Last year was huge for the Denver art scene. This year, although it may not have had the triumphant moments of 2018, still proved that the Mile High City is on its way toward becoming a cultural icon of the west. Artists that have previously been featured on these Denver artists to watch lists made big strides in their career, from Jonathan Saiz’s exhibition at the Denver Art Museum to Suchitra Mattai’s entry at the Sharjah Biennial and much more in between. And the artists described below might just surpass those lofty goals in the coming year. From the new Colorado Poet Laureate to a circus troupe, these are the creatives to keep your eye on in 2020.
This year, Bobby LeFebre was named the Colorado Poet Laureate, securing a place in the history books as the first one of color, the first Latino and the youngest to ever be granted the post. The news exploded, leading to relentless news coverage and nearly “60 inquiries for appearances from Denver to Crestone to Durango to Trinidad.” But LeFebre is more than just a poet, and he is on our list of Denver artists to watch because he is actively pursuing his dreams while changing lives and traditions. “I really hope to use the Laureateship to build community, be loud and ensure poetry is revived as the living, breathing force that it is.”
When we spoke to him in August, he said, “writing is a tool to discuss things that matter and it’s an entry point to have a conversation that would otherwise be hard to have.” This claim of his is certainly backed up by the fact that the play he wrote, Northside, sold out 23 performances and then had to be revived due to popular demand. LeFebre is a writer-activist-artist trifecta, and he’s not stopping any time soon.
The attention on LeFebre led another one of our writers to look into the art form of spoken word, noting how Denver’s activists choose spoken word as their medium for change. If LeFebre continues at the pace he had in 2019, then this coming year is going to be a charged one.
In 2020, LeFebre mentioned he “will be working on two manuscripts, hopefully collaborate with friends and museums and cultural institutions, and dive into some public poetry projects — popping up with poetry and storytelling in unsuspected places (I have some ideas big and small).”
When we asked Denver street artist Alexandrea Pangburn what she was most proud of this year she said “2019 has been a ripper year. Creatively, doors were opened that I never imagined would ever open.” The big jumping-off point was Pangburn’s role as the creative director for RiNo’s annual street art festival CRUSH WALLS, where she helped with curation and painted a beautiful mural with another female artist, R0melle, on Larimer Street. Even though her skills are worth looking up to, she mentioned her appreciation for “crossing paths with so many artists that I’ve looked up to and idolized for so long” — a nod to her humble and easy-going attitude.
Her collaboration with R0melle turned into a working relationship after the festival, igniting Pangburn’s desire to work with other badass women. Just a few weeks ago, she announced the Babe Walls mural festival for Denver, which will feature all women and non-binary muralists. Aside from Pangburn, the small core group includes Kaitlin Ziesmer, Ashley Joon, Robyn Frances, Gina Ilczyszyn and R0melle. “This is always something I’ve been very passionate about and I’m so excited that everything is falling into place to be able to make this a reality,” Pangburn noted. “My main focus in creating this is to focus on community and celebrating women in art and on walls.”
Beyond her participation and direction of CRUSH, Pangburn also painted three other noteworthy murals this year — a mural in her hometown of Lexington, Kentucky at the PRHBTN festival, a collaboration mural with her partner Scott Santee at the Fraser Mountain Mural Festival and a mural with Robin Munro, Taste Burns and 500 North Face employees in RiNo.
Shawn Huckins isn’t an emerging artist in the Denver scene, but he does seem to be on the precipice of a breakthrough in his career. 2019 was a packed year for Huckins, who had two solo exhibitions — one of which was his first international exhibition in France — and exhibited work in numerous other group shows across the country and the globe. His style is some hybrid of pop art and classical realism peppered with grammatically incorrect phrases that typify the age of technology.
One of the shows that stuck out in Huckins’ experiences this year was his inclusion in the one-night-only Governor’s Mansion contemporary art takeover hosted by K Contemporary. Inside the first floor of the Governor’s Mansion, several artists installed pieces, replacing some of the old (and dare we say outdated) art. Governor Jared Polis attended and even spoke about his love for contemporary art.
First impressions of Huckins’ work may betray the depth of his skill and technique. Each painting is painstakingly sketched and hand-painted, even the lettering which appears as stencil or stickers. It all takes on a digitally rendered aesthetic, which adds to his satirical take on social media and the “devolution of language” that we see in textspeak. In many ways, Huckins bridges gaps between traditional modalities and modern trends, like some time traveler who has the perspective of two vastly different eras in history.
