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Art on the Streets offers a socially distant summer experience downtown 

A SIGN OF HOPE

click to enlarge “Nutrition Sculpture” by Will Vannerson is meant to inspire curiosity. - STELLAR PROPELLER
  • Stellar Propeller
  • “Nutrition Sculpture” by Will Vannerson is meant to inspire curiosity.

A little more than 20 years ago, downtown Colorado Springs had gone quiet. The streets lay largely empty, and the area’s many closed storefronts deterred shoppers from stepping into the businesses that were still open and trying to survive. In 2020, downtown has suffered another stretch of silence. This time, it’s not as it was in the ’90s — an effect of new shopping centers and malls driving traffic out of the city core — but due to the pandemic and safer-at-home orders that are meant to curtail the spread of the novel coronavirus.

But as restaurants have reopened for limited dine-in service and retail businesses attempt to recover from March and April’s losses, a beloved downtown program is stepping up to try to bring foot traffic and engagement back to the center of Colorado Springs: Art on the Streets, a program of the Downtown Partnership’s nonprofit affiliate Downtown Ventures. Since its first exhibit in 1998, Art on the Streets has brought more than 300 unique pieces of artwork to the city core.

“I think it’s important to remind people that when Art on the Streets got started, you had tumbleweeds rolling down Tejon Street,” says Claire Swinford, urban engagement manager of the Downtown Partnership. “You had a bunch of local businesses that had closed their doors or were hanging on by their fingernails. ... And it just didn’t feel like the urban core was a good place to hang out anymore. But Art on the Streets was one of the first tools brought to bear to fix that. And it did fix it.”

click to enlarge Romano Foster says his mural expresses how he sees the world. - STELLAR PROPELLER
  • Stellar Propeller
  • Romano Foster says his mural expresses how he sees the world.

She expresses that accessible, engaging public artwork brought interest back to downtown in the ’90s, and Art on the Streets’ 2020 exhibit will hopefully do the same in a safe and sustainable way, even as our community continues to fight off the spread of COVID-19. 

“Now, obviously, it’s very different in many ways,” Swinford says, “but we’re in the same situation in that our local business owners need a sign of hope; our local creatives need to feel seen. And our residents need something to connect with. And I think that Art on the Streets still serves those purposes really, really effectively.”

Art on the Streets, which is now celebrating its 22nd exhibit, dots the downtown core with a curated exhibit of public art annually, and each year the program purchases one piece to add to its permanent collection. The exhibit typically stays up for an entire calendar year, with multiple opportunities for the public to get engaged, like participating in walking tours or voting for the People’s Choice award. In 2019, the program included murals for the first time, which resulted in locally beloved pieces like “Bananacat” by Cymon Padilla, a playful pink cat surrounded by bananas that graces the side of The Perk Downtown on Tejon Street.

“Obviously it hurts a little bit that we weren’t able to do our last tour of the exhibit before it went away,” Swinford says, “But [2019’s exhibit] is — at least in terms of private acquisitions of works — it’s probably one of the more successful since I took over management of the program in 2016. ... I think it’s just sort of a proof of concept as far as including murals in the exhibit.”

She adds that of the six murals that were included in 2019, five will remain on display indefinitely. Three were purchased (including “Bananacat,” purchased by The Perk Downtown; “Fire in My Soul,” on Penrose Library, purchased by Pikes Peak Library District; and “Origami Urban Oasis” in the bus station, purchased by Mountain Metropolitan Transit). Kim Carlino and SCOTCH!, two of the remaining mural artists, decided to allow their work to remain on display, even though neither was purchased.

Swinford says these murals and the rest of the public art — both from the new exhibit and those of years past — offer a sense of normalcy. “Art on the Streets has been part of this community for certainly as long as I’ve lived here; it stretches back in people’s memories,” she says. “It’s one of the signs of spring, right? You get the robins, you get the flowers on the trees, and you get Art on the Streets downtown. So to have that sense of normalcy, I think, is really welcome.”

