Local Artist Paints the Nightmare to Live the Dream

Bryan Collins at work in his studio

By Maggie Canty-Shafer

The Fort Collins art scene has been dealt its share of criticism, oftentimes from the source itself. The common complaint – that if one’s work doesn’t fit into the landscape and/or Southwest imagery genre, you’re fighting a losing battle – seems to keep many artists wary of settling anywhere north of Denver.

Ironically, it’s the same complaint that keeps Bryan Collins pulling out his paintbrush every day.

“It’s more important to build a scene than to join one,” he said of settling in Fort Collins. “The soil is fertile for an awesome art scene and it’s gaining momentum.Why can’t Fort Collins have a national art scene?”

Collins, who started drawing while still in diapers, displayed his art most recently at the Gallery Underground, which recently closed. His work, self-described as whimsical surrealism, combines cartoon and children’s storybook thematic imagery with a darker, macabre edge. It’s as if Poe’s The Raven was made into a Disney movie.

His colorful characters and imaginative settings bring out the child in the viewer, while the nightmarish monsters remind them what lies under the bed – the darkness in this world, and perhaps more frighteningly, in ourselves.

“That’s what adults are: Kids pretending to be serious,” he said. “But you’re still just a kid. Kids will see the grim message and remember they have issues too.”

His efforts to strengthen and nourish an art scene in Fort Collins include displaying in places where his art becomes part of the environment, not the catalyst. Putting art up in coffee shops, alleyways, restaurants and bars brings his emotionally inspiring and attention-demanding pieces to people who otherwise wouldn’t have sought them out. So commuters become viewers and coffee shoppers, critics. At the end of the day, everyone becomes an art lover and the world, a gallery.

“My passion is for getting new people into art,” he said. “People who like it but don’t know yet that they like it.”

Collins never went to art school and walked out of the only college-level art class he ever took. He didn’t choose painting as a career, but rather as an outlet – a coping mechanism as natural as breathing.

“When I was a teenager, life was so confusing that the only place I felt at peace was at my drafting table,” he said. “It was where I could put these intangible questions into tangible things to process them. Everyone has a different way of dealing with emotional struggles. Art is the way I vent, and it has always worked for me.”

Collins’ tools of choice are acrylic paint and colored pencil, but he also uses watercolor, pastels, scratchboard and whatever else his current project demands. He’s often inspired by the outdoors, his two young children, dreams, nightmares and the paradoxes of life that arise when least expected.

A drive home galvanized a painting when he witnessed a grizzled and tattooed man on a Harley, for instance. A tough character at first glance, the biker passed Collins’ car and Collins caught glimpse of a bouquet of flowers carefully strapped to his back and on their way to an unknown recipient.

Naturally occurring contrasts and glimpses into the heart and character, like the flower-carrying biker, make their way into his work and bring it to life, offering realism to the exaggerated and animated subjects.

Collins has been creating full-time for over three years, and plans to continue as long as the current art climate will allow.

“My kids just being kids help me remember the message,” he said. “To be carefree and keep enjoying it. When I don’t, I start to view it as work. I’d rather be poor and happy than rich and unhappy.”

Bryan Collins currently has art in shows across the U.S. and the U.K. You can see his work at upcoming shows in Fort Collins at CooperSmith’s Pub & Brewing (5 Old Town Square) throughout this month and also at NewWestFest in August. See and purchase Collins’ art at bacstudio.com or reach him by email at bryan@bacstudio.com.

"That One Word Echoed Like ___"

"El Gato Rojo"

Painting the Town Red Rocks: Local Artist Paints World-Class Venue

By Maggie Canty-Shafer

Julie Downing doesn’t stop just to smell the flowers.

She stops to revel in their design, their beauty and intricacies. She stops to soak in each petal and leaf, the colors and contrast, the miracle of its life. She stops to thank what she knows as Mother Nature for such a perfect and delicate piece of artwork, and also to wonder how she’ll incorporate it into her own.

Downing is an artist (known locally for her series of Red Rocks paintings) whose vibrant personality can’t help but appear on the paper. The bright colors, psychedelic loops and lines and hidden female imagery evoke feelings of an earthly excitement and reminisce of a generation that believed in change and hoped in love.

