2020 meant months of art venue closures and event cancellations. But the year’s COVID-19 pandemic saw local artists push through unfamiliar hardships to keep creating, and in many cases, the pandemic even inspired new pieces and opportunities. Denver talents spent the year uplifting fellow residents with their creativity, livening the city’s artistic landscape through festivals and timely exhibitions, and using their work to make memorable statements supporting social justice. The year also marked the inaugural Babe Walls and Black Love Mural Festival, two street art events shining a long-overdue spotlight on Denver’s diverse artists.
Nobody knows exactly what 2021 will bring, but when it comes to the Denver art scene, we do have a good idea of who will be creating can’t-miss work next year. As 2020 comes to an end, we’ve rounded up a list of 12 Colorado creators to keep up with in 2021.
Expertly skilled in both painting and tattooing, Gina Ilczyszyn should be on the radar of anybody who loves the street art scene, is in the market for a new tattoo or has been looking for a captivating new Instagram account to follow. The creative moved from New York to Denver in 2018 and has since dedicated herself to her artistic passions, helping fellow artists build upon the Denver art scene while also bringing her talents to her tattoo work. Because of the pandemic, Ilczyszyn has spent much less time traveling for her tattoo work in 2020 than she has in previous years. The extra time in the Mile High has afforded a chance to help even more Denverites express themselves, tattoo-style.
Over the years, she’s developed her own style of tattooing which typically incorporates some combination of blackwork, geometry and powerful female figures. “The most creative and openly free requests are usually the ones that interest me. I get the words ‘I trust you’ a lot,” Ilczyszyn said. As far as the Denver art scene goes, Ilczyszyn said the highlight of her 2020 was her participation in Babe Walls. The mural festival in Westminster took place for the first time this year, featuring a line-up of all women and non-binary muralists.
With plans to help carry the efforts of the Babe Walls group into 2021, Ilczyszyn said she’s also keeping a strong focus on her tattoo business. Due to the pandemic, she’s currently booking appointments up to a month in advance, and she’s also built up a sizable waitlist. Future customers can book an appointment by visiting the artist’s website, ginailczyszyn.com.
Muralist Austin Zucchini-Fowler started gaining momentum in the Denver art scene in 2019, but it was 2020 that gave the artist’s popularity a huge boost. Zucchini-Fowler has made local and national news for a series of Denver murals thanking frontline workers for their courage. What started as one mural of a healthcare worker depicted as an angel with boxing gloves, has since turned into a whole collection of pointillist murals that are featured across town: A food service employee, a construction worker, a teacher, all with the iconic colored angel wings that Zucchini-Fowler has used to celebrate the frontline workers. Today, the artist’s website marks 10 different locations in Denver where his murals can be found.
The murals have also found their way off of Denver’s walls and into other mediums, with Zucchini-Fowler selling his work online. And in December, Zucchini-Fowler announced that he had partnered with the World Boxing Council to put one of his murals on the council’s championship belt.
Kalliopi Monoyios and Anna Kaye
These two scientist-turned-artists have spent the past several years building their careers and now, Kalliopi Monoyios and Anna Kaye are joining together to oversee a large-scale project in 2021. The project, LandMark, will be an outdoor environmental art exhibit in public spaces in both Lakewood and Arvada.
Both Kaye and Monoyios hit the ground running in 2020; Kaye organized widely talked-about Pink Progression‘s projects earlier this year, celebrating women and exploring themes like femininity and inclusivity. And Monoyios curated The Plasticene at the Art Students League of Denver, aiming to show the complexities of our relationship with plastic to help us have more meaningful conversations about solutions. Later on in the year, as in-person opportunities came to a halt with the pandemic, Monoyios approached Kaye with the LandMark idea, which the two have been pushing forward ever since. The whole idea behind the installation is to promote connection and turn the lemons of quarantine into lemonade, Kaye said; while people are spending more time walking around their neighborhoods, the shows will place the work of local artists inside those neighborhoods.
The details for the exhibition are still being finalized, but the Lakewood show will likely go up in April and be up for around six months. The lineup will include artists who live in or have ties to each city as well as regional artists. Some of the artists have been confirmed so far, including Nicole Banowetz, Scottie Burgess, Tobias Fike, Jason Mehl, Jaime Molina, Mia Mulvey, Tiffany Matheson and Eileen Roscina. And with Monoyios and Kaye also contributing work, the show is sure to offer something for everyone.
And in the meantime, over the next few years, Monoyios and Kaye both said they have plans to continue the work they’ve each started with The Plasticene and Pink Progression, too.
