INDECENT EXPOSURE

Denver is becoming a very cheap date.
This city rolls over for anyone who shows the slightest interest in scratching its economically soft underbelly. And the result, seen in the light of day, is rarely pretty. Witness the Platte Valley: The confluence of two rivers that gave birth to Denver now welcomes all comers.

Want to build an amusement park? Sure! First, we'll approve a bond issue to cover millions in infrastructure costs, then we'll provide more financial assistance through our urban renewal authority, and then, hell, you can even erect a spindly, gas-station-sponsored tower that hovers over the skyline like a science project made out of Tinkertoys.

Want to build a new basketball arena in the Platte Valley? No problem! First, we'll let you take over not only the old basketball stadium, but also another city facility, the Denver Coliseum. Then we'll exempt the new arena from property taxes (if the Colorado Supreme Court lets us) and, after you pay the city the amount it collected during a fairly mediocre year at McNichols, we'll let you keep the rest of the profits, because at the end of thirty years you'll graciously give us the new arena you've built--although you'll continue to own all the land around it. Still, we'll pay to build the roads right up to your property, sacrificing a strip of park along Speer Boulevard that's home turf for all the downtown dog-walkers, those people we keep swearing we want to attract to core-city housing.

And although the city's planning department spent years studying the Platte Valley in an attempt to keep things in scale and historic context, sometimes an offer comes along that seems too good to refuse.

The city rolls over. Again. It isn't a very pretty picture.
Kip Ferris's mural was. Almost twenty years ago, when the area near Confluence Park was truly the artistic oasis that LoDo claimed to be for about a minute, local artist/sculptor Ferris covered the back of an 1890 warehouse at 1553 Platte with a trompe l'oeil painting of viaducts and mountains. Tucked alongside the original 16th Street Viaduct, Ferris's several-story work was an amusing surprise for alert drivers who happened by along I-25.

Enter Mike Stemple, a 25-year-old artist from Aurora with big ideas--and just the right city to sell them to. Stemple got the notion of replacing Ferris's work with another mural about six months ago, after suffering head injuries in a car accident. "I decided not to be so stingy with my art," he says. "I decided to share it with the people of Denver."

Thanks. We think.
Before that, Stemple had been taking his time going through school, teaching in-line skating and doing some private artwork for "people who could afford it," mostly corporations that sprang for sports-related murals to adorn their office walls. But he'd never done anything as big as he had in mind for 1553 Platte. "I sat down with my family," Stemple says, "and they were supportive. Then I contacted the building owner and got permission."

What owner Dr. Joel Karlin agreed to was a gigantic painting of three athletes looking toward their home fields. Stemple's proposal did a few things, Karlin says. First, the Ferris wall was in very poor condition, and something had to be done, anyway. And second, developers aren't the only people interested in the Platte Valley: It's a hotspot for graffiti artists, too, and Karlin had resorted to painting the bottom of the building brown. And then came the clincher: Stemple had a fundraising plan that would raise money, potentially lots of money, for the Kempe Foundation for Children, which Karlin and his wife have long supported.

The plan is this: Stemple will paint, from right to left, Dikembe Mutombo (already in progress), looking off to his left--presumably in the direction of the Pepsi Center, if the city agrees to that deal; John Elway, in full Broncos regalia, gazing toward Mile High (but also with an eye to that new stadium that Pat Bowlen keeps yapping about); and then Andres Galarraga, focusing off to his right on that next home run out of Coors Field. Having the three figures looking away from each other may not be good composition, but it's good marketing: The Rockies, Nuggets and Broncos each have approved Stemple's project; and all three athletes have agreed to sign 500 posters of the painting for charity.

Now all Stemple has to do is get those non-athletic supporters to sign off on the piece. Karlin has heard a few complaints about the mural's theme from some of his tenants, an aesthetically pleasing mix of architectural firms, a theater, designers and artists. "It's going to be different," he admits. "It fits in the sports motif that now fits this part of town."

That's just the problem, say nearby residents who were appalled to see an even-larger-than-life Mutombo suddenly taking shape on a wall that had previously been occupied by undeniable art. Although no one involved in the project is making money off of it, it sure looks like a commercial project--a billboard, a sign, a Nike ad. Anything but art.

That, however, does not concern the city. Ostensibly in order to encourage more public art, last year Denver adopted a new zoning ordinance that addresses the issue of murals. If no more than 5 percent of the piece is occupied by a corporate logo (say, the word "Nuggets" on Mutombo's much, much bigger uniform), then the piece is "artistic in nature," according to zoning director Dorothy Nepa. "And we've been told by the courts that we can't limit noncommercial messages." Not even jumbo, redundantly sporty ones. Nepa's office passed Stemple's proposal along to the Mayor's Office of Art, Culture and Film, which concurred that the painting qualified as art rather than an advertisement--but the commission's Greg Esser is quick to point out that "we don't have any aesthetic input."

A little more Mutombo appears every day. A group of Highlands neighbors--who have the dubious pleasure of facing the piece--are meeting this week, "very much concerned about the painting," says one member. And Nepa, who's received several complaints at her office, wouldn't be surprised if opponents appeal the project. But "it's a sports city," she points out. "We have three sports teams."

As though we need to be reminded of that.
In the meantime, Stemple paints on. "I'm just a kid who has a talent and decided to go out and make a difference, a difference to help kids," he says. He lost about a third of his memory in that fateful car accident, he adds, but curiously still recalls his inspirational junior high art teacher, who "never let anyone else criticize your artwork."

It's a brand-new ball game now.

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