Southern Colorado is actively changing the perception that public art is static, boring, and elitist with fun, participatory, and unique exhibits that challenge the usual stodgy parameters of the genre. Here are 10 of our favorite venues, which include lively murals, a penny arcade, a man on a horse (gotta have at least one!), a neon alley, and a noisy historic avenue.
CONTINUUM IN AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL PARK
Sculptor Bill Burgess isn’t at all modest about his acknowledged masterpiece, a sculptural fountain that he designed in partnership with architect David Barber—nor should he be.
Continuum, in Colorado Springs, is nearly 4 stories tall and weighs over 24 tons. On his website, Burgess writes, “Continuum is one of the largest sculptural fountains in the United States. A collaboration between one of the American West’s most significant modernist sculptors, Bill Burgess, and the capable architect and landscape designer David Barber, Continuum defies the traditional plodding expectations often asso-ciated with large scale public art.”
The supersized steel spiral defines and centers America the Beautiful Park, located just west of central downtown. During the summer, the park host events almost every weekend, and when the fountain is turned on it’s a great place for kids (and adults!) to frolic and cool off.
PUEBLO’S NEON ALLEY
Pueblo native, entrepreneur, historic preservationist, and neon aficionado Joe Koncilja has been acquiring, preserving, restoring, and commissioning neon signs for years. The fruits of his labor are on display in Neon Alley, a free outdoor light show in an alley adjacent to Koncilja’s office at 125 B Street in downtown Pueblo. Neon signs were created in the 1920s and their “liquid fire” lit up the American night for many decades. Created by skilled artists and neon benders, the signs are a uniquely American art practiced by uniquely American craftsmen in cities across the country. Koncilja says that the alley contains “the greatest assembly of neon art west of Time Square and east of the Las Vegas Strip.”
DON GREEN’S SCULPTURES
Colorado Springs native Don Green, 85, has created more than a dozen large-scale public art pieces in Colorado Springs, including the stainless steel and green glass abstract sculpture on the west side of the 300 block of North Tejon Street. The versatile Green does representation, too—check out the rearing bronco on Cascade next to the Pikes Peak Center or the mounted Native American and buffalo sculptures at the entrance to the Colorado Springs Airport. Our favorite: Eos, a large-scale cousin of the Tejon Street sculpture that adorns the campus of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
KIM PALOMKA’S RAILROAD MURAL
Located on the side of an historic building on Bijou Street between Cascade and Tejon in downtown Colorado Springs, the 2013 mural depicts Engine #8 from the Colorado Springs and Cripple Creek District Railway leaving the station. It’s full of historic and modern references, with sepia tones recalling historic photographs in the background and current residents Chuck and John Murphy in the foreground. The Colorado Springs natives commissioned the mural and own the building, originally the Albany Hotel. The CS & CCD line ran from a station in downtown Colorado Springs, and the hotel catered to railway workers. The railway ticket shown in the mural replicates an actual ticket.
DOUGLAS ROUSE’S WAREHOUSE MURAL
You can’t miss Douglas Rouse’s mural if you enter downtown Colorado Springs by exiting I-25 at Cimarron. As you approach downtown, the mural covers the entire west wall of the four-story Warehouse Restaurant Building. So convincing are the multiple three-dimensional illusions that uninitiated viewers are fooled. No, it’s a two-dimensional surface, not a columned entryway into a lush Italian garden. Rouse isn’t just an artist, but a magician—a conjurer who can create an entire world with a few buckets of paint.
PHIL LEAR’S PIRATE GIRLS AT BONNY & READ
Bonny & Read is easy to find in downtown Colorado Springs. Look for the long blue awning on the north side of Kiowa Street between Tejon and Nevada. This seafood bar/restaurant is named after two pirates from the 1700s—women who ignored gender norms three centuries ago. Local artist Phil Lear has reimagined them as tough, relentless, and thoroughly modern women. The half-dozen masterful, larger-than-life paintings link the past to the present in unexpected and thoroughly delightful ways. The art is free, the ambiance is informal, and the prices are reasonable.
GENERAL PALMER ON HIS BRONZE HORSE
This bronze statue portrays General William Jackson Palmer, the city’s founder, on his horse, Diablo. Colorado Springs voters approved the site in April 1923 by a vote of 3,151 to 871. Perhaps believing that automobiles were a passing fad that would soon disappear, they chose a site in the middle of the intersection of North Nevada and Platte Avenues, which were the major north-south and east-west highways through the city. The majestic statue and its granite base can consequently only be viewed from afar. Calls to relocate the statue have been fended off by history buffs, who point out that moving it would not only be expensive, but would also have to be approved by a vote of the people. Designed by Nathan Potter and Chester French, the equestrian statue was formally dedicated on September 2, 1929. The General faces southwest towards Pikes Peak. As local historian Tim Scanlon has noted, Potter and French may have been brilliant sculptors but they were no horsemen: the saddle lacks a cinch. Nevertheless, the General has remained firmly astride his mount for 88 years!
THE MANITOU ARCADE
Take a few aging buildings packed with ancient pinball machines, kiddie rides from the 1950s, mechanical fortune tellers, and 25-lane skeeball games and put them in the heart of Manitou Springs, the self-proclaimed “coolest small town in Colorado.” You’re left with a successful business, a museum of Americana, and a participatory work of art that visitors engage every day. For those of us above a certain age, visiting is like returning to the half-remembered penny arcades of childhood: same games, same noises, same excited patrons. For anyone else, it’s an introduction to an immersive public experience with art that teaches, amuses, and chastens. Think you can beat your kids at skeeball or pinball? Go to the arcade and find out—it’ll only cost you a few quarters. If you win, you’re likely to remember the experience 20 years hence… and if you lose, the kids will never let you forget.
BENNETT AVENUE IN CRIPPLE CREEK
Bennett Avenue has been Cripple Creek’s main drag since 1891, when the greatest gold rush in American history transformed placid ranchland into a boomtown. The city burned to the ground in 1896 but was rebuilt within months. The recreated Bennett Avenue was lined with brick-and-stone Victorian commercial buildings, a harmonious tribute to the city’s wealth, ambition, and hopeful future. After a couple of decades, the mines played out but the buildings endured. A century after the fire, casino gambling was legalized in Cripple Creek and ignited a new gold rush. The decaying Victorians were renovated and repurposed, the streetscape was renewed, and the city was recreated a second time. The restored facades merge past with present, and it’s déjà vu all over again. So when you drop a few bucks at the casino, enjoy a walk down the Avenue and remember the miners who dropped their money at Cripple Creek saloons and gambling halls over 100 years ago.