“I’m a naturalist,” she said. “I try and convey a love of nature through my work. The message I would have to say is for people to look closer at it. I want people to look for the detail.”

She has been creating art since she can remember. Raised by an artist, she grew up earning money for shows by sewing patchwork clothing to sell outside her favorite concerts – a worthy exchange for tickets, food and lodging.

Downing received her B.F.A. in sculpture and life drawing from Minnesota State University Mankato, but since becoming a mother of two and wife of Musketeer Gripweed’s Jason Downing, watercolor has become a more accessible and family-friendly medium for her.

“I started painting because it was something I could do with my son,” she said.

Red Rocks was an obvious subject choice for the Widespread Panic fan, who hasn’t missed their annual weekend at the world class venue since 1998 – not counting the year she went into labor during the Saturday night performance with her oldest son.

“I suppose being in labor was an acceptable excuse,” Downing said, laughing.

She started painting Red Rocks annually in 2006, signing and numbering limited prints that she sells at shows as well as at Nature’s Own and on etsy.com. Her 2006 and 2007 prints have sold out, and 2011’s will be out this June.

“It’s very humbling to be able to produce art for my peers,” she said.

Along with the Red Rock’s portraits, Downing has painted limited edition concert posters for Musketeer Gripweed, Horsetooth Rock and various pieces incorporating female genitalia that she’s sold outside of the Vagina Monologues performances. Her art – largely influenced by Alphonse Mucha and ‘60s poster art – has been purchased and collected by people from all over the states, and even printed onto t-shirts for a wedding party.

With both her fans’ growing demands and her own ever-increasing desire to create, Downing sees herself painting for a long time.

“I believe I’ve been put on this earth to do some kind of art,” she said. “I believe that’s what I’m supposed to do and I hope to do it until I die.”

Find Julie Downing’s artwork on etsy.com. You can also view and purchase her art at Nature’s Own in Old Town Fort Collins.

Here are two examples of her work:

"Red Rocks 2008"

"Red Rocks 2009"

 

The Riflemen’s Final Salute – Dual CD Release Party to be Local Legends’ Farewell Show

The Riflemen

By Maggie Canty-Shafer

In a college town, band deaths due to attrition are as crowded as beer specials. Most never have a proper farewell, just a fading away. The Riflemen too are ending, but with a proper burial.

Coming together this month for a final show on April 9 at Everyday Joe’s Coffee House, the six will celebrate their growth from Rifleboys to men, and the natural progression as life calls them to places and projects anew. Not a gravestone but a graduation, and everyone is invited to the party.

When frontman Tony Guerrie and electric guitarist Daniel Stephenson broke away from their first band together, T.T. Lester, and moved to Fort Collins, they knew they wanted to keep making music. But what kind and with whom wasn’t clear.

“Tony just started bringing musicians in to practice and saying ‘they’re in,’” said Stephenson. “And then I’d high five them and we’d play.”

With the momentum from the new talent, it didn’t take long to develop a cohesive sound, reminiscent of rolling hills and open spaces but anchored by ‘50s pop and a steady diet of Fleet Foxes and the Swell Season.

“The beautiful thing about the Riflemen is that everyone would start working on a song and it wouldn’t take long for it to sound and feel right,” said Tyler Kellogg, drummer. “Playing together was always so easy.”

Perhaps the reason for the ease of their creative process is in part because they have no weak link – each musician involved has something to offer. The final count includes Guerrie, Stephenson, Kellogg, Phil Waggoner on piano, Jered Lish on violin and Jonathan Alonzo on bass; names already known among the local scene.

“My songwriting is influenced heavily by the musicians I am playing with at the time,” said Guerrie in an email interview. “I have been blessed to play with the highest caliber of musicians who have helped me craft my songs into something better than it ever would have been on its own.”

Their collective good looks didn’t hurt them, either.

