Denver might not be on your radar when you think of major American cities with thriving arts districts. But the Mile High City is more than meets the eye — home to art walks, underground galleries, street murals, and studios for makers honing their craft. Anthony Garcia Sr., a Denver-born-and-based artist and cofounder of the BirdSeed Collective, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating art through youth and community projects, sat down with The Discoverer (virtually) to discuss his inspiration, the close-knit art community in his hometown, as well as his views on public art and its impact.
What's the Creative Process Like?
The Discoverer: What are the first steps you take when starting with a blank canvas?
Anthony Garcia Sr.: When I paint murals, every space is different, so I kind of look at the space as a whole to see what it needs [and] go from there. My style is based off of the serape blanket — a Southwestern, Mexican-style blanket designed from the sunrise and all the colors of the sky. A lot of times I try to stay within that realm of colors and the gradient and geometrics that go with it.
I’ve been doing a lot of stuff lately in my studio which is more experimental. I really like playing with the idea of bringing the outdoors indoors and vice versa — like doing more with wallpaper patterns outside on a bigger canvas, or working with graffiti or decay inside. Every canvas is different and it’s problem-solving for me.
I always experiment, but it stays in the studio more than it does on the streets because I get hired to paint certain things. When clients approach me, it’s normally [a request] to paint with that same style. I don’t want to pigeonhole myself into being the “blanket guy” even though I am very much that, but I’m still trying to evolve and do different things with it. I’m always changing [my work], but it’s nice knowing that someone can look at something and immediately know that it’s mine.
TD: Tell me about your most recent project.
AG: I just finished a big project off of I-70 and York Street. It’s a giant pedestrian bridge in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood [of Denver]. It’s where a lot of new construction is happening, so it’s a really congested area right now, but when it’s finished, the bridge will be a main focus in the area.
TD: What are your favorite mediums to use?
AG: I use acrylic paint and latex paint. I don’t use spray paint too much. That’s pretty much it. I’ve been starting to get more into oils in my studio, but as far as big projects, I like heavy-duty house paint because I know that it’ll last outdoors for a really long time.
Deciding to Pursue a Dream
TD: Have you always wanted to pursue art as a career? When and how did you decide to devote your life to this?
AG: I’ve always been an artist. I was always told that my grandma was an artist, so maybe I got that from her. I did graffiti for a long time as well when I was younger. I slowly learned more about galleries by just meeting people and networking in Denver. I never really went to school for it. Although I wish I would have, I wasn’t the best student, so I was also struggling to just make sure I graduated. I did graduate. A lot of people from my neighborhood didn’t, so it’s important to me. The graffiti eventually slowed down, and I began to learn more about the art scene — just trying to create something.
After painting so many walls through graffiti, you try to find what that next evolution is; for me, that was muralism. And so I started finding opportunities for murals to be painted on walls and began collaborating with artists. That slowly developed more into a community leader-type role, because we were able to find opportunities working with kids in lower-income communities, which happened to be in my neighborhood. It was easy to work in my own neighborhood with a lot of the kids that I knew. It just kept growing from there.
Why Even a Pandemic Can't Stop a Creative Mission
TD: How has the pandemic affected your day-to-day?
AG: For me personally, it never stopped the artists from creating. A lot of the artists are secluded in their studios painting away — regardless of what’s going on outside. It’s almost giving them a little extra time to work more on stuff. I don’t see it as much affecting artists as it does other industries.
TD: How did the BirdSeed Collective get started?
AG: Originally, it was just me and one other gentleman [Michael Broberg], who was an awesome curator and fine artist, collaborating together. We were looking for more opportunities to paint murals and do art shows, and became successful doing that. The Denver art scene was thriving and we were at its forefront. Eventually, he [Broberg] moved out of state and started his own gallery in the Bay Area. I had to figure out what it was we were doing. Because I was already doing a lot of nonprofit and community work, I shifted in that direction since it was easy to find opportunities with kids painting murals. It became more about helping the community, and that’s when we made the shift to nonprofit status.
TD: Why is Birdseed’s mission — transforming the lives of artists through civic engagement — important to you?
AG: For me personally as a creative, I didn’t understand how many opportunities were out there [when I was getting started]. Opportunities in general weren’t presented much to my neighborhood. Now that I’ve gained this platform through the arts, we’re able to sit down with the neighbors. We know them, we know their kids, and we’re able to find them opportunities. They trust as a reliable source for a lot of the things going on in the neighborhood. Gentrification is real, and my neighborhood is threatened by it. Our community needs to stick together and know what’s going on, and we’ve been a conduit for that. We use art as a platform to keep everyone informed.
Denver's Creative Energy
TD: Have you always lived in Denver to pursue your art career? Why has this been a creative city for you?
AG: I’ve always been the kid from the hood. I never left Denver until recently, when I started traveling. That’s just the card that I was dealt. Because I’ve been around for so long and done these different things, it’s molded me into “the Denver guy,” which I don’t mind. But I hope to expand more in the future. I still work for my community and these neighborhoods. These people have lived here their whole lives. That’s what I’m here for and I’m able to do it because of the art.
TD: Why do you love the art community in Denver? What has it provided you as an artist?
AG: Just because I’ve been around so long, it’s been easier for me to talk to a business owner or work with a community group because I know everybody, and they know my mom and they know my kids. Being here has made it easier to handle business. I’ve been to other places and gotten jobs in Miami and stuff to work with communities over there, but a lot of times people want somebody that is from their neighborhood or city — somebody that they can relate to, as opposed to someone coming from out of town trying to do whatever agenda they have. They want to be comfortable with the person they’re working with.
How to Explore Denver's Art Scene
TD: What might you tell a first-time Denver visitor interested in exploring the art scene to check out first?
AG: The street art in the RiNo neighborhood of Denver is pretty popular and cool to look at, but that’s just one small piece of what the Denver art scene is. There are so many artists that don’t have murals that have art shows to check out. There are a lot of modern and contemporary galleries. The Santa Fe Art District has their First Friday Art Walks that are wall-to-wall packed with people. That’s one art experience. And then you have the RiNo art experience which is walking around the alleys seeing different murals, and later going to a restaurant or brewery.
But there’s also a lot of galleries you can go to that are hidden gems. Dateline Gallery is a very big gallery in RiNo that’s tucked away and not everyone knows the doors are open. And even my gallery (Alto Gallery). We’re not on the main block, so sometimes it’s hard for people to notice we’re there.
TD: Why do you think street art in general is beneficial to a community?
AG: For me, a street artist is someone who would risk their freedom for their art. I think painting murals is kind of a trend that’s going on right now, but I don’t consider my work street art at all. Each piece I do is meant to be in a specific space. I use that space. I don’t just kind of draw a picture and throw it up anywhere. What I do is different than what I feel street art is. Street art is putting art on the streets and not necessarily involving the community. It’s just finding a wall to paint on.
TD: Fair enough! But overall, do you think the presence of art in a community is positive?
AG: I think one good thing about street art is that it’s giving all these people that have no idea what art is the chance to experience it and make the decision for themselves about whether they like it or not. By having it outside in your face all the time now, it’s becoming more approachable. Being an artist isn’t this hard-to-reach goal somebody went to school their whole life for. We’re all artists and have different ways of thinking about art. Seeing art every day on the streets is making people realize they have an opinion about it.
Check out Garcia’s work at the Alto Gallery located at 4345 West 41st St. Denver, CO 80212.