Getting street smart

By Ted Holteen Herald staff writer

And now for something completely different.

Never before have the walls of the Barbara Conrad Gallery held anything like “Open Art Surgery,” the Durango Arts Center’s first foray into the oft-misunderstood world of street art. Or public art. Or aerosol art. Or even graffiti.

Call it what you will, but for about 20 young artists from Durango and several other states, it’s an opportunity to showcase their talents as legitimate artists, not vandals or public nuisances.

“It’s a celebration of this art form as public art,” said Brian Simmonds, a San Diego transplant now living in Durango.

Simmonds is part of the Ground Up Arts Collective, a loose affiliation of artists who approached the powers that be at the Durango Arts Center for “Open Art Surgery.”

DAC Executive Director Sheri Rochford Figgs said this week was the perfect time for the show, as the Conrad Gallery was to be completely repainted later this month in advance of the “Textiles Today” show opening in May.

“Isn’t this just incredible?” Rochford Figgs said Tuesday of the transformation.

“Open Art Surgery” is flat-out cool. Nearly every open inch of wall space has been covered in spray paint and the explosion of color and diversity of designs are mind-boggling. It’s been a fascinating week to watch as the artists have attacked the space in bunches, with up to 10 working simultaneously in different corners of the room. Some have signed their work, others remain as anonymous here as they do when working on the streets of Oakland or Boston. And don’t look for titles, either.

“Art is art, and you can’t put words around it,” said Durango resident Alethea Hecker. “If we put borders around what we’re trying to do, it goes against the idea of public art.”

The show will be up for only eight days, and the temporary nature and lack of individual credit are in direct contrast to more traditional art forms that focus as much on the artist as the art. Not so for public art, and Durango artist Nick Jones said that’s something that might be hard for some to understand.

“A lot of this show has to do with impermanent art and creation for the sake of creating,” Jones said. “We’re bringing a different paradigm into the gallery, a paradigm of anonymity. It’s not for recognition or who you are, it’s just maybe the name on the wall and connecting to other people.

“Public art creates community – we’ll grow food and talk about urban gardening and feeling a part of your surroundings – all of that’s more important than the art itself. It’s a whole culture,” he said.

Tonight’s opening will be an event. It will begin at 4 p.m. with break dancing and hip-hop performances outside, and the Ground Up members rightfully expect those festivities to draw some interest from passers-by.

It’s a shame that it will be up for such a short time, but locals should be sure to stop in and have a look. There’s a lot to see, including Oakland artist Ellis Lee’s take on the Animas River. As a first-timer in Durango, he found inspiration in the River of Lost Souls moniker and dedicated an entire alcove in the gallery to the river. It’s the energy drawn from visiting artists like Lee that give “Open Art Surgery” its soul.

“I really dig this; it’s a chance for Durango to communicate with the street-artist community around the country, and everyone’s carrying on a dialog,” Lee said.

“It’s an opportunity, and it’s up to Durango to seize it,” he said.

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