Out of the Shadows

Women of the West Museum's LoDo Mural Project

In bold counterpoint to the swinging girders of a multimillion-dollar complex slowly rising over the intersection of 16th and Market streets these days, a new burst of color stands out against the grit and grime of the bustling construction site. As departing mall shuttles whiz by and high-heeled businesswomen clack along the sidewalk on their way to do lunch, they can't help but take in the eleven four-foot-by-eight-foot murals created by Denver artists Tony Ortega and Sylvia Montero under the joint auspices of the Women of the West Museum and building developers Continuum Partners, LLC. Installed along a fence surrounding the site in late January, the murals provide passersby a new, if temporary, focal point, while the office, retail and residential center due for completion this fall takes shape behind the wall.

Dubbed the LoDo Mural Project, the series honors a diverse group of Colorado women. It also directs onlookers' attention to the wall-less WOW's celebrated Web site, where cyber-surfing museum-goers can learn more about each of the women portrayed -- a wide-ranging group that includes significant unknowns alongside philanthropists, activists, educators and civic leaders. The museum's virtual location is something WOW president Marsha Semmel describes as part of "a new wave of museums" that endeavor to engage the public rather than concentrate on the collection and caretaking of artifacts.

"We were very intrigued by the idea of taking the message of the museum to streets," Semmel says, and keeping that in mind, Ortega and Montero, a married couple known best for their colorful depictions of everyday life in the Hispanic community, fit the project well. "We liked the idea of using a husband-wife team," adds Semmel, "and their style is bold and mural-friendly, which seemed appropriate for that area of the city." The final works, multi-hued and vibrant backdrop images adapted from archival photographs and superimposed by the outlines of each featured woman's image, are all the proof one needs.

Go West, young women: A detail of WOW's LoDo Mural Project.
Jonathan Castner
Go West, young women: A detail of WOW's LoDo Mural Project.

Once Ortega and Montero climbed aboard, the process of whittling all the grand conceptual ideas down to a workable model -- and budget -- was handled jointly by WOW and the artists. "Most of the women chosen were anonymous," Ortega says. "That gave us the idea for juxtaposing better-known women with the anonymous ones. We wanted to show those anonymous people as a part of history, too, juxtaposed with the better-known women integral to the history of the West." (He notes, however, that some of those -- such as celebrated Titanic survivor Molly Brown, who also happened to be an avid suffragist -- are somewhat anonymous, too, simply by way of being women rather than men.) And, Ortega adds, the idea of superimposing images -- not new to him, since he's used the technique before, or to Montero, a collagist and printmaker for whom layering is a natural aspect of her work -- also fulfills another objective: "They raise the question -- 'Who are these women?' -- which in turn ties into the Web site, where people can look them up. It's a way of leading people into the image."

Ortega says they carried the concept of mixing known and unknown figures one step further, by using everyday scenes and poses related to each woman's contributions as the underlying image without actually depicting the primary subject. For instance, one mural shows Dr. Susan Anderson -- more widely known as "Doc Susie" when she pioneered in her profession at the turn of the century -- overlaid across an 1897 image of hospital workers at Denver General. And Mesa Verde champion Virginia McClurg is portrayed atop an image of ladies skiing near Steamboat Springs, bringing into play the struggle between preservationists and recreational developers, while CU professor Mary Rippon's profile floats over the image of a one-room school, showing different aspects of women in education. One panel memorializing Lily Chin, the first Chinese-American born in Colorado, places her visage over one of Ortega's personal favorites, a 1914 photograph of a Chinese-American family having dinner. "Back then, the photographs were usually posed, but this one was the most natural -- just a family in the kitchen."

Since it went up a few weeks ago, Semmel says responses to the mural have been coming in via the WOW Web site, including one from a woman whose mother and grandmother had been delivered by Doc Susie and another from a descendant of Lily Chin's. And perhaps more important, teachers are expressing interest in incorporating WOW material into their curricula, something near and dear to Semmel's -- and WOW's -- heart and purpose. Even Ortega, who does art residencies in schools, says a fourth-grade teacher he works with at Annunciation Elementary School logged on and now wants to introduce the site to her students.

Though the installation at 16th and Market is temporary, WOW's virtual nature will give Ortega and Montero's work an endless life -- one way or another. Though nothing is certain, the panels may be auctioned off later this year, or possibly saved for incorporation into a more solid, four-walled version of the museum, should that stage ever come about. Semmel hopes they might be used for a calendar or -- perhaps more appropriate, considering WOW's strong commitment to education -- a coloring book. Whatever happens, the mural can live forever in cyberspace. "We're going full speed ahead in creating a non-traditional museum," Semmel says. "That's where the power of this museum is."

 
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