From spray to acrylic, stencil to freestyle, legal and not-so-much, Denver’s urban art scene is erupting. Over the past few years, Denver residents have seen what was once considered a fairly low-brow community rise and take ownership of the streets. There are murals and pieces showing up on walls daily, some commissioned by the city itself, some privately and some not commissioned at all. This urban art scene is alive and well, thanks to a growing base of painters and shifting public views. What was once considered destructive is slowly becoming artwork: the city and its local businesses are wanting their walls painted, and a community of rising Denver stars are all making it happen. We’ve met up with some of the city’s most interesting painters in various realms of the street art scene to talk about their art and the state of urban art in Denver.
Sandra Fettingis is an artist who takes risks and bridges gaps. Coming from a background in fine art, she has made her way into the largely male-dominated realm of street art and has become one of Denver’s most recognizable painters. Her unique aesthetic mixes acrylic and paints to add a new layer to mural-painting. Her walls are large and immersive, so it’s not a surprise that she’s at the top of the radar when it comes to urban art in Denver.
You’re not originally from Denver, right? Where are you from?
Chicago. I came here at the end of 2006. I didn’t love Denver at first — 8.5 years ago Denver was totally different and coming from Chicago, it was really hard. But I started working at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and that is when I found my community and fell in love with Denver. Now I can’t see myself going back.
Tell me a little bit about your work and style.
Currently, I am focusing on public work, mainly murals and sculptural installations. It’s all pattern-based work; where I come up with formulas and systems for the shapes and patterns. I’m plugging those into public spaces, so that could mean street — like literally outside and exterior of a building or the interior of a building in a place where the public is moving through it constantly. I’ve moved from smaller sculptural works meant for galleries into large works meant to be outdoors in the last year and a half or so.
You have a really unique aesthetic. How did you get started using the materials you use?
I’ve always been interested in pattern, shape, and form. I’m really attracted to simple shapes, ever since I was a kid. I have a coloring book that I still have from when I was about 7 or 8 years old. It’s a pattern coloring book, and I colored in the book with the same colors and same balance that I still use now. It’s really interesting because I didn’t find that coloring book until a few years ago and I was like “whoa! I’ve always been like this.” When I got my first computer I taught myself Illustrator and Photoshop, I think that sort of influenced layering because of the “layers palette”. I wasn’t terribly interested in only creating print, so I searched for a way to take those pieces off-screen — but in a 3D form. I started by printing and having work mounted directly to plexiglass. Then I took that film away and had shapes laser cut onto acrylic. It was this very slow process of learning and understanding what I wanted to get to, each step of the way.
How did you get involved in the large scale street art kind of thing?
I painted my first mural in Chicago in 2007. In Chicago part of the community I met were street artists and people doing stuff outside. I really admired them and wondered if I could do that one day. The opportunity came up, I applied and got it! I flew back and remember sitting on the plane looking at my design on the computer and thought “what have I got myself into?” because [the project] was this 30-foot gross wall under a bridge. It was 16 feet up in the air, and I’m kind of afraid of heights. I figured it out and once I got there, I fell in love with it instantaneously. I love being outside and working. I love being within the public; around people who are actually going to be experiencing the piece. They are telling me they enjoy it and I feel like my job is done...It’s amazing, people of all walks of life come up and talk to you.
Ha. They talk to you when you’re up high on a lift?
Oh yeah, all the time. People come up and yell “Hey, HEY! What is this piece about?!” but I have headphones in a lot of the time.
It was several years after that until I got the opportunity to do it again. I think it was my work at the Convention Center that launched this new period for me. And I am so grateful for it. I filled an entire corridor, which was 160 feet long by 16 feet high with a mixed media mural. The centerpiece was enormous and acrylic; capped on either end with a stenciled repeated pattern. I did the doorways and the pillars, so when you’re walking through this corridor, you’re completely engrossed in this environment. It took 20 days to finish with a team. It helped enabled me to keep on this path of working on a large scale. It was great to get my feet wet with something that enormous.
That’s great. What else have you done around town?
I have a piece at the new Galvanize building on Platte in the public entrance. It’s a 30 foot by 9-foot piece, which also mixes material. There’s a street level piece on the new Douglas residence, it’s a huge complex, so it’s this window that’s street level with translucent acrylic. I did the mural outside of RedLine too.
Do these large-scale works in the public change how you view the world now? Do you see textures on walls differently or understand the surfaces differently?
Oh yeah, I see potential walls all the time. Or even little spaces. Sometimes I look at these spaces and think “that could really use something.”
What’s it like being a woman in the street art scene? From the outside, it seems like it’s a pretty male-dominated realm.
I don’t consciously think in terms of gender often. However, I am starting to more and more; I’m starting to recognize it. I have a project coming up soon and they wanted to make sure there was a female presence on the project. That’s great, but at the same time, part of me wonders “why does it have to be this conscious effort?” I don’t know that there are a lot of women doing it, maybe women want to and they just don’t know how, or it’s scary, you know? Street art can either be legal or illegal and the illegal side can be risky. I am lucky because I’m allowed to do my art legally. You get an adrenaline rush from it for sure, and I think that’s part of the reason why people do it. But I feel lucky that I have been able to, as a woman, do these projects. We’re starting to be recognized, but I still don’t fully understand why it has to be a conscious effort. And that’s a bummer.
What advice would you give to people who are aspiring to do large scale street work?
