Tim Van Schmidt
This summer, I braved the world of travel during the brief window of relative virus safety and visited Spokane, Washington. While prepping for the trip, I found multiple references to wall murals in the tourist material. Murals and other public art — like the huge Red Flyer wagon and the Garbage Goat in Riverfront Park — were a highlighted part of the culture there.
Indeed, while I was there, I saw glimpses of art everywhere — on the sides of buildings, in underpasses, and down alleyways — even on the sidewalk. It’s true, mural art is a colorful and rich part of the culture in Spokane.
I’ve seen some great mural work elsewhere in the world — like Diego Rivera’s “The History of Mexico” in Mexico City and the politically charged art covering barbed-wire topped walls at the border crossing between Israel and Bethlehem in the West Bank. I also remember very striking murals covering construction walls on the boardwalk in Asbury Park, New Jersey.
What ties all this artwork together, no matter where it is in the world, is the fact that it is out in the open — all you need to do is step up and look.
I was aware that Fort Collins has some cool mural artwork too, so I decided to take an Old Town walking tour to see some hometown art. I didn’t just find some murals; I found a lot of them. It turns out downtown Fort Collins has become a fine canvas for some eye-popping paintings.
When I first moved to town in 1980, the only mural art I can remember was the collection of huge album cover paintings that decorated the outside walls of Rocky Mountain Records at Laurel and College and the inside walls of Avogadro’s Number. Some of the original mural art –perhaps the oldest work in the city — is still preserved at Avo’s, signed “Raybo’s Wall ’76”.
In fact, Avogadro’s has stuck with the mural artwork theme over the years and the entire restaurant is an artistic feast in itself.
Perhaps the most famous outside mural in Fort Collins has been Terry McNerney’s “Jazz Alley”, located near Mountain and Walnut. The mural depicts music superstars — like Johnny Cash, Bob Marley, George Harrison, and more — lining up to hear Fort Collins music scene superstars — including Cary Morin, Mark Sloniker, and Liz Barnez — in a cool, exclusive nightclub that could be nowhere else but Fort Collins.
Online searches of “Jazz Alley” pull up a message that the exhibit is “permanently closed” but on my recent walking tour, I found that it could still be viewed.
The City of Fort Collins itself embraced the idea of public art by establishing a program to decorate “transformer cabinets” with mural artwork, not just in Old Town, but all over the city. My favorite is the prairie dog paintings on boxes at Riverside and Prospect, but I found one after another painted with creative flair in the Old Town alleyways.
Thanks to the Pianos About Town program, even old pianos become new again as painted artworks you can actually play. On my tour, I found two paired up next to each other on Old Town Square.
During my walking tour in Old Town, I also ran into NOCO artist Gale Whitman while she was engaged in painting a traffic control box at Oak and Mason. This was mural art in process. Whitman showed me her overall plan and was making it happen before my eyes.
Whitman’s project is a collaboration between two city programs — ClimateWise and Art in Public Places — and aims at artistically communicating the ClimateWise mission and celebrating its 20-year anniversary. Her artwork expresses the many benefits of smart stewardship of the environment by local businesses and will be featured on traffic boxes on Mountain, Oak, and Olive along Mason Street.
As it turns out, this is a perfect time to see a lot more mural art as it is being created thanks to the Fort Collins Mural Project. They are an organization that has been orchestrating many of the large-scale murals you can now see around town.
That includes one of my favorite large murals on my recent tour of Old Town — the gigantic octopus/railroad car mural by Dan Toro on the east side of the building at 344 Mountain.
On September 12-18, twenty Colorado artists will be creating murals in seven locations in Fort Collins. The group is also leading a “Mural Bike Ride” on September 18 with a closing party at Wolverine Farm. For more info, check out their site at fcmuralproject.org.
So, this summer I found out that murals are a thing in Spokane — and they are REALLY a thing in Fort Collins. It’s just that simple. All you have to do is just walk around downtown and you can see cool art anytime.
Tim Van Schmidt is a writer and photographer based in Fort Collins. Check out his channel on YouTube at “Time Capsules by Tim Van Schmidt.”