BRDG Project Celebrates the ‘Original Rebels’ of the North Denver Art Scene

BRDG Project Celebrates the ‘Original Rebels’ of the North Denver Art Scene

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By Celeste Benzschawel

Last month, BRDG Project, a gallery and event space in the Highland neighborhood, hosted an exhibit titled Roots of an Era: Mixtape to the Old North Denver Art Scene. The show was dedicated to the “original rebels” who pioneered the contemporary co-op and Chicano art scene, and the spaces they inhabited, starting in the early 1980s.

Work both past and present was featured by artists Zoa Ace, Phil Bender, Kyle Carstens, Jill Hadley Hooper, Randy Hughes (in memoriam), Jerry Jaramillo, Arlette Lucero, Stevon Lucero (in memoriam), Mark Lunning, Scott Macfarlane, Louis Recchia, Chandler Romeo, Mark Sink, Tracy Weil, Reed Weimer and David Zimmer. Jill Carstens, co-curator of the exhibit, read a passage harkening back to the era from her recently published memoir, “Getting Over Vivian.”

Opening night of the show on Jan. 12 was busy – sometimes overwhelmingly so – and there was a general sense of reconnection, celebration and, according to BRDG’s Instagram, “like a family had come home.” 

The times were represented in a wide scope of artwork depicting Colorado landscapes and industrial scenes. There were assemblage pieces, collages, avant-garde paintings and a “living wall of memories” featuring old concert posters, signage, flyers and clothing.

Even without knowing the many layers of history, it was easy to pick up on the DIY, gritty, resourceful nature of the art scene.

Brett Matarazzo, Denver native, artist and co-director of BRDG, said that’s what the show was all about: teaching people the history that shaped what the city’s art scene is today.

“Especially in a place like Denver that is so ripe with new people, people that maybe don’t have the history but want to help create the new one too, what’s important is to see any and show any of that past history so we don’t lose it and can understand where it came from,” Matarazzo said.

To dive into the backstory, a good place to start is the January 2024 article in The Denver North Star by Rebecca A. Hunt, “When the Center of Denver’s Art Scene Was the Navajo Art District.” 

Her piece described the home of the co-op galleries where the area’s original rebels established themselves. But who were these artists?

Matarazzo summed them up as “a group of young people at a very specific time in life that was transitionary, in the kind of late ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, where different eras were converging,” he said. 

At the time, specifically after World War II, people had taken to the suburbs, and these young people wanted to come back into the city and take over the empty spaces, Matarazzo said. They were a rebellious group that wanted to have fun, make art and push the boundaries, setting the stage for Denver’s art scene today.

This artistic shift was preceded by the Chicano art movement. The show included artwork representing both the struggles of what this movement meant to the neighborhood and the city, as well as the depth of the Mexican and Latino culture within that, Matarazzo said. Roots of an Era was meant to talk about both art movements, Matarazzo said, and how they co-existed.  

Artists were eventually priced out of the neighborhood and had to move their galleries out to the suburbs – like Pirate: Contemporary Art, Next Gallery, Core Art Space –  to 40 West (on West Colfax) in Lakewood, where they thrive today.

Matarazzo, who joined Pirate: Contemporary Art himself, said so many from that original crew are still creating art and are part of those collectives now.

“Denver, for a long time, maybe to their own chagrin, I think prioritized the growth and development end trying to house people as we knew we were going to grow,” Matarazzo said,  “but that development seemed to be more important for about 20 years and most of the arts, I think, were less.” 

Now, artists, and BRDG, are trying to restore balance. That’s why BRDG is located where it is, in hopes to bring art back to the forefront of the neighborhood where it originated. 

For Matarazzo, this is just the start of a series of shows dedicated to the original rebels, so stay tuned for future Roots of an Era exhibits. In the meantime, visit BRDG’s website and Instagram to view upcoming events.

BRDG Project is a 501c3 nonprofit whose mission is to bring local, artist-driven and thought-provoking arts to the heart of Denver’s shifting neighborhoods by bridging artists, gallery, youth and underserved communities together in an accessible and engaging space for contemporary expression and learning.

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