Not everyone agrees with this, but I think when you’re first starting out, it’s okay to do pro-bono work because you need things to put into your portfolio; you need to show that you’re capable of doing large-scale work. Go into a local business you know the owner of and say “hey I noticed that wall, how would you feel about me doing something on it.” You take that photo and you can prove that you can do it, you can respectfully work with somebody. If you’re not given the opportunity, make the opportunity. Go and seek the opportunities out. Ask your mom or your best friend if you can paint on their garage. Maybe you get your feet wet and see if you even like it. Large scale work is much different than gallery sized work.
What do you think puts Denver on the map in the world of street art? What’s your take on the community here?
The art community or street-art community?
Tell me about both.
They feel a little separate. I kind of feel like I might ride the middle-ground. Lately, I’m more in the “regular” art world, but I’m learning more about the public art world, which is different from street art for sure. The street art world in Denver is very male dominated with tons of graffiti.
The mural scene is blowing up, it’s crazy. I feel like there are so many walls that haven’t been touched here. When I first started riding on the Cherry Creek path, I wondered why there were so many blank walls in such a perfect public space. And now people are painting these and it’s happening a lot. I think there are also a lot of people really rallying for it in the city and independently. Like Jonathan Lamb, who organizes the Colorado Crush, is doing it independently. The Denver Urban Arts Fund is sponsoring murals all over. Meininger’s has turned their parking lot wall into a rotating mural wall. Right now Denver is a very fertile ground for everything, this is just one component.
You have a really strong aesthetic, it’s so recognizable. I’m curious, what kind of sets you apart from other artists?
I use different materials and also combine materials in my public work. Combining paint and acrylic and sometimes wood is a big factor in my aesthetic. My forms are pretty sharp too, I generally shy away from curved, soft or rounded forms. With my color palette, it’s limited. Usually black and white with one or two other colors. My work is really tight; everything has a purpose. Specifically, with minimalism, every single edge and a component of a piece is with a purpose. I’m not haphazardly throwing shapes around because they look cool, there’s a formula to my work.
Working in the outdoors and public realm, it seems like you would have a little bit of a loss of control in your work because of the surfaces you’re working with.
Yeah, I like to work with the given elements too. It can be really fun. One of my favorite parts of doing public work is working with the architecture that exists. It goes back to finding that cool moment, that little nook where you just want to place something there and I find that really exciting — plugging the right pattern into a piece of existing architecture and making it seamless.
Can you tell me a little bit about your process?
My process is kind of lengthy, truth be told. I’m a slow designer. What I have found is that by my third session, when I am designing a piece, that’s when it comes together. I know if I have been given a project, I have to look at my calendar and I know I’m going to have “x” amount of time, so I have to give myself 3-5 days just to design the piece. That being said, it happens pretty organically for me. I have an image of the space and I know what the client wants, so I’ll have that in mind. I know what I want as well, so I use the computer to work with the shapes. I play around and find what works right. It’s the weirdest thing, I always know physically when a piece is coming together because my heart starts beating faster. Until that happens, I just keep working. There’s really no point in working at this scale on something you don’t like or you’re not excited about. Anyway, once that happens, I plug in a formula and a system so it’s cohesive and it flows right. That’s usually the design process. Once I get on-site it’s pretty laborious as well. It’s like self-torture in a way, my pieces take a long time.
Yeah they’re super intricate.
Mhm, I have learned to ask for help and it’s also just nice to work with people, it makes the time more enjoyable. Not that it’s not enjoyable to begin with, it just adds an extra layer to the whole experience. I mean I also really love plugging into my headphones too and just working.
What do you listen to?
Looking around your studio, it’s really easy at first glance to be like “oh she works with triangles or she works with rectangles,” and then the more you look, the more each shape takes on its own form as if it had never been a triangle or a rectangle in the first place. You can recognize edges and what not, but the shapes become their own thing completely.
I’m so touched that you can see that, that it’s conveyed and coming out in the work, because I work really hard to create patterns and shapes that are different from anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s so easy, you put any shape together and it’s been done before; you’ve seen it before. I almost immediately scrap things If I feel like I’ve seen it. It sucks because sometimes I’ll organically make something and it will look like something already out there. I’m like, “I love it, but I’ve totally seen it,” and I don’t feel good about making that, so I won’t. I’ll tuck it away and maybe it will change a little bit later on its own. That’s really really important to me: making something unique.
What would you say the future of street art and public art is?
Currently, there seems to be an explosion of it. From sculptures to murals — some people are even exploring things like the ground underneath you, which is really cool... I think things like wall work will stick around because it’s so low maintenance, but, technology is always advancing. A lot more people are becoming open to art on buildings; I don’t really see that going away. People are seeing it less and less as an illegal eyesore and it’s more accepted. It’s becoming more accessible to a wider mass; people don’t only have an interest in preserving the building for a building’s sake, but they want to add art to it. They’re starting to see how it’s adding value and visibility to the space. It’s like “oh my building has a Shepard Fairey on it.” It becomes a landmark. People start taking care of the area where there’s public art too. So it ups the value of a community in general. I see that continuing in the future.
This story is sponsored by The Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Want to uncover more unique stories? Don’t miss The International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes through Jan. 31, 2016 at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Step into Arthur Conan Doyle’s Victorian London and work side by side the legendary Sherlock Holmes to tackle a baffling case. Investigate a crime scene and emboss, stamp, rub and draw your observations to discover the truths behind the mystery. More at dmns.org/sherlock, or find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.