We’ve heard of sister cities — loose connections with other locales around the world, created for camaraderie or political motives. But, it’s likely that partnerships between different countries, centered around the cross-cultural exchange of artistic ideas and crafts, are not on everyone’s radar. These partnerships offer rich and exciting transitions for artists across the globe. They also catalyze the delivery of fresh ideas back to the artists’ respective communities.

One such cross-cultural organization that enjoys a fairly intimate connection with the Denver art scene, without garnering much attention, is La Napoule Art Foundation (LNAF), based on the coast of the Mediterranean in France. Never heard of them? We hadn’t either. But as it turns out, Denver artists are reveling in what La Napoule has to offer, and for good reason.

La Napoule Art Foundation

The Chåteau de La Napoule. Photo courtesy of La Napoule Art Foundation.

“The story of La Napoule is an art love story,” executive director of LNAF, Tonya Quinn, explained. It started with an American couple, Henry and Marie Clews, who moved to the French Riviera before the two world wars to live and create together as artists. When Henry died in 1934, Marie buried his sculptures and stayed at their refurbished Château amidst occupying Nazis, hoping to save the art and the property from ransacking. In 1951, the Château started as a nonprofit art foundation, where Mrs. Clews invited artists of all types to visit, create and exchange ideas with other artists. In their lifetimes, the Clews were progressive, boundary-pushing and resilient people who, despite the rich classical artistic history of the area, wanted to encourage artistic disruption from classical styles.

When artists visit La Napoule for a residency — a four-week program in the spring and fall each year — they encounter a historic castle-like structure on an eight-acre property. Up to nine other artists share the space, working in various locations around the grounds. All artistic expression is welcome, bringing together writers, painters, musicians, filmmakers and everything in between. Although a project proposal is necessary to apply to the residency, LNAF waives the requirement to finish the project and instead encourages artists to do what they do best — be creative.

The connection of LNAF and Denver was strengthened when the great-granddaughter of Henry and Marie, Natasha Gallaway, moved here with her family. Because of her relocation, the headquarters of the foundation moved to Denver as well. The list of artists who visit La Napoule for the residency has always been heavy on cultural meccas like New York or various cities in Europe — simply because those artists knew about it and applied more frequently. But, Denver artists have now become a mainstay of the foundation. And sometimes in these artists’ careers, a decisive change in style, practice or influence reveals itself — from before La Napoule and after.

The Artists

Thomas Evans aka Detour. Photo by Brittany Werges.

To write the entire list of Denver artists who have participated in the residency would be lengthy, to say the least. One of the first Denverites to travel to France was revered painter Emanuel Martinez — who went in the ’80s. But within the last few years alone, 14 creatives took the voyage across the pond. Visual artist Senga Nengudi, sculptor Dmitri Obergfell, installation artist and painter Susan Cooper and poet Jodie Hollander, among many others, traveled to the Château in recent years. Upon returning to Denver, these artists bring back with them a new attitude to their creative practice.

Thomas Evans — aka Detour — most recently returned from the March residency, invigorated with his experience. “It was very interesting to see how art is integrated over there, how museums are free to visit and you’re constantly surrounded by classic work,” he explained from his studio in RedLine shortly upon his return. “Being able to learn about the art community in Europe while working on some of my own things was really informative too. Plus, I met artists from all over the world, worked with them, traveled with them.” During his stay, though he originally planned to work on his new wave of audio-visual experiments, a firm contacted him to paint portraits of David Letterman and Jay-Z for Letterman’s new Netflix show. Because LNAF prefers to nurture the artists in any direction they choose to take, Evans seized the opportunity to complete the portrait project and not work as heavily on his sound installations.

READ: Denver’s Detour Paints Portraits for Jay-Z and David Letterman 

Before Evans, in October 2017, slam poet and Westword MasterMind award winner Michael Acuña — aka Ill7 — went to La Napoule for the residency and then returned and participated in an outreach program for Denver Public Schools (more on that later). About the residency at La Napoule, Acuña said, “it exposed me to artists from around the world that engaged art from a different perspective. I was with artists from Israel, Italy, Bulgaria and India. I feel the experience exposed me to how the rest of world approaches art and it made me want to push the boundaries of what the norms in hip-hop and spoken word are, past the clichés we tend to gravitate [toward].”

