou Springs Creek Walk Trail through town.
People want walkable, authentic places to explore -- and spend. "You have to be competitive," she says. "I think the WAAP is going to bring us the multimodal transportation piece we're really missing."
Replicating the three-lane street in central Manitou, the finished project will offer expanded shuttle service, and enhanced pedestrian experience, and slower traffic. The Creek Walk project could create human-friendly spaces on the creek's edge. "All of that will spur small businesses," says McDonough.
Because there are no big boxes or strip malls, Manitou's small businesses are a critical economic driver. "We don't have a grocery store," says McDonough. "We don't have the footprint for it. And we don't want to be a bedroom community."
She sees the WAAP area as prime for some mixed-use development. "It's going to take somebody with some vision to build up without going too far up," says McDonough.
Moving forward, the Manitou Springs Creative District can serve as a connective catalyst between the local government, chamber of commerce and urban renewal authority. The city "has always had fantastic community support and community volunteerism . . . but there's never been a well-coordinated effort," McDonough explains. "The creative district has been excellent in bringing those entities together."
She adds, "One of Natalie's greatest strengths is her practical understanding of what the city does and what city council does. She's very good at making the ask from these entities, and asking these partners the right questions."
WAAP is remaking Manitou Avenue and Colorado Avenue at the Manitou-Colorado Springs nexus. Photo by Kara Pearson Gwinn.
Concrete Couch runs a free program called Fab Lab at MAC on Wednesdays where people can work on various projects using recycled materials. "Right now, our laser focus is on building community and teaching kids," says Wood.
It's a common refrain around here. Manitou Springs School District 14 has bucked the trend in arts education. When state funding declined, officials figured out how to expand services. It's key to attracting students who live outside of Manitou Springs.
District initiatives look to engage kids with civics and creativity. Dan Sieck and Denise Stageman co-teach a class at Manitou Springs Middle School called Design Manitou. "The kids are working with the school and the City of Manitou Springs to make it a better place," says Sieck. "Probably the most beneficial part of it is the kids learn their opinions matter so it kills their apathy."
Adds Stageman: "We really want them to think of it as their city. Every community should do this."
Denise Stageman and Dan Sieck teach Design Manitou. Photo by Kara Pearson Gwinn.
In the first year of the class in 2016, students presented ideas to city council. One led to improvements to the pavilion at Soda Springs Park with the help of Concrete Couch.
For 2017, the class has put out a call for designs for a flag for Manitou Springs; since it's an open entry, the students are partnering with the Manitou Springs Creative District to get the word out to local artists. Another project aimed to establish a local teen center, and the concept evolved into a community center for both teens and seniors that students have presented to city council.
After school, Arts14 is a subsidized program that offers everything from martial arts to "the art of coffee-making," says Director Maria Navaratne. "There's something for a child every day after school." Each nine-week class costs just $60.
It's an outgrowth of E11 Creative Workshop, a preschool program Navaratne launched in 2009. It's since grown from one kid -- Navaratne's son -- to 60. "I like to say it's the most progressive preschool program in the Pikes Peak region," she says. "We have three-year-olds using saws and hammers."
Maria Nataratne is director of Arts14. Photo by Kara Pearson Gwinn.
"People want to send their kids to Manitou because we're focused on the arts, not on testing," adds Navaratne. "Forty percent of our school population is choice, so we need to make sure we continue to attract students. I think we do a brilliant job of that with programs like this."
The Manitou Springs Creative District "raises the profile of Manitou Springs," she adds. "It's that coordinated approach. It's like that giant umbrella for everybody. It draws everybody together, and people aren't replicating each other." Navaratne says she'd ultimately like to launch an all-ages version of Arts14 with the creative district.
Navaratne came to Manitou Springs from London by way of Canada. She and her husband, trucker-turned-teacher/artist Alain, got a tip on nearby Cripple Creek, but they were told, she says, "Don't go to Manitou. It's weird. There are witches!"
Then they drove down Manitou Avenue and immediately fell in love with the place. "We just stopped and found a house," says Navaratne. "We never did get to Cripple Creek."
She adds, "Manitou's that kind of place where you reinvent yourself. We like the extraordinary."
Money, art, love
Back at Charles Rockey's studio, he talks about his artistic hero: Vincent Van Gogh. "When I was a kid, I thought, 'He can't draw that well,'" he says with a smile. Then he learned that Van Gogh painted "what I feel about what I see, not what I see," and his entire paradigm shifted.
Rockey works on his new tome. Photo by Adam Williams.
He recalls his upbringing. "My father never did go for art. He wanted me to be a naval officer like he was. He told me once when I was a kid, 'When you grow up, you've got to get a job.' Art to him was child's play."
So Rockey paid his own way through the Art Institute of Chicago, then got a M.A. at Ohio State University before returning to Colorado. (He grew up near Evergreen.) "I turned out to be a Coloradan," he says. "What a place to be an artist."
He's worked around the corner from Floyd Tunson for more than 40 years, and they both applied for the same teaching job at Palmer High School in the early 1970s. Tunson got the job, but there are no hard feelings today. "He’s one of my best friends," says Rockey.
In Rockey's mind, art and commerce are best kept separate. "I don't sell any artwork," he says defiantly. "I refuse to do that now. Money and art are almost opposites. It ruins your artwork. You change your style a little."
While he is known for loaning his works to local restaurants, museums and friends, Rockey last sold a painting about 15 years ago, around the same time he started working on an impressive art book, Love Songs of Middle-Time: Echoed through Illuminations and Fables. He spent nearly $200,000 publishing a run of the ornate book in in 2015, and it's now available at a few stores in Manitou for about $200. But he's reticent to sell it himself.
"I thought it was important to talk about love," he explains. "I'll never sell enough to make that money back. But that wasn't the point -- it was to spread love."
He's now working on a second, slenderer tome titled Sixteen Manners of Being. It's also about love. "I believe love is the reason we are born, to know what love is," says Rockey. "I'm really a believer in love now."
The conversation comes full circle. "Money is the opposite of love," he adds. "I think my work has improved since I don't make art to make money off of it."
Rockey's quick to note that Manitou's gotten pricier, and young artists aren't able to buy buildings like he did nearly 50 years ago. "But it still really loves art and realizes it's an artists' haven, paradise," he says. And it remains unique: "We're trying to keep it as Manitouan as we can. There are no condominiums."
On the way out, Rockey shows off his magic mirror and the Tiffany-looking lamps that are actually just "coathangers and butcher paper" from his teaching days.
"There are a million stories," he says. "This place is inspirational."
Floyd Tunson has worked from his studio in downtown Manitou Springs since 1976. Photo by Kara Pearson Gwinn.
Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn and Adam Williams.
Graphic design by Matt Megyesi.
This story is part of a series about Colorado's Certified Creative Districts. Support for this series is provided by Colorado Creative Industries.