In 2020, fans in Denver only have one scheduled chance to see Huckins’ work so far — at a solo exhibition at K Contemporary in June. But he’ll have two more solo exhibitions, one in Portland, Oregon and the other in San Francisco, as well as a two-person show in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. 2020 will also signify a changing direction in Huckins’ focus. “I have begun a new body of work where I’m shifting away from text-based work and moving into a more methodical process,” the artist explained. “I’m looking forward to growing, learning, and making mistakes with this new creative direction. ”
At one time, Denver may not have been able to seduce the likes of artists like Sofie Birkin, a UK-born illustrator who draws inclusive sex drawings for Cosmopolitan and has worked with such brands as Dr. Martens and Topshop. And in fact, it was her now-wife that brought Birkin to the Mile High City before the “laid-back charm” of Denver won her over. Now she’s here for the foreseeable future and making an impact every step of the way.
Not only does Birkin create digital illustrations — although the digital medium of Photoshop is her preferred tool — she recently animated her doodles for the inaugural projection for Night Lights Denver, a projection mapping project on the Daniels and Fisher’s Tower organized by the Denver Theatre District. Before that, she painted two large-scale murals inside the new Mission Ballroom in RiNo. But those accomplishments came after 15 other projects Birkins completed in 2019, including the artwork for the Great Divide 25th anniversary can, the creation of a zine called Sapphists and Amazons, a double-page spread for Playboy magazine’s gender and sexuality issue, a comic strip in Suspect Press and a storyboard for a Walmart commercial (which is unreleased as of the publishing of this article).
Birkin is prolific in her output. She’ll easily become an illustrator that defines a new generation, and not only because she really made her name in inclusive sex illustrations. It’s because she’s open-minded and works her ass off. As for what to look out for in Birkin’s future? The biggest announcement won’t happen until 2021 but expect to see Birkin working in new mediums for her room at Denver’s Meow Wolf. Until then, check out the book The Art of Drag releasing in May 2020 by Nobrow Press and featuring Birkin’s illustrations next to artists Helen Li and Jasjyot Singh Hans.
Before this year, the Denver art scene hadn’t really heard of Chelsea Lewinski. But after painting her first large scale mural in March inside a business on Colfax, she was hooked on painting on walls, leading to an incredibly busy year for the freshly made full-time artist. Her next mural popped up inside Charley Co. at The Source — a portrait of Frida Kahlo. Six murals later, Lewinski is establishing herself as a well-known Denver artist as well as landing more gallery shows and exhibitions than she may have dreamed of one year ago.
On top of that, Lewinski spends her time curating the walls inside the new Mural Lounge and Graffiti Bar on Broadway, attracting street artists of every ilk to the spot in order to create, hang out, connect and have fun under one roof.
“I’m extremely proud of my growth this year… I can’t really pinpoint one thing that I’m MOST proud of, but I think more than anything, I’m just proud of my growth and my willingness to learn from other artists,” Lewinski said.
This inspiration from other Denver artists has actually led to Lewinski’s next project, which fans and interested followers can keep an eye out for in 2020. Called People Behind the Paint, this collaborative art show will feature painted portraits of local creatives, revealing the face behind the art. Lewinski has already been working on painting portraits of local creatives she admires for the last three years, but recently she started working with a local street art photographer, Tyler Vitello (aka Dittlo) to capture more individuals — including people who work behind the scenes of art. Some of the subjects already involved in this project are Casey Kawaguchi, Chris Haven, Lindee Zimmer, Koko Bayer and Ladies Fancywork Society, to name the shortlist.
Lewinski’s passion for her own art, and specifically painting portraits, can almost always be traced back to her instinct of protecting and uplifting other creatives. Through her tireless efforts this year, which resulted in an impressive resume for any full-time artist, she has displayed a remarkable ability to succeed in her own right and help others succeed as well.
Kenzie Sitterud first made an installation in Denver in 2008, The Bathroom, which established their interest in the duality of “queerness and domestic spaces.” After leaving Denver for a short period of time and moving to Seattle, Sitterud moved back to the Mile High City and we’ve been lucky to have them ever since. In 2017, Sitterud started their residency at RedLine Contemporary Art Center — the invariable incubator for many successful Denver artists — and ended it this year, with plans to move studio spaces and relocate to the Temple less than a block away.
In the last two years especially, Sitterud has actively progressed the conversation and relevancy of queerness in contemporary and immersive art in Denver. Through large-scale sculptural work, immersive room-building and public art, Sitterud makes sure that the art they create doesn’t go unnoticed — and it’s not just because most of their work is painted in primary colors of checkered tiles. A great example of this is Sitterud’s first piece of art from 2019, at the Dairy Arts Center in Boulder, called The Wardrobe. This piece invited viewers literally into a closet, where things were turned on their heads and the concept of “coming out” was turned around as well. It wowed audiences with its authenticity and autobiographical nature.
