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Double-shot double take: Cara Harjes paints children's art that parents adore

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You've seen their work lining the walls of your favorite coffee shops. Maybe you've done a double take while sipping your double latte, admiring -- or perhaps despising (sad emoticon) -- a certain piece that you spy from your seat. But what you probably haven't seen are the faces behind all of that art. In the weeks to come, we'll be taking a closer look at some of Denver's artists who serve up their work in coffeehouses and other non-gallery businesses around town. First up: Cara Harjes of Cara Harjes Art.

See also: A look back at the faces of Westword's 100 Colorado Creatives interviews

You're likely to see Cara Harjes patronizing one of the fine establishments on South Pearl Street, where her art is often displayed. The psychologist didn't set out to be an artist, but found her niche when, as a newlywed, she began chronicling her marriage via scrapbook. "I was never doing scrapping the way the scrapbook industry wants you to do it," explains Harjes, who refused to be constrained by traditional scrapping products and mediums, opting instead for office supplies, personal doodles and watercolors. From the very beginning, her pages "were always purposeful, personal and deep," she says. The hobby slowly transformed: first into collage, then art journaling. Recalls Harjes: "Four years ago, my husband asked me to make him a painting for Christmas." She was taken aback since she didn't actually paint, but she obliged him, and the original Cara Harjes still hangs in the couples' Platt Park kitchen -- a more primitive version of the whimsical complexity epitomizing the artist's one-of-a-kind style today. "My work is playful and messy," Harjes says of her acrylic-and-ink renderings, which are also a metaphor for how she views life. "It can be so beautiful, but also really messy," she notes. "With my art, the mistakes often turn into my favorite part." When her daughter arrived nearly two years ago, Harjes decided to trade in her psychology day job for a career she desperately wanted to pursue: mother. But she wasn't ready to give up art entirely. "I take my art more seriously now because I do stay home," she says. "I want to have something for my daughter to be proud of me about; I want to give my daughter an example of a woman who isn't afraid to take risks and pursue a dream." Since having her daughter, Harjes has also embraced her identity as a children's artist. At first, she wasn't sure about the "that's so cute" or "that'll look great in my child's room" feedback that her art was getting. "I thought people weren't taking my work seriously," she admits. But now, Harjes embraces this interpretation, and is even happy about it. "I never set out to do children's stuff," she explains. "But the colors I'm drawn to and the shapes I like and the content I explore all tend to lend themselves to kids' rooms." The work may be child-like, but it isn't childish. Look closely: You'll see that Harjes has more to offer than cutesy decor -- there's tremendous artistic quality beyond the cuteness. (Though that cuteness is undeniable.) And therein lies the true beauty of Harjes' pieces: Moms feel genuinely excited about hanging her work, which is child-friendly in a very fashionable and original way. One of the most endearing aspects of Harjes's work are the words and phrases she incorporates, reminding kids to "be kind, be true, be brave, be wild... be you!" Explains Harjes, "I love words and the power of words." She views the incorporation of words as a way to make her art more accessible to people -- especially children -- and to help them interpret what they see. While she harbors no grand plan of returning to psychology, the sayings let Harjes incorporate her mental-health training into this new endeavor, reminding kids of the importance of self-love and individuality. Harjes recently started making growth charts and says she's been "pleasantly surprised by the outcome and customer demand." She'll also do custom murals for clients; she's happy to work within a customer's price range. "I want to be affordable and accessible to people because I want people to have art in their lives," she says of her reasonable prices. "People like to buy things that feel accessible and, also good on their pocketbooks." In the past, Harjes has hung her work at Pajama Baking Company, and she currently displays at Polkadot, the mama'hood, and Naturally Loved. Depending on the shop, Harjes may split profits with the proprietor, or she might donate a portion of her sales to a charity. At Pajama Baking Company, for example, 20 percent of revenues went to a local charity chosen by PhilARThropy, an organization connecting local businesses to artists in the name of philanthropy. At the mama'hood, Harjes donates 10 percent of her earnings to women's breastfeeding education. "It is not as hard as you might think to have your work hung," says Harjes. "People are often excited to have somebody approach them because the work is seen as decoration for their space." At Naturally Loved, for example, Harjes hangs in a classroom, not the store's main boutique. "They are excited to have art that makes the space feel more inviting," she says.

The exposure at these businesses helps people recognize Harjes's work when she appears at markets like the Old South Pearl Street Farmer's Market, which she was at last summer, and the Horseshoe Craft and Flea Market.

This weekend, you can catch Harjes at the Firefly Handmade Holiday Market, which runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on December 21 and 22 at 1600 Pearl Street in Boulder. You can also find her work on Etsy. For more information, visit Harjes' Facebook page or follow her on Instagram.

Follow Jamie Siebrase on Twitter.

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