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COPPeR’s shuttle bus program fast-tracks First Fridays all summer 

Get a move on

click to enlarge The MAC hosts a Moonlight Market every First Friday. - ALISSA SMITH
  • Alissa Smith
  • The MAC hosts a Moonlight Market every First Friday.

It’s a monthly struggle, and one I always lose — trying to visit as many galleries as I can on First Friday, when nearly every area gallery celebrates exhibit openings and special events. Typically, I’ll hit a few spots close to the office downtown, get caught up chatting with an artist or curator, and run out of time to see anything beyond my walking distance. Attempting to visit downtown, Manitou Springs and Old Colorado City in one night can mean spending more time looking at traffic lights than looking at art.

But there’s a solution to the struggle: The First Friday Shuttle Bus, presented by the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region, connects the area’s most prolific creative corridors with buses running from 4:30 p.m. to past 9, April through October. That means you can ride it all summer long — for free.

On Friday, May 3, I board the first shuttle at the Depot Arts District under the Colorado Avenue Bridge. (Tip: There’s free parking here and at Cottonwood Center for the Arts, another shuttle stop.)

I’m the only passenger this early — it’s only 4:50 p.m., and most festivities start at 5 — but that just means I get a chance to chat one-on-one with my guide, one of the locals who ride each bus and point passengers to exciting exhibitions. Tonight, that guide is businessman Mark Bittle, who worked the shuttle’s inaugural route in 2017. While we make our way toward OCC, we talk about how it’s easy to miss the hidden gems in the area, and how his job on the shuttle allows him to promote everything from the massively popular Fine Arts Center to the little guys, like By Design Gems, which he says is celebrating its third anniversary tonight.

click to enlarge Find community and connection on First Fridays. - COURTESY LOCAL'S BUREAU
  • Courtesy Local's Bureau
  • Find community and connection on First Fridays.

When I hop off the bus in Old Colorado City, By Design Gems happens to be one of the first doors I see — and has the added bonus of being entirely unfamiliar to me. Turns out, I could easily spend an hour in this jewelry studio, admiring raw and cut gemstones or chatting with jeweler Veronica Willingham about the turquoise she mined herself to use in her silver pieces. But after a lovely conversation, I accept a cupcake from their food spread and move on, enjoying the live music and bustling crowds that make Colorado Avenue come alive on First Fridays.

Like the musicians and art lovers I pass on the street, tiny stories hide around every corner, little human moments behind each door. At Chavez Gallery, I meet with artist Liese Chavez, who teaches me a simple magic trick and gives me a fan-freakin-tastic glass of vodka punch (she’s right, it’s a nice departure from gallery wine). Later, I meet 45 Degree Gallery’s “#1 Patron,” according to her nametag. We chat about how she became involved in the gallery, while I watch artist Stephanie Moon painting a vibrant Colorado landscape in front of a wall of her work.

Live demonstrations aren’t unusual at First Friday events, and OCC has plenty of them. Across the street at Squash Blossom, I spend a few minutes watching a bead-making demonstration by artist Fides Virtu. Three tiny blond children crowd around her table, keeping blessedly clear of the blowtorch; one of their parents asks if Virtu ever gets nervous doing this in front of people.

“When I was young, maybe,” Virtu replies, smiling and spinning a small round bead in a blast of orange flame, “but not anymore.”

On the bus to Manitou Springs, I don’t catch the name of my guide, a local artist who’s chatting with a passenger a few seats up (the shuttles fill as we approach 6 p.m.). But I happily listen in as the road rolls by. We take the turn for Manitou and I’m struck by the overwhelming relief of knowing I won’t have to find parking here tonight. (If nothing else convinces you to take the shuttle, that should do it. No parking. In Manitou. It’s a dream come true.)

click to enlarge A consistent schedule offers a pressure-free night. - ALISSA SMITH
  • Alissa Smith
  • A consistent schedule offers a pressure-free night.

The stop at the town clock lies close to one of my favorite galleries, Commonwheel Artists Co-op, where an exhibit of mushroom-themed art is on display. Entering this popular gallery is like slipping into a riptide. It’s packed to the brim — literally, folks are spilling onto the sidewalk — and I simply let the crowd jostle me in the direction of the exhibit, where artists are chatting and a couple youngsters in hemp sweaters are eyeing the glass mushroom beads on display.

Taxed by the crowds, I finally exit Commonwheel and decide to walk to the Manitou Art Center instead of taking the bus. It’s 63 degrees and sunny, and I soak in the carefree Manitou mood on my way; young couples and chatty women in Chico’s blouses flit past with ice cream and cold coffees in hand. 

When I do get to the MAC, visitors mill around the “Moonlight Market,” the MAC’s monthly street festival. A talented singer plays acoustic guitar and local artisans man their booths — I recognize jeweler Katie Orr, plus some bath bomb vendors.

Inside, I meet Josh Castillo, a local artist whose bright and clean-lined paintings immediately draw me in. I point out my favorite piece, and he laughs with me about how he created it — during one sleepless night, three days before his show opened. Its title, “Overnight,” suddenly makes a lot of sense.

While I enjoy browsing the MAC, I spend more time here than I planned to. My bus either leaves 15 minutes early or arrives 30 minutes late — not sure which — so by the time I’m heading back to downtown, it’s well past 7 and I’m grouchy. Most First Friday events wrap up at 8 p.m., and I have a friend waiting for me downtown.

Thankfully, the antidote to my grouchiness happens to be my guide on the bus I take to Acacia Park, local artist JD Sell, whom I’ve interviewed a couple times over the years and always enjoy talking to. We chat along the way, and he tells me how it’s nice to have a “side hustle” like the shuttle bus to make a little extra money. When this program started, I was concerned it may be a volunteer gig — so many options for artists are — but it’s nice to know folks like Sell are being compensated.

I say goodbye to him outside Story Coffee and rush to find my friend. But by this point it’s already 7:55, and we barely cross the threshold into Boulder Street Gallery before they’re loading up the wine and hors d’oeuvres in preparation for closing. This friend sent me a selfie earlier with what looked to be a tasty chardonnay in her hand, so I’m a little disappointed, but I don’t want to keep them late.

While we don’t have time to check out The Gallery Below or Kreuser, as I had hoped, we do make it over to The Modbo and S.P.Q.R., which are thankfully open until midnight — and busy. At The Modbo this month, works by my favorite local sculptors are on display, and most of the artists are milling around and chatting with patrons. The night ends on a high note, but too soon.

Alas, the struggle continues. I did hit every gallery I could, but I didn’t hit nearly every gallery I wanted to. No bus can bend time. But there’s a lot of value in fast-tracking your First Friday with a little help. You’ll meet artists and get first pick at the best pieces in your favorite exhibitions. But, mostly, you’ll collect stories, which are the best reward you’ll get for your time.

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