Outside the gallery walls

Street Wise mural festival hopes to foster community with public art

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Patrick Maxcy working on a mural.
Shanna Fortier

When you enter an art gallery, you agree to an experience. There will be some sort of exchange between art and viewer — more often than not, that is the reason you entered the gallery in the first place. 

But street art engages the viewer in a different arena. The very placement on the side of a building or under a bridge — where art typically doesn’t reside — tells its own story to a wider audience that wasn’t necessarily looking for it.

For muralist Patrick Maxcy, street art breaks up the monotony of each day, imploring him to contemplate what he just saw and why.  

“It’s like, ‘Oh, what’s that weird sticker? I don’t know what that is.’ It’s just making you stop and think,” Maxcy says. “And it’s in the street, and it’s in the public eye, so [that means] so many more people are seeing it. Even if they don’t want to, it’s there for them to see.” 

Maxcy strives to bring messages to communities through his work. Be that bringing hope to a neglected neighborhood or calling attention to pressing social issues, street art allows him to plant seeds of inspiration in unexpected places.

“I think there’s some sort of creative factor that opens up your imagination,” Maxcy says, pointing out that passerbys often linger, trying to figure out the storyline. “People will look at the art and open up their imagination and spark interest about what the piece is speaking to them.” 

Maxcy is one of the artists participating in Street Wise, a multi-event mural festival taking place all around the city of Boulder. From Sept. 23 to Oct. 10, several artists will paint murals around the city, and on Oct. 5, there will be a block party at the Boulder Chamber of Commerce to celebrate. Along with the festival will be workshops hosted by the artists, and on Oct. 11, a street art exhibit, also named Street Wise, will open at Boulder Library through Dec. 1. 

Shanna Fortier

Street Wise Founder Leah Brenner Clack is no stranger to the arts. For nearly a decade she’s worked in galleries in Denver and Boulder, including multiple years at madelife (located at 2000 21st St. in Boulder), where Clack first became interested in murals. 

In the early-to-mid 2010s, there wasn’t much street art in Boulder, but Clack noticed how often people commented on madelife’s Pearl Street-facing mural. She also took note as festivals like Denver’s CRUSH WALLS starting to gain momentum. 

“It was all just picking up,” she says. “And I was getting excited about that aspect of art and how it can be experienced by the public outside the gallery walls.” 

Clack was drawn to street art’s accessibility. Plus, its aesthetic can draw people in and leave a lasting impression that the artists wants to share with others. 

“You can stumble upon it. It’s something you can see in the distance. You can walk up to it and experience it on a street-person level beyond the [typical] accessibility and scale that people experience with art,” she says. “Also in the fact that the digital media age that we live in … these art forms are attractive. People always want to take photos and share stories about them.” 

Clack decided to get more active in facilitating mural projects for artists and spreading awareness about murals as an art form. She then saw a call for submissions at the Boulder Library and submitted her idea about a show that would bring street art into the gallery. Clack then developed the Street Wise exhibit, while also cultivating a mural-painting festival by the same name. For the project, Clack secured space on 10 walls around Boulder, mostly privately owned businesses and city-owned property like the Dairy Arts Center, for the artists to paint their creations. 

Clack says murals have obvious aesthetic value but they also hold the potential to rouse social activism in communities. When developing Street Wise, Clack wanted pieces that went beyond murals that were just aesthetically pleasing. Clack wanted murals that made a statement. 

“As far as murals and street art, I think just having something beautiful on the wall is great, but I think the community looks for a little more depth and meaning and purpose to things,” she says. “That’s why a lot of people live here. They’re very mindful.” 

Clack chose local and international artists from diverse backgrounds to paint on issues including gender, race and the environment. With the appeal of murals to draw people in, she hopes to increase communication around these topics. 

Maxcy is one of these artists using his work to create change. He frequently uses animals in his work to bring attention to their plight for survival and also as a metaphor for other issues. He recently created a piece in Flint, Michigan, where he and other artists were asked to bring positivity into a neighborhood through art. His mural features a bird weighed down by baggage and a large octopus holding a giant key. 

“The key represents the key to happiness or joy. There’s this bird carrying all this weight on the back of him … and it was just like the pressure people in Flint are dealing with … and trying your best to bring hope and joy into any situation wherever you [are],” he says. 

Over the past decade, Maxcy estimates he’s painted about 200 murals all over the world. He was the first artist to kick off Street Wise with his painting on 15th Street near Boulder High. The piece was done in collaboration with Boulder High students and features a group of endangered sea creatures flowing down the wall. Maxcy sees the animals swimming along the bike path, working together to create awareness about their precarious status in the world. 

Shanna Fortier

Community involvement, like working with the students of Boulder High, is another vital element of Clack’s goal with Street Wise. She wants to engage people directly with the art, whether they’re watching or participating in its creation or attending workshops on how to create their own mural art. Her ultimate goal is to bring people together and promote understanding. 

“[It’s about] just really having a lot of intention behind all of it so that it feels authentic, positive and empowers the community to embrace art and have connections with each other and the artists,” Clack says.

As a former high school art teacher, Maxcy enjoyed connecting with the Boulder High students. Maxcy was around their age when he started working on murals, and he remembers what it was like to be in their shoes. He hopes the experience of working on the mural together can have a lasting effect on these young artists. 

“I just remember, in high school, having anyone to talk to about things like that was a huge inspiration,”Maxcy says. “To realize that people, no matter how big you think they are, are just people and we can just interact and talk to each other.” 

Maxcy points out that the hands-on experience “can inspire them in all sorts of projects to not be afraid to jump out and try to paint bigger or have other creative aspirations.” 

Clack hopes that Street Wise continues for years to come. And she hopes the impact of the art ripples out into the community. After all, with street art, you can’t divorce the art from the environment in which it lives.

Throughout his work, Maxcy has seen murals positively impact a space. He says painting murals always draws a crowd, and it gets people invested in their neighborhoods. That in turn fosters a sense of pride in their environment. He’s seen people come together to keep the space clean, and he frequently gets messages from people years after the fact showing that his mural still moves people. He knows his work belongs to the place he makes it, making it an integral part of each community. 

“I’d say once I leave, it’s not mine anymore,” he says. “It never was mine.   It’s theirs; it’s their home.”  

ON THE BILL: Street Wise — mural installations and live painting. Sept. 23-Oct. 6. Visit strettwiseboulder.com for map of locations. 

Mural Block Party. Noon. Oct. 5, Boulder Chamber of Commerce, 2440 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-442-1044. 

Street Wise. Boulder Public Library, Canyon Gallery, 1001 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder, 303-441-3100. Oct. 11-Dec. 1.