Thankfully, the 2020 exhibit — which received 129 submissions from local, regional, national and international artists — went through the jury process exactly one week before the state’s stay-at-home orders were announced in mid-March, but Swinford says the team has faced other unusual challenges getting the exhibit up in the time of COVID-19.

For one, Swinford did the entire site-selection process from her own home. “You know, normally there’s a lot of staff brainstorming sessions and walking around downtown looking at things,” she says, “and this year it was mostly done via Google Street View.”

click to enlarge Denver artist Jolt wanted to express his love of Colorado Springs. - STELLAR PROPELLER
  • Stellar Propeller
  • Denver artist Jolt wanted to express his love of Colorado Springs.

Moreover, it’s been challenging to get buy-in from businesses and locations that might otherwise have jumped at the chance to host an Art on the Streets sculpture or mural. “[P]eople are having a harder time than usual taking the sort of flying leap of like, ‘Yeah, you can put something wild and crazy on my building right now.’ They’re just worried about how to keep the doors open, let alone what’s going on the wall outside.”

While some pieces in this year’s exhibit, from murals to sculptures, are flat-out odd and others are meant to be more serious and evocative, all of them send a message.

“There were some interesting themes that emerged in this year’s exhibit,” Swinford says, “You know, we never go in with a theme, but sometimes they just happen. And this year, we have a couple pieces that overtly or obliquely talk about neurodiversity.” 

For example, Nebraska-based artist Matthew Carlson created the dragon-like metal figure “Guardian” in honor of his son, who is on the autism spectrum. “And Matt called the piece ‘Guardian’ because he said, ‘I felt like I needed to interpose something between my son and how he interacts with the world,’” Swinford says. 

Then there’s local teen Romano Foster, who once apprenticed with renowned artist Virgil Ortiz (Ortiz was a juror for the exhibit; Swinford says he recused himself from the vote on Foster). Foster’s piece directly comments on how he sees the world as someone who is not neurotypical. He created his own alphabet and made a billboard out of the letters that looks like a message, but it’s one that no one will be able to decipher. 

The final piece Swinford says fits the surprise theme is “We” by Nicki Pike, who grew up in Colorado Springs and now lives in Denver. The sculpture, which depicts the words “We the Privileged” cast in metal, sits upon a stone plinth that will also be used as a performance space during the downtown First Friday scavenger hunt in August. The performers will all be from communities too seldom represented (or seldom represented fairly) in the arts. 

“How do we honor contemporary cultural workers,” Swinford asks, “especially when they represent marginalized points of view? Where do they get space to perform? Do they get paid? And so the concept behind ‘We’ is, we’re going to give them a plinth, and they are going to be a living monument for the space of their performance.” Of course, all performers will be paid. 

click to enlarge Tom Benedict carved “The Whirlwind Juniper” from a single tree. - STELLAR PROPELLER
  • Stellar Propeller
  • Tom Benedict carved “The Whirlwind Juniper” from a single tree.

But First Friday celebrations — which are still in flux as the pandemic develops — are not the public’s only opportunities to enjoy these works. All summer, all year, folks can explore the exhibit in an active, socially distant way. While guided tours might be canceled for now, maps are available via the Downtown Partnership website. Swinford also recommends downloading Otocast, a free audio tour app that offers art lovers a self-guided audio tour of the exhibit. With the tap of a screen, you can access recordings of the artists themselves, or someone close to the artists, explaining the inspiration and purpose of their pieces.

While no one can predict exactly what the next few months will look like — whether traditional First Friday art openings will return or virtual exhibits and Zoom-based artist talks are the way of the future — Art on the Streets remains one reliable avenue for engaging with the creative community of Colorado Springs, and the people who love and support it.

“You can go look at the art and be perfectly safe as long as you’re staying your required distance away from others,” Swinford says. “And furthermore, even if you’re having the experience of like, you’re standing 12 feet down the sidewalk one way and there’s someone else standing 12 feet down the sidewalk the other way, you could still make eye contact with them and point to the cool thing that you’re both looking at, and make exaggerated gestures from behind your masks. It’s still that human connection. Because, like, as much as we want people to connect with the art, the point is, they should be connecting with each other because of their reaction to the art.”

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