The Riflemen started playing shows to eager crowds of college students at Everyday Joe’s Coffee House, building a community of fans and fellow musicians. After tricking enough hipsters into liking western music with a folk front, they started drawing crowds at Hodi’s, the Schoolhouse (a DIY indie/punk venue that has since been shut down) and even the Mishawaka. The band was quickly approaching their Rifletweens, and had full maturation on the mind.

But then – just like a baby seal – big oil put an end to them.

Guerrie was offered a job out of state with an oil company that shall not be named, and had to bid Fort Collins and his Riflefriends ado.

Like any long distance relationship, the band’s dynamic had to change; shows and practices became rarities and recording became near impossible.

That is, until last October. The band was able to sneak a weekend with recording engineer David Wilton at St. Ida’s studio, where they had two days to solidify the music they had once made and prove their existence in a tangible form. That weekend became Rocky Mountain Teeth, their first and last release.

“‘Rocky Mountain Teeth’ came from a lyric in the song,” said Guerrie. “Growing up Colorado I was privileged to witness some beautiful sunsets. The lyric is describing when the sun hits the mountains and an explosion of colors is released, like nectar released from one biting into a piece of fruit.”

The album will be made available for public consumption at the show.

“We had the lingering feeling to keep the songs alive,” said Stephenson. “We wanted a show to close the books. A celebration of who we were then and who we are now.”

And who they are now is perhaps in part due to their time becoming Riflemen – Waggoner, Kellogg and Lish all play in The Sunshine House, Stephenson in Denver-based A Mouthful of Thunder and Alonzo in Sour Boy, Bitter Girl, Paean and the majority of bands on local indie label Act So Big Forest.

The April 9 show is a dual CD release party, also featuring Josh Dillard. Sharing the stage with Dillard was not a hard decision. Guerrie has been inspired by Dillard’s reflective lyrics and nostalgic melodies since meeting and quickly befriending him in 2006.

“Every person in the Riflemen has been a part of my album,” said Dillard of his release, The Whale and the Sea. “They are all very humble, which is hard to find in the music scene. A lot of musicians are just out for themselves. But the Riflemen are always very humble and gracious. It’s about the music and the people.”

The two acts will surely draw crowds of Fort followers who want to pay tribute to those who helped pull the local scene up by its guitar straps.

“This show involves people who were here making music before the Fort Collins music scene was really recognizable,” Dillard said. “It’s a small group of brothers who bonded in the process. It’s a band of people who’ve been around, and this show is an accumulation of that.”

Find out more about The Riflemen at www.myspace.com/thecoriflemen, and listen to Josh Dillard’s music at www.myspace.com/joshdillardmusic.

Mishawaka Gets a Facelift

By Maggie Canty-Shafer

When Mishawaka Amphitheater owner Dani Grant moved to Colorado from Philadelphia 16 years ago, she wasn’t expecting much from the music scene.
But as a lover of the great outdoors, the mountains were worth the sacrifice.

Not long after buying Chipper’s Lanes in 2003, Grant and her husband decided to open up the alleys to local bands limited by a lack of venues: A can of worms she hasn’t regretted opening.

“I was shocked and surprised by the healthy and vibrant music scene here,” she says. “The diversity, talent and abundance was impressive.”

Since then, she’s invested countless hours and effort to see it grow and thrive. As the founder of Spokesbuzz (a non-profit that strives to promote local music and arts by building more awareness about them), she is largely to thank for the Fort Collins groups sent to the South by Southwest music festival last year (and this year) and the national press received by many of our locals. But she’s not going to stop there.

“I bought the Mish because I saw it as a way to create a world class venue here in Fort Collins,” she said. “The venue needed someone to acquire it who could spread the information about the local [musicians] to national headliners.”

Since officially purchasing the venue in December, Grant and her husband have been on their hands and knees scrubbing the floors, walls and pinewood stage with the help of their three daughters. They’ve painted the purples and reds to greens, blues and browns, added tile and replaced the worn floor with beetle-kill pine – all in preparation for the grand reopening, scheduled this month.

The season kick-off show will be the Waterfront Festival, taking place on the weekend of May 20.

“This will not be Chipperwaka,” she says with a smile.