At the same time as Acuña, Denver-based photographer Jeff Hersch was exploring his own creative practices as one of the other resident artists. He and Acuña collaborated, with Hersch photographing Acuña in various locations around the Château. Those photographs went on to supplement Acuña’s spoken word work, a project set to release this summer.

One of the upcoming artists preparing to visit the Mediterranean for their own artistic voyage is Bianca Mikahn — a Denver native who does a little of everything, from hip-hop to poetry to youth mentorship and activism.

READ: International Women’s Day Edition of Test Kitchen Celebrates Denver’s Hip-Hop Ladies

Sure, going to France for four weeks to create in peace with a foreign sea lapping at your doorstep sounds amazing, but what does this do for Denver aside from elevating these artists’ personal experiences? The answer is twofold  — one, Denver artists return with a refreshed set of inspiration to create with, bringing new ideas to the city and two, LNAF offers artists a chance to influence children in Denver Public Schools (DPS). However, it should be noted that no obligation exists for artists to participate in the French residency in order to help at DPS or vice versa.


Visiting Artist Program

A student creates a “Me Box” during Christine Buchsbaum’s Visiting Artist program. Photo courtesy of La Napoule Art Foundation.

On top of the art residency program that sends artists to the Château, LNAF also set down deep roots in Denver for the last half decade with their Visiting Artist Program. “La Napoule partners [artists] with Denver Public Schools to give thousands of children meaningful, gallery-level art projects — shared with the greater community,” executive director Quinn detailed.

We create partnerships with a school (and in Senga Nengudi’s case, The Delores Project, a shelter in Denver for women) and return with different artists/genres each year to ensure we’re meeting the school’s needs. We take artist statements from every child, donate all art supplies and produce an exhibition open to the entire community,” Quinn explained. These programs are highly influential to students and are, in some cases, the most stable part of their schooling experience. For instance, Hallett Academy changed principals three times in the four years LNAF has partnered with them.

During those four years, artists Christine Buchsbaum and Michael Acuña went in on separate occasions to speak with and mentor students, curating programs that focused on personal identity in order to allow the kids a certain comfort with reaching into their own inner workings. The upcoming artist to take their places will be Michael Gadlin.

At this time, the Visiting Artist Program operates in eight public schools in Denver. The foundation emphasizes their efforts to connect high-level artists with these programs and they pay both the artists and the teachers a stipend for the semester. It’s a genuine effort to bring quality art education and experiences to children, and more specifically, children who may never find the opportunity otherwise. This fall, the program expands with a mental health component, aided by Global Health Disrupted (GHD). Because students feel comfortable enough to share private information during the art programs, La Napoule wants to equip those students with professionals rather than over-worked and under-compensated teachers.

Quinn noted about LNAF’s mission, “we believe art is the way to change the world, to make it better.” And though the foundation is a struggling nonprofit, each step they take as an organization is curated around that ethos. It’s not about status or even exceptional success — it’s about art for art’s sake.

How to Participate

Photo courtesy of La Napoule Art Foundation.

“Coming back to Denver, I was surprised at how many people just aren’t aware of this possibility,” Evans exclaimed, speaking about the residency in the Riviera. So even though the list of Denver artists who have gone and come back is too long to justifiably include in this article, it does seem like word about La Napoule — both the residency and the DPS program — hasn’t spread as much as it deserves.

So how does one participate? First, any type of creative can apply. Second, the foundation only asks that artists “engage in cultural interchange and the creation of art that impacts the world for the common good.” Third, if accepted, you receive a $1,000 stipend for travel and other expenses related to your residency. It only occurs twice a year — in spring and fall — and though the fall application just closed at the beginning of April, the one for spring 2019 should be opening soon. Check on this website for more details about upcoming residencies.

Another way to involve yourself — if you lack the means or the desire to travel to the Château — resides in the Visiting Artist Program at one of the public schools. These programs run on a four-week schedule at various times during the school year. Find information to apply for that here.

These Denver artists are changing the very landscape of creativity in the city by participating in La Napoule’s various programs. When they travel to a historic location with a long history of artistic expression and intermingle with artists from around the world, they experience something that Denver can’t provide for them. And then they return, thankfully, with the vigor and validation necessary to continue succeeding in a field too often overlooked as a passion rather than a purpose.