This year saw 21-year-old Selah Ruckard take a huge step forward in her career, earning a spot in high-profile events and collaborating with local icons along the way. The Aurora native started an Instagram page for her art toward the end of 2019, but it was in 2020 that she started showing up in the news after participating in the first-ever Black Love Mural Festival (BLMF). Having been involved in some of the protests that occurred over the summer, Ruckard asked if she could contribute to BLMF and wound up partnering with Vincent Gordon on her mural for the festival.
Since then, Ruckard has created other works of art across the city including through her involvement in CRUSH Walls and the Colfax Strong art series, Colfax BID’s latest series transforming power boxes into art. Ruckard’s art for Colfax Strong, “Queendom,” featured the motifs the artist has built her style on so far, including crowns, royalty and empowered people of color.
Denver can stay up to date with Ruckard through her Instagram and her new website. For 2021, many of Ruckard’s plans are still in the works, but one effort is set in stone so far: The artist will be selling her work periodically throughout the year at Kaladi Coffee Roasters.
While she’s still relatively new to the scene, Tiffany Matheson shone brightly with a solo exhibition, group exhibitions and curatorial work this year. And the creative’s range of artistic interests is just as wide-reaching; ask Matheson, and she’ll tell you she’s all over the board, working with mediums from woodwork to textiles and finding inspiration in light, sound, texture and interaction.
Matheson’s curatorial work brought something extremely unique to the Denver area this year via the Secret Garden outdoor gallery that Matheson brought to life in her backyard. Inspired to help when she saw fellow artists losing opportunities because of the pandemic, Matheson put together a show that took its audience down a literal path of creativity, weaving through abstract art pieces created by locals. And that work was on top of a long list of other 2020 accolades, including participation with Pink Progression; a collaborative installation at the Denver Art Museum; and one of Matheson’s most COVID-specific projects, Memento Mori, an all-black, futuristic, high-fashion mask that caught attention in the Vicki Myhren Gallery’s MASK exhibition.
Given the strides she made in 2020, it comes as no surprise that Matheson will keep that momentum going in 2021. The community has six confirmed chances to see her work so far and potentially more in the works. To name just a couple, Matheson’s work will be featured early in the year in Night Lights Denver, bringing the healing power of the sun to Denver in its coldest months; and she’ll be a featured artist in the upcoming LandMark exhibit, making an environmental statement in a memorably visual way.
Moe Gram moved to Denver in 2014 and the artist’s popularity has been steadily on the incline ever since, with 2020 offering plenty of chances to see the artist in action. Gram has been on the scene for a while, known for her work with organizations like PlatteForum, CRUSH Walls and Birdseed Collective, where she sits on the board of directors.
Gram’s skill and dedication was constantly in the news this year, with the artist standing out during several of Denver’s most historic art moments of 2020, including BLMF and Babe Walls. Between the two festivals, as well as Pink Progression: Collaborations and ColorCon, Gram’s work was all over the metro area this year — bringing with it Gram’s signature combination of vibrant colors, swirling shapes and statements that need to be out there.
Coming up in 2021, Gram said much of her attention will be devoted to a passion project centered around empathy, which the artist plans to announce soon. She will also be the featured visual artist for 303 Music Vol. 4 — an all-local compilation vinyl.
Dedicated to working in the community, especially through her art, Adri Norris has created several highly-publicized works this year. And more than just showcasing Norris’s talents, every single one of them had the goal of uplifting an important message. The artist has gained traction creating strikingly realistic portraits and murals across the area, many of them highlighting moments that were historically significant. Norris typically focuses on telling the stories of women from history, and this year, she has stuck to that path while also broadening her focus to speak to several cultural moments this year.
In June, Norris spearheaded the creation of the giant Black Lives Matter mural on Broadway between Colfax and 14th Avenue, which the artist designed with Pat Milbery and painted with the help of numerous other artists. The mural mirrored efforts in several other American cities but also stood out from them, with Norris choosing to add the words “Remember This Time” to the Denver mural. Norris also joins the ranks of several others on the list through the artist’s participation in Babe Walls. Her work to honor history-making women saw Norris bring the “Women Behaving Badly” exhibit to History Colorado, and she was also commissioned by History Colorado to create a mural honoring Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life.
As for what 2021 might bring, Norris moved into her new studio space at RedLine Contemporary Art Center in November and is already planning several projects for the beginning of the year.
Juan Fuentes, a street artist, photographer and Denver native, has been active in the arts and culture scene for about a decade, but he first jumped in as a photographer about four years ago. Since then, he’s devoted himself to several projects including Old Denver — a unique Instagram page curating photos that bring historic Denver back to life.
Even though some opportunities were canceled in 2020, Fuentes views the year as a chance to sit back, reflect and shift his direction a bit, he said. And in the meantime, he managed to create several stand-out works of art. All of Fuentes’s recent projects have at least one thing in common: Behind them, there’s a drive to encourage local communities. Fuentes spent 2020 working with the RedLine EPIC Arts program to engage students, and with D3 Arts, a Denver nonprofit that builds community through arts and culture initiatives. The photographer is currently working with the organization to build a skatepark in Westwood, where he hopes to hold art classes in the future.
