Boulder's Street Wise Mural Festival decks the walls with revolutionary artivism, interactive experiences

·9 min read

Sep. 23—Street Wise Mural Festival — Boulder's annual celebration of public art and the people who make it — returns for its fourth year.

Starting Thursday and running through Oct. 2, creatives will transform ordinary brick facades and concrete surfaces into one-of-a-kind works of art.

"The best part about the evolution of Street Wise Mural Festival is how much of a visual impact we make every year, with a blast of new artists making their mark," said Leah Brenner Clack, founder of Street Wise Arts. "This year we are more concentrated on quality over quantity, so the number of murals has decreased, but they are more concentrated together. And we've added projection mapping, an artist workshop series, guided tours and augmented reality to create a more robust viewer experience."

"We also have an awesome headquarters downtown (1909 Broadway St, Ste. 100), which will include an art installation, exhibition and event space during the festival," Clack said.

Two returning events include the Art & Activism artist panel and an all-ages spray painting workshop with Grow Love.

"Every year, I learn a little bit more about what works and what doesn't so it really feels like this year's events are more streamlined and unique over years past," Clack said.

While there are still some days left on the calendar before the festival's official kickoff, young artists are already working to create a spectacular piece in Boulder's Goss Grove neighborhood.

Last weekend, under the direction of artist Joseph Jimenez, high school- and college-aged artists started painting a new work.

"It's really interesting hearing about the topics that are meaningful to them and how they choose to visualize that," Jimenez said. "This isn't my first time working with youth on an art project, but every time I am fascinated by their skill and perspective."

The evolving work will relay the importance of maintaining an inner peace even when faced with chaos.

"The mural we are working on will focus on the protection of our mental health and encouraging a balanced expression of emotions," Jimenez said. "I'm not surprised by the topic really, with everything that has happened recently — the pandemic, climate change, war, King Soopers shooting, Marshall Fire — there needs to be a way to cope with it all."

Jimenez was raised in Los Angeles and attributes the City of Angels for strongly influencing his creativity and artistic style.

"Growing up, there was art everywhere," Jimenez said. "If you wanted to create something and didn't have much money, all you needed was a pen or spray can and a surface. I was the kid in school who was constantly drawing on books, desks, bathroom stalls, you name it. It cost me my grades, but it was very soothing. Later in adulthood, I learned that I had undiagnosed ADHD which played a big role in my life as an artist."

For Jimenez, art served as both a much-needed escape and a slice of salvation.

"I grew up in the Rampart district of L.A., which was a very dangerous place in the '90s," Jimenez said. "You had the Rampart police scandal, gang violence, Rodney King, L.A. riots, Northridge earthquake. All of that created the feeling of a war zone. But it also was a time with a lot of style and creativity. Art was a distraction from the realities of life. I could just dig into my drawings and nothing else mattered."

Jimenez finds comfort in seeing the Front Range offer more platforms for diverse artists. He credits Clack with bridging the gap for many.

"When I lived in Boulder the first time — around about 15 years ago — there wasn't an art scene like what Street Wise is doing," Jimenez said. "There was plenty of art, but not street art, and definitely not art by people of color."

The mural being made by young artists, under Jimenez, will be completed during the final days of Street Wise.

"One of our main focuses as an arts organization is working with youth and inspiring the next generation of artists," Clack said. "It's always been something we've wanted to make a part of the festival as well, so having the means and wall space this year to make it happen is pretty exciting."

Returning to the festival will be artist Jessica Moon Bernstein-Schiano.

Her eye-catching piece of a polar bear, on an iceberg, roaring out a rainbow once graced the now-shuttered Liquor Mart in Boulder. It is now one of the works on display on the exterior wall of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China, as part of "Art for the People: The Earth" exhibit.

"I am looking forward to seeing my concept come to life and to interact with the public," Bernstein-Schiano said. "That's what makes street art so much fun is interacting with folks just passing by and curious about what you're doing. It starts a dialogue about the art."

From stirring installations to sculptures, Bernstein-Schiano's work usually spotlights the state of nature and the planet's fragility.

