By Laurel Thompson | Photos by Sam Crenshaw
Whether you’re new to the area or you’ve lived in Northern Colorado all your life, you’ve probably noticed pops of color appearing along the sides of buildings as you drive through town. Once few and far in between, murals have become a more common Whether you’re new to the area or you’ve lived in Northern Colorado all your life, you’ve probably noticed pops of color appearing along the sides of buildings as you drive through town. Once few and far in between, murals have become a more common sight as local artists find creative ways to leave their mark.
Some murals are private commissions, and other art installations, like Fort Collins’ Pianos About Town, Greeley’s Traffic Cabinet Mural Project and the multi-story mural on The Foundry in Loveland, are sponsored by the cities in collaboration with other philanthropic organizations. But most of the murals that have come to life in Fort Collins over the past few years are part of a grassroots movement that is gaining momentum: the Fort Collins Mural Project.
Denver-based muralist Lindee Zimmer first got the idea to start a community mural project when she was painting the back of the Alley Cat Cafe in 2015. Someone from the Downtown Business Association happened to be walking by and asked if she was the only one painting murals in Fort Collins—a question that made her stop and think.
“I was sure I wasn’t the only one, but I realized there really weren’t a lot of opportunities for emerging artists to express themselves on a large canvas and get their work out there for the community to see,” she explains. “So, I got a team together and started thinking about what I wanted the project to look like in terms of how we would find local muralists, blank walls and sponsors, and where and when the project would take place.”
Soon after, the Fort Collins Mural Project was granted nonprofit status and Zimmer began her search for artists and buildings to paint. A church behind the Downtown Artery (now a parking lot) allowed her to paint five murals on its walls—a mini mural project that caught the attention of other building owners and a handful of local sponsors. Early on, Zimmer decided that all the funds donated to the Fort Collins Mural Project would go directly to the artists, who would be paid by the square foot.
“The whole purpose of the project is to support muralists and give them a platform to showcase their work so that they can make connections and find other opportunities to keep creating art in the community,” she says. “We mainly choose emerging artists, many of whom have never painted a mural before, and we also reserve 40 percent of our spots for BIPOC (Black, Ingenious or People of Color) so that we can provide space for artists of all backgrounds.”
When pairing artists with walls around town, Zimmer takes into account the artists’ skill level and medium (for example, brush paint versus spray paint) to make them feel at home. She also notes that the Fort Collins Mural Project isn’t a bunch of commission murals—since artists are paid by the nonprofit and not the building owners, the artists are given full creative license to paint whatever they want on each wall. Once assigned a wall, muralists submit a concept for the space and make minor tweaks, if any, before getting started.
The creative freedom and opportunity to become more deeply immersed in the Fort Collins art scene is what drew 17-year muralist Jess Bean to the project last year. She had spent the majority of her career painting interior murals and was looking for a new challenge—something that the very same building offered Zimmer back in 2015. When she was chosen for the project and given a wall behind the Alley Cat Cafe, she took the opportunity to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Almost every mural I’ve seen depicting Black people has been of famous black people, so I wanted to do a piece that represented the collective Black experience and not just one individual,” she says. “The project not only gave me the opportunity to recognize and show support for communities of color, but to make connections within the local art community as well.”
One of those connections was Justin Decou, a Denver-based artist who painted his first large-scale mural during last year’s project. Decou goes by the alias JUHB. and is known for his intricate pattern work, abstract designs and simple yet bold color palettes—a style completely different from Bean’s, though the two still shopped for paint together and became good friends over the course of the project.
“I had never done a mural like this before, so I really just went for it and ended up being the last one to finish. That’s when the wildfires got really bad last summer and it was hard to see, but Jess and the other artists came to help me finish it even though there was ash raining down on us. Lindee usually throws a party at the end of each project, but we couldn’t really do that because of COVID, so we all just took pictures and celebrated the finale of the project right there,” he says.
Zimmer has hope that this year’s mural project will be just as great as the last—minus the fires and pandemic shutdowns. The 2021 project will take place over one week in mid-September. She is also adding QR codes to previous murals that will take viewers to a digital map so they can walk, bike or drive to see the artists’ work. Until then, the map can be found on the Fort Collins Mural Project website, fcmuralproject.org.
“Our murals are all over the city, but we really try to keep them as walkable and bikeable as possible so people can do their own art tours,” Zimmer explains. “We have more funding and more walls this year than we did in 2020, but I want to make sure that we stay intentional about our mission rather than focusing on growth. It’s all about supporting local artists and making Fort Collins an even more beautiful place to live.”