The Grants want to maintain the natural rustic charm of the venue while gradually improving on the cleanliness, organization, diversity of the lineup and sound quality. They also plan to connect headliners to local openers in an effort to continue boosting the city’s own music scene.

Roger Menell – the new Director of Programming and Venue Development – formerly did the booking for eTown Radio Show and has experience in radio, music publishing and artist management. His goal to make the Mish inviting to a broader audience with a more diverse group of local and national artists aligns with Grant’s vision for the venue. The schedule will be finalized and released this month.

“The Mishawaka is a treasure, and it will be treated with the respect it deserves,” Menell says. “We’re excited to welcome the community to a great new era for this beloved, legendary venue.”

The kinks in the camping arrangements and shuttle system are currently being sorted, as Grant wants the situation to be beneficial for show attendees as well as the surrounding neighborhood. She also wants to limit the amount of waste left by campers.

“We’ve been talking to the neighbors to make sure it’s a good fit for the community,” she says. “We want the Mish to be an example of sustainability.”

Eventually, Grant plans to add a craft brew corner and a display area for local artists, but the focus will be on the music.

“We want it to be a place where people can come to enjoy natural beauty, friends and great music,” she says.

Former owner Robin Jones is a friend and confidant of the Grants, and has been a resource throughout the process.

“This is a new chapter for the Mish,” Grant says. “I feel like it has a chance for rebirth. We want to see Robin be able to relax and enjoy a beer at a show for once.”

 

Local Artist Uses Medium to Raise Money for Haiti

By Maggie Canty-Shafer

Artist Abby Sponaugle can find hope in a trashcan.

After rebuilding an orphanage destroyed by the hurricane in Haiti, the 23-year-old artist painted 32 of the resident children’s portraits on old window frames purchased from ReSource. She sells them for $150 – the price of the child’s education for one year.

“I wanted a more creative form of school sponsorship,” she said. “Something tangible, that could add to your life.”

The orphaned children range in age from five to 17 years, and are completely dependent on the orphanage – called The Maranatha House – for all basic needs. The money from the paintings goes entirely to keeping the children in school. This provides them not only an education but also a daily meal including milk, fruit and peanut butter – rich in nutrients they otherwise lack – as well as the skills to become productive members of society.

If her mission isn’t compelling enough, her method surely is. Because Sponaugle paints the portraits on the opposite side of the window from the viewer, she has to work backwards, starting with what would normally be the last step. For example, eyes are painted pupil first, then iris, followed by the rest of the eye. The whole painting is done with a Q-tip and takes up to two hours per face.

“It was always a surprise what the painting would end up looking like,” she said. “I learned as I went, and I had to think about the painting and the person a lot.”
Sponaugle knows each child personally from her time finishing the orphanage building and moving the children in. She includes a short biography of the subject with the paintings. This way, the purchaser knows whose face they’re buying – the life behind the art.

“My eye has always been drawn to people,” Sponaugle says of her artwork. “To the uniqueness of their forms and especially their faces. I’ve drawn many people and I’ve yet to find one wrinkle, eye crinkle, chin angle, lip form or eye sparkle that matches its neighbor or fails to taunt you with its silent stories.”

The paintings are made completely of recycled and reused materials, a trait of Sponaugle’s art – to use only what is at hand, wasting nothing and purchasing little.

The young woman’s stay at the orphanage was part of her second trip to the hurricane-devastated country. The first time she stayed with a host family, volunteering in a burn clinic and taking medical trips into villages and schools. She was able to learn their native tongue, Creole, and get to know the country.

“I love the culture and the people,” she said. “I hadn’t had a heart for the country until I’d been there.”

Her experience and connections in Haiti compelled her to return after the hurricane last January. This time, she was alongside her boyfriend, Kyle Keeler – who also helped collect and sand the frames – and three volunteers from Amber Outreach, a small, non-profit organization dedicated to responding to crisis.

The paintings are Sponaugle’s way of continuing to support the children of Haiti from home while she finishes up her degree in family and consumer sciences.

To purchase a painting or for more information, contact Sponaugle at AMillustrations@gmail.com or visit her website at www.amillustrations.weebly.com.