Chris Haven's Duct Work mural under I-70.
Chris Haven's Duct Work mural under I-70.
Kenzie Bruce

Not a Pretty Picture: CDOT Art Fence Will Separate I-70, Swansea School

Artwashing is a term used when developers use artists to make their gentrification more appealing, but it can be deployed in other situations as well. And the result may not be a pretty picture.

Take the Central 70 Project, which is breaking ground in the midst of protests and lawsuits. This monumental, $1.2 billion, four-year (after more than a decade of planning) effort will sink two miles of I-70 underground through the heart of north Denver, including the Globeville, Elyria and Swansea (GES) neighborhoods, even as activists and community members continue fighting to "Ditch the Ditch." Among other concerns, they cite the fact that a school backs up right against the highway, and students will continue to attend classes there during construction.

So GES residents bristled earlier this summer when the Colorado Department of Transportation announced it was seeking 22 artists to paint an art fence at Swansea Elementary School, to "protect both the students at Swansea Elementary School from construction activities, as well as provide a safe work environment for the crews building the new I-70," according to CDOT. 

’Duct Work piece by Ricks.
’Duct Work piece by Ricks.
Lindsey Bartlett

The call for entry asked artists to submit sketches for 15' x 12' sections of plywood wall, using the theme of “play.” CDOT's announcement cautioned: “All designs should be appropriate for elementary-aged children as well as the residents in the Elyria and Swansea neighborhoods. Murals may not contain vulgarity, nudity or violence.”

The artists selected for the project must complete the work in a single weekend, August 24 through August 26, and will be paid $800 each for their efforts; that fee includes material costs, which could account for half of the commission. That means that one of the most expensive public projects in the state's history is paying one of the lowest amounts for artists.

According to local professional muralists, the going rate for a mural is $32 to $50 a square foot, which would put the starting amount for a commission of this size at $5,760 per artist.

The size of the fee wasn't what persuaded artist Thomas Scharfenberg to bow out of the project, though. On August 14, he sent this note to CDOT.

I must regretfully inform you that I will not be able to participate in the Swansea Art Fence painting event entitled “play your art out.” I will not be able to participate in the capacity you are requesting because despite all my thinking I cannot come up with a playful concept that fits this location.

Despite the fact that I believe all surfaces in our great city ought to be colorful and patterned, I also believe these patterns and colors need to reflect, represent and reinforce the energy of the local community/setting. Proceeding with a playful message on a dangerous and unhealthy scene like the I-70 reconstruction site, aka the “central70project,” would be inappropriate, irresponsible, disrespectful and insulting to the local neighborhood(s) in which I live and am a member of, as I share these feelings of resentment. Individuals in this largely minority population neighborhood have been and will be faced with and exposed to home displacement and toxic dust containing asbestos, arsenic, benzene, lead, noise (restriction variance to allow for 24-hour noise)... as a direct result of this project.

I understand the construction is going forward and the wall is going to be there for five-plus years and might as well not be a total eyesore, I agree. What I believe would be a more appropriate use of this wall space would be a message-board/post, map and timeline of the entire project. To be included would be warnings and information regarding hazardous/toxic materials and chemicals that will be uncovered and dispersed into the air during construction. All of this information needs to be presented and shown in an educational format on the wall in front of the school in English and Spanish both. There is a need to educate and inform the public about what is going on here and address all possible concerns. If CDOT needs help with this (designing an information board/map), I would gladly join a team that was making this happen. Indeed, here, the use of bright colors, bold text and shapes would be appropriate—well-designed communication and pleasing to the eye, of course, but

I will not play and joke around just because the wall is by a playground. This is a serious health and neighborhood issue that needs to be addressed, not covered up with some playful imagery. That is insulting! Folks have a right to to be educated and truthfully informed with both facts and plans about the history of the area and what is now going here, now and in the future, especially because it is at a school. This is actually an opportunity to educate our kids about the real world they live in. Building highways— that is real world stuff, right?! In conclusion,

I suggest CDOT reconsider how this wall is to be used and should look. I suggest the wall be used as a central posting point of honest information about what is happening behind the wall, for everyone to see.

Scharfenberg, whose earlier work for Duct Tape is listed as an "asset" on the CDOT website, had been one of 36 artists who'd initially applied, an "amazing" number, according to Rebecca White, deputy director of communications. CDOT has had success with other mural events, including Duct Work and ’Duct Work II, which created art along I-70 viaducts that will be torn down during the Central 70 Project, and CDOT is currently seeking more funds so that "more artists can participate beyond the original 22 we budgeted for," White says. "Many of the artists are known nationally and internationally. Several of the entries demonstrate a strong awareness of the socio-economic and cultural context of these neighborhoods, which is fantastic.”

But not if you listen to Candi CdeBaca, who lives in the area and is running to unseat Albus Brooks, the Denver City Council rep for the district. “I feel like art is being used against us. We’re watching art be used to sanitize spaces throughout our communities, and to be a substitute for the culture that’s being erased," she says. "With this specific project, my opposition isn’t to the art on the wall, my opposition isn’t to the wall, my opposition is to the theme that’s required. The theme of 'play' is mocking the community of the children, who won’t be allowed to play in their neighborhood for the next five to ten years because of this pollution.”

Candi CdeBaca is fighting to Ditch the Ditch.
Candi CdeBaca is fighting to Ditch the Ditch.
Matthew Van Deventer

Pollution is an issue the neighborhood has been grappling with since long before the highway was built in the 1960s, since this area was host to factories and smelters a century ago, earning it Superfund status.

An art fence can't stop the pollution, the dust or even the noise — which Keiwit, the contractor charged with the construction, is petitioning to be allowed to make 24/7. But CDOT and Keiwit have attempted to mitigate construction problems. “We’ve worked hard on making things better for the school," White says. "We put a new HVAC system into the school, new doors and windows throughout the building, two new early-childhood classrooms, and relocated the door — $15 million worth of work. This summer, we’re moving the playground from the highway side to the northeast corner of the building.”

But that won't be far enough to hide what's going on around the corner. In California, studies about poor air quality near highways inspired legislators to pass a law preventing schools from being built within 500 feet of a highway. And in this case, it’s a highway through a Superfund site, in what has been called “the most polluted zip code in the country.”

“Hopefully, the children are learning to look at this with a critical eye," says CdeBaca. "When they stare at the trash that has been allowed to exist and the boarded-up homes that signal the end of our community...to slap a picture up there is further numbing the general public to the real disasters that are occurring here."

Whether it's called artwashing or whitewashing, it's not a pretty picture.

Update: This story was updated at 11 a.m. Wednesday, August 15, to include the letter from Thomas Scharfenberg to CDOT.

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