“I feel very connected to a lot of these communities,” Fuentes said. “People always come into our communities and try to exploit our artwork and sell it as their own. We, as storytellers and a culture of tradition, can do it on our own. I like to inspire people to tell their own stories.”
Fuentes did just that with a Westwood-themed photographic mural at the intersection of West Kentucky Avenue and South Irving Street earlier in 2020. That mural highlighted the best of the community through photos taken in the area. Fuentes said he’s currently working on an extension of the project. Denver will also be able to catch Fuentes’s work in an exhibition at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center sometime in early 2021.
David Ocelotl Garcia
Even as 2020 meant unexpected roadblocks, David Ocelotl Garcia says this year was surprisingly one of the busiest he’s had yet in his art career. He describes his work as an artist as something that’s always growing, an evolution — and having broken into the Denver art world as a muralist around 2007, the artist believes 2020 was a point when he saw years of that evolution really come to fruition.
Specializing in public art, particularly sculptures and murals, Garcia shared some of that art with Denver this year through a reimagining of Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom of Worship” painting and a mural in the Rhythm and Ritual exhibition at Denver Art Museum. Garcia’s mural reimagined another mural that depicts an ancient Mayan musical group — which Ocelotl Garcia said is one of the first pieces of art he attempted to replicate in his childhood.
Starting in 2021 — and likely continuing into 2022 — Garcia’s main focus will be a large-scale project to create an art installation at the soon-to-be-redesigned National Western Center, creating numerous art pieces to breathe life into the space. A big component of this new project will be community engagement, with Garcia saying community members will play a role in the hands-on creation of some components of the installation.
The artist has at least one other project confirmed for next year’s schedule, in which he’ll be able to fulfill a long-time dream of transforming a whole room — not just a wall or part of a gallery — into a work of art. That project will be available for viewing at some point in 2021 through a partnership between the artist and Meow Wolf Denver.
Yumi Janairo Roth
Like a handful of the other artists on our list, when 2020 hit, Yumi Janairo Roth was already a seasoned creator in Denver and national circles — but this year brought the artist brand new inspiration that helped spark timely new projects.
Roth, a sculpture professor at CU Boulder, was one of two Colorado artists featured in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MCA) Citizenship exhibit with a work of art that explored what is legal and illegal on public land — by posting signs on public land. The artist drove to the Roosevelt National Forest to put up the signs she created for the installation, and those signs are still there today, with Citizenship running into next year. Also pandemic-inspired, in a project that came before grocery stores, restaurants and other businesses started sticking decals to the floor to guide social distancing, Roth transformed conceptual art into social distancing markers. The markers were a repurposing of a 1973 piece by Sol LeWitt, “Straight Lines in Four Directions and All Their Possible Combinations.” Roth sent social distancing square kits to museums and galleries across the country, from California to Wisconsin to Maine.
“I would say I have a pretty heterogeneous approach to making work. It doesn’t all look the same,” Roth said. “I’m just interested in the cultural assumptions we make about the everyday.”
Coming up in 2021, Roth said there will be chances to follow her work locally and all across the country — for instance, there are plans to install an iteration of her signage installation in a national forest in Utah. Roth also hopes to focus on one of her main passions — working with sign spinners. Roth has spent years working with famous sign spinners, asking them to spin works of conceptual art instead of the usual ads. The line of work even snagged her some coverage in the LA Times earlier this year.
Laura Shill first broke into the Denver art world about a decade ago, but the artist has hit her latest and strongest stride in 2020. As a conceptual artist who focuses heavily on themes of intimacy and emotional risk, creating in the year of social distancing presented new challenges for Shill. But it also made her work more relevant and necessary for her audience, which is maybe shown best by her installation in the Citizenship exhibit at Museum of Contemporary Art — an experiential work designed to help viewers become closer through conversation in real-time.
In 2020, Denver also watched as Shill helped lead the charge in several integral, art-related community efforts. Shill was at the forefront of a group of 10 local artists who started making masks early on in the pandemic, distributing the masks to those who needed them, like people experiencing homelessness, homelessness outreach coordinators and RTD drivers. She’s also been integral to the “Checking In” program at RedLine, which has worked to keep local artists from falling through the cracks during COVID-19. Shill said she’ll spend at least the first part of 2021 focused on a continuation of that project. Denver art-lovers should also be keeping an eye out for Shill’s solo show at Leon Gallery, which goes up in May.
“So much of my work relies on people being willing to participate and that is what actually activates the work and makes it meaningful,” the artist said. And when the pandemic finally ends, “I’m looking forward to being able to do that again.”