When Jaime Kopke hit Denver a decade or so ago, she went right to work bringing people together, founding a temporary project, the Denver Community Museum, where anyone could participate in building themed exhibits, and showcasing local creatives at the city’s first Pecha Kucha speed presentations. At the time of her first Colorado Creatives interview in 2013, Kopke was doing more of her magic, creating cultural programming at the Denver Art Museum. She’s since moved on to the Boulder Public Library, still dreaming up ways to include ordinary citizens in community-inspired exhibitions and coming up with some new personal projects on the side. Catch up with Kopke as she answers the Colorado Creatives Redux questionnaire.
Westword: How has your creative life grown or suffered since you last answered the CC questionnaire?
Jaime Kopke: There’s been ups, downs and sidesteps. I still feel very fortunate to have a job where I can be creative and also help other artists find a platform to share their visions and work. Two years ago I left the Denver Art Museum to work for the Boulder Public Library as the programs manager. The work is similar to what I did at the DAM in terms of program planning, but the philosophy is more expansive. Libraries are free, and they are for everyone. That essence is liberating, carries a responsibility and also changes the dynamics of organizing exhibitions. The library is a community space, and unlike a museum that charges admission, it can truly be a community centerpiece. I’ve found more creative freedom in producing exhibitions in the library’s gallery — more direct collaboration with creatives without the fuss of the traditional museum structure.
Looking back on the exhibitions of the past few years, I am really proud that the library and the city took on more challenging and pressing topics. It feels more nimble and responsive than a museum setting where exhibitions are planned years in advance. How can you increase relevance when you don’t know what the issues of the moment will be two years from now?
In terms of my personal work, I have had less space for that with the demands of a full-time job and becoming a parent. Both of those things are awesome, though, so no complaints. It just hasn’t left much time for me to materialize my own projects.
As a creative, what’s your vision for a more perfect Denver (or Boulder)?
I have to answer that through a very specific personal lens. The pace of growth on the Front Range has been substantial. When I organized the Denver Community Museum in 2008, I had several developers offering me free storefront space to use for a whole year. I wouldn’t try that now. We moved into the foothills a few years ago, so I am more removed from many of the day-to-day happenings in the city. I feel that loss in terms of not getting to as many events or art openings, but I am also okay with it. I find those connections through my job instead.
Priorities shift, and our family wanted more space. More head space and physical space. Reconnecting with nature has been a growing need in my world, both for myself and wanting that for my four-year-old son. Now I can see the fog moving in and out of valleys, and I feel much more peaceful. I had to make that move for my own personal vision. There are so many new people, ideas and projects happening in Denver now, I can’t speak for what their perfect vision may be.
It’s a challenging time for artists and creatives in the metro area, who are being priced out of the city by gentrification and rising rents. What can they do about it, short of leaving?
The rising cost of living is brutal. It’s not only rents; it’s also our unbalanced tax structure and non-affordable/non-existent health care. And it’s not something creatives can or should have to take on alone. It’s bigger systems at play. I think the artists should keep doing their work and being vocal, but beyond that it’s a bigger challenge on the city, state and federal level. It’s massive, complicated and not an easy fix.
We just launched a new program series at the library called Comfort Soup where we chat about community issues over a communal soup meal. If anyone wants to host a dialogue or work together on an art exhibition around these topics, call me up.
What guides you in your development process for interesting programs, activities and exhibits?
I’ve always considered designing programs part of a personal artistic practice. The value of programs —gatherings, workshops, happenings, whatever you want to call them — is that they bring people together. They bring together different people for different reasons...and that is where the magic unfolds. For society to tackle the biggest issues, like climate change, affordable housing or health care, we need empathy and understanding first. Programs provide the opportunity for those foundational relationships to develop.
I seek out projects that will bring people together and will also be a springboard for larger dialogue. It sounds vague and open, but it’s meant to be. I like finding creatives who bring their own passion for...fill in the blank. I can help provide a venue, some resources and guidance on designing a program, but they provide the subject expertise. I recently watched the TEDx talk of my friends from the Flobots, and they called finding meaningful connections “the search for gurch.” I love that.
