To Eric Shumake, art and activism are one and the same, especially when it comes to the plight of Denver’s homeless population. Earlier this spring, Shumake spearheaded an action in front of the Denver Art Museum’s outdoor sculpture “Big Sweep,” by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, as a protest drawing attention to homeless sweeps, inviting fellow activists to lie down around it in the plaza, as if they were being swept away. But for the last year, he’s also been methodically painting every bridge crossing Cherry Creek, plein-air style, to raise funds for the Harm Reduction Action Center, a nonprofit syringe-exchange program.
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“I saw on the network news a piece about heroin addicts on the Cherry Creek Trail, and soon after that, I saw where the police came through sweeping everyone away, abusing park regulations and bending the law by making arbitrary areas uninhabitable,” Shumake says. “I saw that they claimed victory and that they had cleaned it up, when in fact, they’d actually made life more difficult for the state’s most vulnerable population.” But the homeless drug users living day to day under Denver’s urban bridges only moved to other areas, he notes, where they would continue to be harassed by the city. “For us to criminalize and dehumanize that population is high crime on behalf of the government. I also think it’s unconstitutional,” says Shumake.
“The only people I saw really doing anything about it was HRAC,” he explains. To support HRAC’s services on the front line, Shumake decided to launch a project that would catch the eye of mainstream media by playing along with the city’s assumptions about liberating blighted urban open spaces from addicts. “I had the idea to turn around and do a project that seems wholesome, something the media would like: Here’s some paintings of these lovely areas. What I'm still hoping to do is get a ‘Hey, look, here’s a guy who does these paintings’ — and do a straightforward piece about it. In a fit of hope and despair, I went down and painted the first one."
Shumake took to the greenway, working his way from bridge to bridge, through the seasons, just as any straight plein-air painter might do — with a twist. “The work is not about the paintings,” he says. “It’s about the moral aesthetic, taking the idea of these rhetorically beautiful landscape paintings as a hook, but using it to raise money and awareness to actually help people. My goal is to paint between 23 and 28 bridges, possibly including the railroad bridges and walkways.” He notes with irony that in all that time, he’s never felt unsafe painting along the creek — except from the cyclists racing by at high speeds and a couple of cops who once stood nearby, wordlessly (and ominously) observing him painting.
And he’s still at it, painting the ephemeral images one at a time. In the meantime, though, Shumake will offer up a selection of completed works at a Cherry Creek Bridge Project Pop-Up benefit show from noon to 9 p.m. Saturday, April 29, at Dateline Gallery in RiNo. “The paintings will be sold fairly cheaply at auction — we’ll be asking for a minimum of $300 each, or anything above that.” He credits a handful of people, including Dateline’s Jeromie Dorrance, for pitching in by pre-buying paintings or helping pull together supplies so he can continue with the project. Once finished, Shumake plans to collect the images in a book or catalogue to raise further funds for HRAC.
The remaining bridges are waiting. “Painting, in and of itself, keeps me from thinking about the news,” Shumake concludes. “It’s neutral fun for me in a Bob Ross kind of way, but the work wouldn't be interesting without the larger arc.”
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