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How Colorado used art to navigate 2020
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With every major news story of the yearfrom protests for racial justice; the pandemic; the presidential election and moreColoradans across the state used art to express their emotions.

Art can often be used as an escape. But with the challenges presented by 2020, art was often used as a megaphone.

Rocky Mountain PBS worked to help amplify these messages as part of our Colorado Voices series. Below we have compiled a retrospective on how Coloradans navigated the rough waters of 2020 by creating art.

Racial Justice

The killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 was the beginning of a nationwide movement against police brutality and the unfair treatment of Black people in America.

In Colorado, there were protests across the state, including Denver.

After the protests in late May, several buildings were damaged in downtown Denver. The windows of the City and County Building, for example, were shattered. But instead of covering the windows with plywood and leaving it at that, the city partnered with students at Noel Community Arts School, who painted the boards with messages of hope and change to create something beautiful.

The students took the project as an opportunity to show adults that they are just as aware of the city and country’s problems—racism, police brutality, climate change—as the adults are, if not more so.

Colorado Voices

Telling a Story

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High School art students share their voice through art.

“A lot of people, they don’t listen to kids because they think we’re naïve,” said Abijah Baker, a ninth grade student at NCAS. “When we go out and do something like this, we show adults that we are just as good as them; that we can sometimes explain something better than they can.”

The Instagram account BoardsForChange helped launch a similar effort in cities all over the country. Artists turned the boards on businesses, many closed by the COVID-19 pandemic, into murals supporting Black Lives Matter and memorializing George Floyd.

“Art is a powerful thing, it’s been used for social justice for centuries,” artist Karlee Mariel said as she painted Floyd’s face on to a board outside the former Sports Authority building in Capitol Hill. “The opportunity to paint on something this large is wonderful… How often is it that there’s this quantity of available canvases around the city to paint on?”

Colorado Voices

Boarded up Art

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Artist are transforming boarded up business downtown.

After the killing of George Floyd, past cases of apparent police brutality came under renewed scrutiny, including cases in Colorado. One of the most notable examples of this was the death of Elijah McClain, who died in August 2019 after officers with the Aurora Police Department put him in a now-banned chokehold and administered him a dose of ketamine in an effort to subdue him, even though he had not committed a crime.

Several pieces of art around Colorado paid tribute to McClain, including a wire statue placed on power lines near the Colorado State Capitol building.

This 60-foot mural by Gregg Deal may be the largest mural portrait honoring an Indigenous person in the United States.

“I just wanted to make a piece that was dedicated to Elijah McClain,” said Reed Bmore, the artist behind the sculpture. “I remember thinking about the story a few months ago and just being heartbroken.”

Murals were a popular form of expression as well, from the walls of RiNo to the Black Love Mural Festival.

In July, Indigenous activist and artist Gregg Deal painted a 60-foot-tall mural in the heart of downtown Colorado Springs to bring attention to the violence against Indigenous women, girls, and Two Spirit individuals.

And, like many cities across the country—from Washington, D.C. to Chicago to Los Angeles—the Denver community also came together to create a Black Lives Matter mural along Broadway. The idea came from artist Adri Norris.

Similar murals were also painted in Frisco and Crested Butte.

Colorado Voices

Crested Butte BLM

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Community activists say Crested Butte has experienced an "awakening" about racism.

“There’s an awakening happening in Crested Butte,” said Chloe Bowman, who started the Melanin Mountain Project.

The COVID-19 Pandemic

In the face of so much uncertainty and loss during the COVID-19 pandemic, many people turned to art, music and movies to help them make it through these turbulent months. But the COVID-19 virus and ensuing restrictions affected people responsible for creating this beloved art: concerts were canceled, museums were closed, and thousands of arts workers were suddenly out of work.

In July, Rocky Mountain PBS spoke with Kevin Zegan, the President of IATSE Local 7, a union that represents nearly 330 union members and two thousand registered workers in the film, theater, and exhibiting industry.

“It's been a very challenging storm to weather because we don't see the light at the end of the tunnel until potentially January of next year, maybe even beyond that,” Zegan said at the time.

One of the biggest changes in the world of Colorado arts and culture was the virtual Five Points Jazz Festival. Instead of holding an outdoor event like it's been done for the better part of the past 20 years, the festival partnered with Rocky Mountain PBS, KUVO Jazz, and THE DROP to deliver a two-hour television broadcast and subsequent radio show.

Colorado Culture

Five Points Jazz Festival 2020

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A musical celebration of the art and culture of Five Points, Denver's "Harlem of the West."

Art wasn't limited to the canvas or instruments, either. In Colorado Springs, the nonprofit Concrete Couch turned what was once an illegal dump site into a hub of public art, ecology seminars, and volunteer opportunities.

A message from one of the murals at Concrete Couch in Colorado Springs.

Some music and arts venues in Colorado attempted to draw attention to just how difficult the pandemic has been on the entertainment industry by participating in the Red Alert campaign.

Recently, the popular Denver jazz club Dazzle started an online concert series in order to give musicians paid gigs. The venue is also home to a free food pantry for struggling musicians.

