Vanishing Cowboy

There's a new cowboy in LoDo, or at least part of one. In recent weeks, his image began to emerge on the side of a building at 1617 Wazee Street, bearing the inimitable mark of Western watercolorist William Matthews, whose high-priced and admired works reside in the gallery within. Already gritty and weathered, the cowboy strumming on an unfinished outline of a golden-hued guitar exudes the character of the old West in a way that seems to fit the neighborhood like a well-worn pair of chaps. In theory.

There's a scaffold clinging to the wall, but for the moment, there's no one on it painting. That's because the mural, unofficially dubbed "Willie's Wall" by people in the know, is in bureaucratic limbo, waiting for the right piece of paper to be issued by the right authority.

Most parties involved would like to agree that the work stoppage is no big deal. But the real problem is figuring out whose decision it is to allow such a mural to go up in the first place. Matthews says building owner Don Andrews told him that the wall, which was previously adorned by an unruly string of unrelated images, was his to do with as he pleased. As an artist, and not a particularly temperamental one at that, Matthews simply didn't know that you can't put up a mural in LoDo without going through the proper channels.

And just what are the proper channels? There's the rub. It's a strange ballet of an approval process that involves Matthews, the Mayor's Office of Art, Culture and Film, the Lower Downtown Design Demolition Review Board and members of the neighborhood itself, who are represented by the Lower Downtown District, Inc. Boiled down to its essence, however, the process requires a decision from the MOACF. "We create a letter saying it's art and not a sign, which relieves artists of having to get the permit needed for commercial signage," says MOACF maven Fabby Hilliard. Once the proposed design is officially reckoned a mural and not an advertisement, no further approval is needed and work can progress. But according to Everett Shigeta of the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission, who works with the LoDo review board, that usually isn't done automatically. Official comments made by the neighborhood group and board must be considered as well, and in order to set this intricate procedure in motion, Matthews has had to go back to square one with the authorities while his cowboy-in-progress hangs in the balance.

Matthews says the unfinished piece is the product of a year's worth of planning. He went through a whole series of images before deciding to use "A Fine Old Martin," featuring the countenance of cowboy poet/singer Gary MacMahon as the seasoned 'poke strumming on a 1932 Martin 000-28 guitar. Matthews owns the actual instrument, which he bought from bluegrass musician Charles Sawtelle, and he clearly loves everything about the image.

"We're not doing this in a halfhearted way; I think it's a strong solution," he says. "I wanted to add some kind of a regional spice to the lower downtown area, and I didn't want to do anything that was corny or tired or provocative. I wanted something with a wonderful, gentle feel about it, for people to feel welcomed when they come around the corner and there it is."

To do the actual painting, Matthews called in Evergreen sign and mural specialist Chris Krieg, a self-described "dinosaur" who counts himself among the last of the "wall dogs"--a fond moniker for the once-flourishing community of sign painters whose exacting form of monumental wall work has been stamped out by the computer-graphics technology now used in the business. A true veteran and artist of his trade who's painted walls in the canyons of Times Square, Krieg now does only the occasional outdoor mural; perhaps his most visible local work is an elegant Cirque du Soleil piece gracing a wall at 1434 Champa Street.

Krieg is unapologetically old-school. He begins the image-transfer process by making mural patterns using a technique invented centuries ago by Michelangelo himself. To complete the Matthews mural, he'll need to use only about six gallons of fine-ground oil paint--the same durable pigment used for generations on wall advertisements that prevailed on downtown buildings before the advent of billboards and one-way streets. He's also a firm supporter of the project, which he sees as far more than a work opportunity. "I think it's fantastic: It's dynamic, it livens up the whole intersection, it's interesting to look at from all angles, and it changes the scale of the neighborhood," Krieg says. "This type of mural gives downtown a signature."

Technically, nobody's arguing with that. "We encourage expression," notes Dan Dubois of the LDDI. "We encourage people to work in the community to make it a better place. We're all for that kind of stuff." Adds Jon Anderson of the review board: "It should at least be a handsome painting, but we've got to deal with it in the proper and legal way, and we shall." Over at the MOACF, Hilliard concurs: "In this case, it's a beautiful piece. But we have to stop and go back and do it the right way."

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