The business + art of bringing murals to Boulder

Leah Brenner Clack on bridging artists + funding for large-scale Boulder public art

By Tatyana Sharpton Mar 6 2020

Editor’s note: March is our Boulder Art issue. See all of our arts coverage for the issue here.

On the back of Boulder’s tech co-op dojo4 near Pearl Street Mall’s east end, a giant, graphic manatee in reds and pinks floats in a pod of blues, emitting a feel somewhere between a peaceful Japanese ink print and a classic activism poster.

As we profile in our other post this week kicking off our March Boulder Art issue, Boulder struggles to cultivate a vibrant art scene despite having so many artists. Public art infuses aesthetic energy to a city, and murals have become an increasingly popular vehicle.

In recent years, a growing snowball of vibrant murals have been popping up all across the city, adding to Boulder’s visual landscape and imbuing the city with powerful messages people can receive simply by looking up.

“Defend the defenseless” animal rights activism mural by Max Coleman, from 2019’s Street Wise mural arts festival. Image: Tatyana Sharpton.

The mural push

One artist working to make this happen is Leah Brenner Clack. An artist, arts advocate and creativity instigator, Leah has worked to bring art to the streets and walls of Boulder through her program And Art Space.

Other notable murals include the surreal tree-scape on the side of Innisfree Poetry Bookstore & Cafe, the abstract orange and yellow swirls and cascade of blue pods snaking along the underside of 6th Street bridge and vibrant sequence of illustrative animals rising out of an icy landscape on the side of Alfalfa’s Market on Broadway Street.

Leah Brenner Clack, the driving force behind Boulder’s And Art Space mural arts initiative. Image: Tatyana Sharpton.

And Art Space is working to bring vibrant public art to Boulder by consulting on ideas, executing one-off commissions and with its annual Street Wise mural arts festival that launched in 2019.

“On one hand, we have such a high number and depth of artists that live and work here. Almost everyone is a creative of some sort,” Leah says. “On the other hand, the work I like – like contemporary mural and street art – was lacking for me. I didn’t see it around Boulder.”

Art, exploded

With mural art exploding around the world in the last five to 10 years, and the lack of it she saw in Boulder, Leah saw an opening for the arts to develop a louder voice and a way for artists and to get art to the community in a more accessible way.

Often, contemporary art can feel limited to specific galleries or contemporary art museums, like Boulder’s BMoCA (which is great and we love). These art hold great value, but for the everyday person who doesn’t frequent these spaces or consider themselves “knowledgeable” about the arts, they can feel intimidating.

Sam Parker’s mural for Alfalfas Market on Broadways Street, 2016. Image: Ladd Forde.

By using art as an impetus and vehicle for simple, dynamic, beautiful, inspiring imagery, Leah connects studio artists (some of whom have perhaps never created large-scale works) to funding and businesses looking for murals, and puts brilliant and colorful art on the streets to feed Boulder.

Bridge between bureaucracy + paint

Leah’s passion lays in facilitating the bridge between artists and large-scale passions. With years of gallery experience in having helped launch and run Madelife, the gallery and launchpad for artists and entrepreneurs at the corner of Pearl Street and 21st Street, knowledge of the administrative side of arts funding and experience as a practicing artist herself, Leah built a solid community of artists and understanding of the art retail scene.

“Madelife had a great mural wall on location which allowed showing artists to also create a corresponding mural,” Leah said. “Through running this, I realized how impactful public art could become to Boulder.”

Through running the gallery and the retail shop, Leah found herself getting burnt out on all the energy put into great shows that resulted in very few sales for the artists. Creating and selling has always represented a conundrum when it comes to the art market, and when focused on selling, artists can easily fall into the trap of losing their voice in lieu of finding a buyer. Rather than focus on selling, Leah chose to focus on communicating.

Anna Charney for City of Boulder project under the 6th Street bridge. Image: Laura Scheele.

Boulder doesn’t have the urban energy of Denver or bigger cities that naturally lend themselves to artists to create freely, and also the nooks and crannies to find affordable housing, which artists so often need. This means often finding walls in Boulder — and the talented artists to paint them — represents a challenge. Leah works to connect artists to larger local projects but also actively hunts for walls ripe for muralling.

Header image: Mural by Sam Parker at Alfalfa’s. Photo: Ladd Forde.