“As gig workers, unemployment is not able to cover a whole lot for them, so anything we can do to alleviate some of the stress of money and bills and keep them fed, hopefully that will help them out,” said Matt Ruff, general manager of Dazzle.

Other artists used their skills to pay tribute to the front line health care employees working through the pandemic. Dr. Sarah Rowan, a full-time infectious disease specialist at Denver Public Health, launched a project called Women of Color on the Front Lines. The goal of the project was to spotlight the female health care workers of color during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rowan and her artist friends created portraits of these heroic women and uploaded them to an online gallery. She received hundreds of pictures of health care workers from all over the country. Artists from outside Colorado joined in to create the portraits, too.

Colorado Voices

Women of Color on the Front Lines

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Women of Color on the Front Lines is a tribute to those fighting COVID-19.

Memorable art also emerged from unexpected places, like the supermax prison in Florence.

Some of the incarcerated men at the prison, often referred to as ADX, participated in a healing arts program designed to foster self-discipline and respect. Their paintings were on display at the Fremont Center for the Arts in Cañon City as part of an exhibition called “Brokenhood: The Art of Healing Through Community.”

Some arts workers even changed course and opened new businesses in the pandemic.

After the well-known South Broadway rock club 3 Kings closed its doors for the last time in March, Peter Ore and Scott Happel opened a new venue in October called HQ that will be in the old 3 Kings location.

“We weren't going to pass up the opportunity to take over the place we've been trying to get for years, just because of [the pandemic],” Ore said. “We're either going to be the two smartest guys in the world or the two dumbest guys in the world for doing it.”

Bryan and Sean Ostrow

In Colorado Springs, brothers Bryan and Sean Ostrow, mainstays—if not legends—in the local scene, opened a new record store called What’s Left Records in August. Before the pandemic hit, the brothers both worked as bartenders, live music talent buyers, and promoters, booking stages in venues across Colorado Springs.

“When all the COVID stuff started happening, we were both out of a job,” Bryan said. The record store was not only a path to employment but also a way to share their knowledge and love of music with their community in a time when many people needed to escape the often grim reality of life during COVID-19.

One of the common threads of the major events in 2020 was hope. People hoped for safety, vaccines, and justice. They hoped for a return to normalcy and togetherness. One of the people spreading that hope was artist Koko Bayer. She has pasted over 300 "hope hearts" in the Denver area as part of Project Spread Hope.

Bayer said she "wanted to create a print that would help people feel a little bit better.”

Colorado Voices

Denver Mural Project Spreads Hope

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Artist Koko Bayer has pasted over 300 hearts across Denver as part of Project Spread Hope.

Politics and the 2020 Presidential Election

On September 18, 2020, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away due to complications with pancreatic cancer at age 87.

The reaction to Ginsburg's death in Washington was swift: Democrats wanted to wait until after the November election to fill the late justice's seat, while Republicans sought to add another conservative justice to the Court.

While lawmakers in D.C. toiled over Ginsburg's replacement, tributes to the influential justiceoften referred to by just her initials, RBGtook place across the country.

A community mural project at the History Colorado Center in Denver celebrated RBG's life and legacy.

“History Colorado, throughout our This is What Democracy Looks Like initiative, has really been emphasizing how art plays a role in both history and democracy,” said Julie Peterson, an exhibit developer at History Colorado.

Colorado Voices

History Colorado remembering RBG

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History Colorado Center is celebrating justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

It was often easy to forget that 2020 was an election year with all the other news happening, but that didn’t prevent Coloradans from turning out in record numbers. More than 3.2 million people voted in Colorado, the highest turnout ever. About 76.4 of eligible voters voted, which is also a state record. Only Minnesota had a higher turnout percentage-wise.

In the end, President-elect Joe Biden won Colorado’s nine electoral votes, and Democrat John Hickenlooper defeated GOP incumbent Cory Gardner for the open Senate seat in the Centennial State.

Colorado’s turnout can be attributed in part to the state’s robust voting-by-mail system, which was even more popular due to the COVID-19 pandemic (voting in person was considered an unnecessary exposure by many). Still, one Boulder-based dance company used their unique set of skills to get out the vote.

Colorado Voices

Dancing for Democracy

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Boulder dance company encouraging you to get out and vote through dance video.

“In this season where I feel like there is so much division and negativity...we wanted to put something out that would help uplift us, inspire us, energize us, and motivate us as a people to use our collective voices and individual power to vote for what matters to us,” said Linzee Klinkenberg, the artistic director for New Breed Dance Company.

She added that the company wanted to emphasize the diversity of the dancers and the issues they care about. The age of the dancers in the video ranges from 18 to 72 years old, according to Klinkenberg.

“It’s so challenging as an artist right now: we have no theaters, no stages, no studios, no seasons,” Klinkenberg said. “We’ve worked our whole lives to hone our gifts and talents and share them with the world, and so we’re still looking for inventive ways to utilize our gifts and contribute to our community, and if that literally means dancing on the street, so be it. Because we are passionate about the arts.”

And while it wasn’t necessarily choreographed, there was also a lot of dancing in Denver on the Saturday the race was called for Joe Biden.

Colorado Voices

Biden Celebration takes to the Streets

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Celebration took the streets of Downtown Denver for Biden/Harris.

Resources for arts workers and creative industries

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