A multi-colored snake twists up the stairwell of the Firehouse Art Center, some sections of its body exposed revealing a spine and heart, its fangs bared.
A combination of prints and stencil work, the project is the result of a collaboration between the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art (BMoCA) and the Firehouse Art Center called the Studio Project, aimed at helping student artists tackle social issues under the tutelage of professional artist mentors. Past iterations of the Studio Project have addressed the environmental impact of fashion and showed gratitude to essential workers in the pandemic, among other topics over the past several years.
“I want (the students) to talk about the issues and how it affects them and their peers,” says Elaine Waterman, executive director of the Firehouse Art Center. “So whatever they’re passionate about, that’s the direction we end up going.”
According to Waterman, engaging students in issues that matter to them is a key part of the project. This time around, the high school students kept circling back to animal rights, food insecurity and ethical husbandry.
Once the subject matter is locked in, students are tasked with finding an artist whose work reflects the themes and issues they’ve chosen. Students this semester chose Denver artist Max Coleman, who combines classic Audubon-style illustrations with more modern street art aesthetics to address environmental issues, social justice and animal rights.
Ian Giles, a junior at Stanford Online High School, was looking for local opportunities for art after moving to Boulder from New York. The biggest appeal, Giles says, is getting to collaborate with a working artist and learn from their experience and not just a school curriculum.
“I think there’s a disconnect between academia and industry or working artists. I think both are valuable, but I think this program does a good job of teaching us things from a practical perspective,” Giles says.
Coleman himself is a joyful and spirited individual. Even just a brief moment, as he demonstrates brush technique for a mural in the stairwell of the Firehouse Art Center, radiates enthusiasm for the teens he’s working with. His enthusiasm for his own work seems boundless, gladly digging into the inspirations and meanings as he flips through a stack of sketchbooks filled cover to cover with art.
His work juxtaposes beautiful landscapes or wildlife with darker subjects, much of which is influenced by his upbringing surrounded by Jewish culture and religious iconography. Judaism teaches that we should aspire to “leave the world better for your life having been in it,” Coleman says.
“To me, that always meant being kind to the things that, for some reason, people usually aren’t, which I’ve always identified as animals and plants,” he explains.
Using murals, paintings and detailed illustrations as a call to action helps Coleman guide his work and create with intention, he says. The goal is to have the work shift people’s perspective, even just a little bit. The Studio Project is an opportunity for Coleman to share his thoughts on art, and his practical experience with the business side of art, with an eager audience. The experience has been incredibly rewarding, he says, particularly as his first time in a teaching role.
“He has a really open way of sharing that works really well with the program, because he wants to impart all of the things in his mind to these kids,” Waterman says.
Waterman says that the students are already talented artists, but the Studio Project encourages them to explore and develop their own parameters and deadlines for the project as well. More than just the practical experience of learning project management as artists, Waterman wants the students to consider the what and why of creating as they step into the world beyond high school.
Lily Gutierez, a sophomore at Boulder High School, says the independence and collaboration has been challenging in the best way. The experience has helped her reflect on her art and what it can be outside of classroom assignments when she’s not being told what to do.
“It’s been fun to practice with that, especially with all these different artists,” she says. “It’s been fun. I like seeing everyone’s art. I really like (Coleman); he’s good at teaching us in an interesting way.”
Both Giles and Gutierez hope the art can make a stronger impact than just words alone, that the mural can inspire considerations and conversations to anyone who passes by.
The final mural won’t be unveiled until June 13, when the We’re People Too: No Joke exhibition is unveiled at the Firehouse. Prior to that, BMoCA will host some of the Studio Project work June 5-8, with a reception the evening of June 8.
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