After that, Sitterud worked on the Kaleidoscape ride at Elitch Gardens, organized by Meow Wolf, created a suspended installation at the RedLine Resident show and fabricated Future Seat, a Denver Public Art commission, which will be on view once again in the Spring of 2020. Their most proud moment of 2019? “My Untitled event (at the Denver Art Museum) Sit. Stand. Play. Specifically during the final hour, I collaborated with many very talented artists and musicians for my evening but the moment that really stood out to me (my proud moment) was when the opera singer, Margaret Siegrist, began to sing at the top corner of the building, after I shushed an entire museum of people. Shhhhh! It was epic. Her voice was bouncing off all the walls and architecture of the building. It was a sound experiment and social experiment at the same time,” Sitterud recounted.
And that’s the crux of so much of Sitterud’s work — an artistic and social experiment, blended into one interesting sculpture or installation that may seem playful but is so much more profound.
Much like last year, this year’s list includes a collective of sorts — Rainbow Militia. Headed up by Amber Blais, Elizabeth Smith and Staza Stone, this circus collective brings beautiful, whimsical and technically advanced tricks to unconventional stages all over Denver. Some of the highlights of their past year include traveling to different low-income neighborhoods to put on free shows (something they plan on continuing in 2020), creating the Zabiti immersive forest adventure show at Denver Rock Drill, performing at Meow Wolf’s Dark Palace dance party in November and collaborating with some other local collectives like Handsome Little Devils and Unbuilt Library.
What differentiates Rainbow Militia from some of the other circus troupes in town is the group’s desire to constantly collaborate. In Zabiti, for instance, Stephen Brackett of the Flobots lent his voice as the narration. And in October, Rainbow Militia teamed up with Circus Foundry for A Very Victorian Monster Soiree. These co-worked events make Rainbow Militia feel like a group that operates under one ethos rather than a collection of individuals developing their own crafts.
In 2020, Rainbow Militia will re-invigorate a former practice of theirs termed “Invisible Circus” which formerly operated as a monthly showcase of aerial skill at a special location off West Colfax. In the new year, this practice will move to Invisible City (a fitting pairing) on Tuesday nights so that the circus community may practice their skills and those that want to watch may do so (with a drink in hand, too). Since Zabiti was so popular the first time around, the troupe is also bringing that back in 2020, but at a new location and with new twists and tricks. Once the summer months roll around, Rainbow Militia’s roving performance truck will take to the streets for more free performances.
Other Denver Artists You Should Know
Handsome Little Devils: Mike and Cole Huling are worldbuilders, experience makers, magicians, buskers, performers, engineers, costume designers, estate sale experts, collectors of odd props, furniture refurbishers and clowns. They purchased an old gas station off West Colfax and are planning something big for it, which you should keep an eye out for. Until then, catch them at Alamo Drafthouse Sloan’s Lake for their monthly variety show and keep up with other pop-up events through their website.
Kendra Fleischman: Over the last three decades, Kendra Fleischman has operated as a full-time artist in Denver — a feat that used to be even harder than it is now. Through her multi-media practice, Fleischman continues to explore her own abilities and muses, but especially excels at her psychedelic digital art like in her Understudy exhibit last year, and in her sculptural work as seen this summer at the Denver Botanic Gardens’ show Human/Nature. Other pieces from 2019 of note from Fleischman were her film at the second annual Side Stories in RiNo and her animation on the Daniels and Fisher tower for Night Lights Denver.
Collin Parson: Born and raised in Denver, Collin Parson is a local artist and art advocate who you should know. As the director of galleries and curator for the Arvada Center for the Arts, Parson has his finger on the pulse of local and regional contemporary artists and uses his position to bring some outstanding people to Arvada. As an artist himself, Parson works with mirrors, light, color and space in intriguing and sometimes illusionary ways. You can see one of his recent artworks at Addenbrooke Park in Lakewood, or just look up next time you are in the Dairy Block alley for a reflection of what he does.
RUMTUM: John Hastings, otherwise known as RUMTUM, is a DJ and muralist who paints fantasy-driven landscapes that appear to come simultaneously from outer space and 20,000 leagues under the sea. His imagination seems to have no limits, and his color choices make you feel like a kid in a candy shop. Catch his Denver murals mostly in RiNo.