Boulder Mag: Public Art in Boulder County

Boulder County’s vibrant outdoor murals, sculptures and other outdoor works—often found in unexpected places—make art accessible to all.

By Kate Jonuska

This story was originally published in the Summer 2022 edition of Boulder Magazine.

One of Boulder County’s most vibrant art scenes is not bound by gallery walls. The area’s abundant murals, sculptures and other public artworks are open to everyone, and no entry fee is required to view them.

Leah Brenner Clark, executive director of StreetWise Arts and the StreetWise Boulder Mural Festival, says people who aren’t collectors or work in the art industry often don’t think about going to galleries. “But with public art, you can take a simple walk, and it’s a great way to be exposed to art,” she says.

StreetWise has installed more than 100 murals engaging with themes of connection, diversity, empathy and social issues in addition to other grassroots work in Boulder.

Clark says outdoor art is not only more accessible, but also allows for a more private experience with the works. “In a gallery, you might feel watched or constrained. Outside, you have the freedom to experience that art in any way you want.”

“It is not a rarified environment,” agrees Stacey Bernstein, public art coordinator for the City of Lafayette, which hosts a vibrant arts scene in east Boulder County. “It’s up close and personal. There are no guards telling you to settle down, and the art beautifies our urban environment for everyone. It’s really, truly for everyone.”

Lafayette sponsors an Alley Art Amazin’ mural program and also takes outdoor art into another dimension via sculpture. Lafayette’s Art on the Street, the biggest art-on-loan program in Boulder County, installs new sculptures in the community every year. Art on the Street actively grows Lafayette’s permanent public art collection by purchasing many of the sculptures, beautifying the city year after year.

Instead of competing, the area’s outdoor artists seem to have found mutual respect and harmony, says Boulder’s beloved anonymous street artist known only as SMiLE. Renowned for multi-layer stencil art of both people and animals, SMiLE works mostly on electrical boxes, signs and other unexpected places as a way to spread joy as well as opt-out of the traditional art world.

In that traditional world, “art becomes for the elite and all about the money, then they put the art on a T-shirt for the people,” SMiLE says.

Unauthorized, unexpected art, on the other hand, is very personal and immediate. “It brings people out of their thoughts and into the moment,” he says. “Unexpected art gives them a chance to enjoy something they didn’t expect at all and perhaps smile. Smile, that’s where the name came from.” You can keep tabs on SMiLE’s work on Instagram at @smileboulder.

Joel Davis, who runs Boulder-based e-bike touring company JD’s Joyrides, also recognizes outdoor art’s ability to reconnect people with their more artistic, joyous nature. Davis says his most popular program is the Wall-to-Wall Mural Ride.

“People are really impressed by the quality and quantity of outdoor art in Boulder—as they should be. It’s a pretty impressive collection,” says Davis, who shows folks everything from StreetWise murals to more hidden treasures like a personal car-charging station with a painted ceiling he calls the Sistine Tesla Charger. “There’s a lot to see if you just pay attention.”

This story was originally published in the Summer 2022 edition of Boulder Magazine.

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