"Climate change, the waste stream and endangered species are various subjects that influence my work and are expressed in my art," Bernstein-Schiano said. "I believe the human impact on our planet's environment is one of the most pressing issues of our time and one which often evokes a sense of powerlessness."

Her upcoming Street Wise mural draws from environmental topics she is passionate about.

"My mural concept will include a background of climate stripes, which show clearly and vividly how Boulder's average temperatures have risen over nearly two centuries," Bernstein-Schiano said. "No words. No numbers. No graphs. Just a series of vertical colored bars, showing the progressive heating of our planet in a single, striking image."

Bernstein-Schiano's upcoming work will also be influenced by the Boulder legend of Chief Niwot's curse. He is credited as proclaiming, "People seeing the beauty of this valley will want to stay, and their staying will be the undoing of the beauty."

While many people claim the curse is about those who have once lived in Boulder will always return, Bernstein-Schiano explains it's a bit deeper than that.

"Chief Niwot's curse, also known as the Curse of Boulder Valley, is attributed to Chief Niwot, who is said to have first stated it upon meeting the first white gold-seekers to visit what is now known as the Boulder Valley," Bernstein-Schiano said. "According to the chief, the curse of the valley was its breathtaking landscape."

Bernstein-Schiano will incorporate Chief Niwot's image as well as silhouette images of various endangered species found in Boulder County into her new Street Wise piece.

Lakota artist Cante Eagle Horse will be participating for the first time at Street Wise. Although this will only be her second mural festival ever, she has a long history of working on an unconventional canvas.

"I got into tattooing when I finally took the leap to have a non-traditional career in my third year of college," she said. "I wasn't sure what I would do with my degree, but I knew that art would make me happy, and tattooing had my interest from a young age."

For Cante Eagle Horse, there is a similarity between adorning skin and creating a piece out in public with a captive audience.

"I would say that without tattooing, I wouldn't have been prepared or as confident to put art onto a large-scale wall," she said. "Permanently marking bodies full-time has given me the ability to easily transfer and apply what I already know to walls."

While she remains a sought-out tattoo artist at Denver's Two Thunders Tattoo, Cante Eagle Horse is enthused about opportunities to explore other mediums.

"I'm most looking forward to working with the Dairy Arts Center, Creative Nations space and the lineup of great artists," she said. "I am creating a piece that shares some of the positive things Indigenous communities have done or have been doing for generations to protect the land."

Last weekend, Dairy Arts Center launched the Creative Nations Sacred Space, a permanent, dedicated space for Indigenous artists. Creative Nations, a collective of Indigenous artists, was formed over the pandemic with goals to provide accurate representation of Native arts in Colorado and to create opportunities and resources for emerging artists and youth.

Street Wise, heavily steeped in the concept of "artivism," is also utilizing technology in innovative ways this year.

"The new digital offerings in the festival include a series of murals from previous years that are being activated with augmented reality, and all the new murals will have augmented reality, as well, once they are completed," Clack said.

To experience the murals with augmented reality, folks can download the Artivive app and point their device at a specific work to learn more.

"Additionally we're offering night-time projection mapping at multiple locations downtown over the course of the festival with artists Waveform and Deep Space Drive In," Clack said. "We're co-presenting the 'Best of Supernova 7th Dimension' with Denver Digerati at the Dairy Arts Center (on Oct. 2) and downtown projections on the Colorado Building (on Oct. 1). All of these are free experiences."

While much joy is found in watching artists on ladders and cranes creating public works, the spirit of the festival continues to radiate with pieces that remain up on walls throughout Boulder. Even when the festival wraps, folks can leisurely stroll to see the new works at no charge.

"It's super rewarding to present a blast of new murals and art experiences to the Boulder community that has a much longer impact, even after the festival events are over," Clack said.

Like always, while these large-scale pieces beautify the city, they are also crafted with purpose — they're there to elicit feelings in onlookers, and perhaps even bring forth change.

"I really hope that our mural festival continues to build community and empathy for the human experience," Clack said. "The artists are visionaries and art really helps propel change and growth of a culture, so it's pretty rewarding to watch unfold."

To plan your festival experience, visit the mural map for 2022.