You may not realize it when you don your polka gear to party in Larimer Square during the annual Oktoberfest, but your behind-the-scenes host is the Larimer Arts Association. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to promoting arts recognition and education locally, despite diminished funding in the community. Until now, the LAA has concentrated on such high-profile fundraising activities as the beer-and-brat-swilling festival.
This year, executive director Margaret Ebeling and other boardmembers came up with a new way to support some of Denver's youngest emerging artists: They hooked up with Denver Public Schools to initiate Project LEAD, a public-art project involving kids from six diverse middle schools chosen by the DPS to represent several city quadrants. With help from project curator and boardmember Michael Rieger, of the Lapis Gallery in northwest Denver, the talented youngsters dived enthusiastically into the creation of a series of collaborative projects set for display in six downtown corporate buildings. The finished projects will be available for public viewing beginning January 22, and they're surprisingly cohesive, considering the youth of their artful engineers.
"The teachers were all amped up, and the kids surprised us pleasantly," Ebeling says of the opportunity. That's exactly what she was shooting for with this year's pilot program. "We wanted to have the artists be the champions here." And champions they are: Each installation emerged with its own boisterous, thoughtful character, from the tile mosaic inspired by Aborigine art and created by students of Meggan DeAnza at Skinner Middle School to the cutting-edge, multi-tasking Japanese book project instigated by communication-arts instructor Michelle Dame at Grant Middle School. Differences aside, there is a deciding factor common to all six contributions: teamwork. The students were drawn together by their projects, creatively bringing unique viewpoints to a common table.
Lake Middle School's Donna Davis got her team to fashion imaginative flat-relief clay tiles to represent buildings. The original idea, Davis notes, was to emulate the Victorian style of structures in Larimer Square. But somewhere along the way, she says, the focus of the project "evolved from LoDo to international buildings." The result? There are pyramids and Parisian landmarks, eerie remembrances of the World Trade Center and plebeian renditions of a Total gas station and the ever-familiar golden arches. In finished form, the tiles will be installed as a three-dimensional collage or, as Davis calls it, a "village." The Arc de Triomphe will rub elbows with McDonald's in a peaceable global kingdom. Sweet.
What's most touching about the energy expended citywide by these talented youngsters? They've been blissfully unaware of their own importance, even as they've pushed through their individual projects. "At this age, they can do something monumental and just...walk away from it," Dame says. "The importance of it won't go through their minds at all until they actually see it up as an installation."
Wednesday night's unveiling will give them that chance: "We want to let the artists be the hosts," Ebeling explains. To that end, she's back to her old role of event planner. The focus of the traveling reception will be squarely on students and their families, perhaps including music by student bands. "Once the kids feel, 'I'm part of this; this is important,' that's when the project all comes together."