Art News

Owners of Oldest Gallery in RiNo Reflect on Neighborhood's Artful Beginnings

Rex and Sharon Brown back in 1991 when Pattern Shop Studios was newly constructed.
Rex and Sharon Brown back in 1991 when Pattern Shop Studios was newly constructed. Nick del Calzo
In 1991, Rex and Sharon Brown were looking for a space where they could create both their private home and a public gallery and studio, where Sharon would make and display art and invite others to join. They found an abandoned industrial woodworking pattern shop at Blake and 33rd streets, a building from 1906 that had neither electricity nor plumbing. Just four months later, the couple opened the Pattern Shop Studio, now the oldest art gallery in the RiNo neighborhood.

On October 1, the Browns will host a house party, called Art, Tacos, and Friends, to kick off the gallery's fall season. From 5 to 8 p.m., Sharon will exhibit her art, Rex will share his stories, and the evening will be filled with live local music, Moya’s Tacos and, “of course, sips.” The Browns hope to push the boundaries of what an art gallery is to the community surrounding it, the artists who create the work, and the viewers of that work.

The building's architecture adds to its historic clout: "It was one of David Tryba’s first projects. He’d just come back from New York," Rex says. "It’s beautiful — it won an American Institute of Architects award. This home is a work of art.” The fact that the gallery is also a home is important to its identity, he adds: “It isn’t a big cube where people walk around and look at paintings. They’re able to look at the art in the context of a living space.”

“They can visualize that art in their own home,” adds Sharon.

When asked what the neighborhood around 33rd and Blake was like back in the early ’90s, Rex has two words, at least to start: “junkyard dogs.” It was chain-link fences, Waste Management down on 23rd, and “wholesale heaven,” as Sharon puts it. “There was absolutely no traffic on the weekends,” she remembers. “Literally not one car. There was nobody here.”

Years later, the Browns recall, it was RiNo that came to them. “What we did was start the mom-and-pop operation,” Sharon explains. “We weren’t going anywhere. We weren’t there to flip anything.” Once the Browns had ensconced themselves, it seemed to encourage others to do the same. “It gave other people like Tracy Weil [founder of Weilworks, RiNo Art District] and Susan Wick and Mickey Zeppelin [of Zeppelin Development and food hall Zeppelin Station] the idea that this was a place where people could stay. This was a place where you could be artists.”

Sharon’s art — largely figurative in form these days — includes not one, but two series called Trumped!, in which she plumbs the political landscape in America through portraits of former president Donald Trump and Trump allies, both former and current. Sharon reports with some glee that her painting of Steve Bannon is owned by a former Republican Party head in Denver. “We had all these Democrats come,” Rex recalls of a Democratic fundraiser the gallery hosted, “and they all loved the paintings. But none of them want them in their house.”

But Sharon’s work, at least soon after they moved to Blake Street, began with urban landscapes. “I was inspired by the neighborhood,” Sharon recalls. “We’d take these walks, and I’d do industrial buildings that I’d found. I have a painting up right now, in fact, called 'NoDo Viaduct.'”

“NoDough was what we called the neighborhood back then — because there was no dough," says Rex. "Nobody had any.”

“That was also back when Rex was in a small group of business owners that we called ULNA — Upper Larimer Neighborhood Association," Sharon adds. "I always liked to say that they were the forearm of Denver.”

“When RiNo began — which is now seventeen years ago — we started having openings," Rex says. "They were pretty small for a while.” But that allowed the Browns to be more agile and inventive in terms of what they could try, how they could support the local art community. “We did have a show — this was back when some of the buildings around here weren’t inhabitable yet — just for teenagers. Galleries wouldn’t show their work because they were too young. So they hung their paintings on the exterior walls of the unused buildings.”
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The teen show back in 1992.
Pattern Shop Studio
“They were all goth then,” Sharon adds. “All dressed in black, you know.”

“We’ve always liked having young people come and show their art,” Rex says, and talks about how Pattern Shop has hosted shows for both the Art Students League of Denver and Denver School of the Arts.

But the neighborhood has developed quickly: “Not so long ago, we had three other galleries around us. That was sort of the golden age,” Sharon says. “Rule was up here, plus two others, and the synergy was great. We could often have 300 people at an opening, each gallery playing off the other three. Now, of course, those galleries are gone, or moved, mainly because the property taxes doubled. Things slowed down. First Fridays were falling away because we didn’t have the same population here anymore. There wasn’t the same synergy."

So the event on Saturday also serves as a reimagining of the Pattern Shop. “Instead of just focusing on my art,” Sharon says, “it’s more about the history of the Pattern Shop, our history of being here, what it was like, what it has become. We’re trying to broaden what the Pattern Shop does in terms of interfacing with the community.”
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"The Jones," by Sharon Brown, first-prize winner of the 2022 Curtis Center All Colorado Art Show.
Sharon Brown
Community has always been a focus for Pattern Shop and the Browns; neighbor and marketing specialist Kelly O’Connell is helping keep that vision alive while shifting the artistic focus. “Rex and Sharon have been so inspiring, and we’ve been working on how we can let people know about this amazing artistic beacon. We do have traffic on the weekends now,” O’Connell says, and laughs. "This huge population of young people, dozens of apartment buildings in this area within walking distance. It always enhances a community to know what happened before, what made it what it was. The Pattern Shop is and has always done that work.”

One of the things that the Browns and O’Connell are passionate about is the fact that too often when people think about art, there’s some trepidation around it — as though you're required to have studied art to understand it. A gallery space can be intimidating for some. “This isn’t,” Sharon says, and smiles.

That’s all part of the Pattern Shop's goal: to bring a sense of artful living to the neighborhood, for 31 years and counting.

Art, Tacos, and Friends, 5-8 p.m. Saturday, October 1, Pattern Shop Studio, 3349 Blake Street. For more information, check out the website.
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Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.
Contact: Teague Bohlen

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