Since moving to the library, I’ve focused more on projects that offer some type of equalizing platform. Programs that bring people together around common topics, skills or interests, where everyone has something to share. An example was the Art of Repair exhibition we did in 2017. In addition to having examples of repaired objects on display, we designed the space to be an active hub as well. Within the exhibition, people could find supplies to repair their own objects, and there was a station called Sew for a Stranger. We gathered damaged clothing from thrift stores (items that were going to be thrown away) and left them out on a rack for people to mend, along with some supplies. Once you finished mending, you left the garment on another rack for anyone to take. Sewing brought up such strong personal memories for people and sparked many spontaneous and meaningful connections. Mending circles formed, and strangers helped each other learn skills. I walked in one day and a woman was helping another patron repair his ripped sleeping bag. Would those people have connected otherwise? That’s gurch.
What’s your dream project?
That’s a long list. I still love the potential of museums but think many are caught up in traditional notions. I want to just shake them by the shoulders. Snap out of it already! If someone wanted to give me free rein over some small historical house or museum, I would love that challenge. But it would have to be complete free rein, along with some funding, of course.
I also have a dream of organizing some retreats around creativity. My work has introduced me to hundreds of Denver and Boulder creatives, and it is such an amazing community. I would love to bring together some of those folks to teach workshops, but also to shape people’s creative paths — help people find focus, motivation, knowledge, inspiration and community.
Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?
I will share a few folks who I find inspiring. It was part of my answer last time, but Warm Cookies of the Revolution is just amazing. I am inspired by the creatives who can be conveners and catalysts. Evan Weissman and his team are both. They are working on important issues, and I admire their creativity and inclusivity in taking on these challenges.
One of the most significant exhibitions I’ve ever worked on took place this past April at the Boulder Public Library. It was called Facing Rocky Flats and organized by (part-time) resident Jeff Gipe. He brought together artists who have been impacted by the full spectrum of the former nuclear weapons site, from where the plutonium was mined to where decommissioned materials were buried. I have never been part of an exhibition with so much personal connection on the line. The artists who took part in that show shared a piece of their soul. And the patrons who visited seemed to find deep connections as well. Many people had a personal story to share. I feel so grateful for people like Evan and Jeff, who are doing brave work.
What's on your agenda right now and in the coming year?
I recently installed a new exhibition at the library called Art of Data. The show is the result of a community open call asking artists to create a work inspired by the city’s open-data sets. The pieces are so thoughtful, and they vary widely in both topic and media. Data is typically so dry and formal, but it can also be beautiful and illuminating.
In my personal life — separate from the library — I just completed a training to become a certified forest therapy guide (aka forest bathing). Forest bathing, known as shinrin-yoku in Japan, is essentially a way of opening up the senses to create a deeper connection with the natural world. As a guide, you bring people out and offer them a series of invitations to help them slow down and open up. The practice has many concrete health benefits, but more important to me, it helps stir a re-connection with nature that I think we all desperately need.
Our world is so out of whack, and I feel a lot of issues stem from this disconnection. As a result of getting into this practice, my artwork has become more focused on working with natural materials. I’ve been doing lots of foraging and creating installations with plant material. In the next year or two, I hope to lead a few workshops where the group does a forest bathing session in the morning and then learns about working with plant material in the afternoon — finding some creativity and play in working with nature, along with de-stressing.
Who do you think will (or should) get noticed in the local arts community in the coming year?
I am going to swing back into my library role for this one, since I get to collaborate with so many wonderful creatives to produce our exhibitions. Looking into 2019, the library is working with CU’s NEST (Nature, Environment, Science and Technology) Studio for the Arts to do an exhibition that blends art and science. The show will be looking at organisms on a cellular level, but also linking cellular functions to larger issues like immigration.
We are also working with Leah Brenner Clack of And Art Space to coordinate a mural exhibition. I have no idea how we’ll pull it off in a gallery setting, but I am excited about their work and inclusive mission. Finally, next winter we’ll be showcasing the work of James Niehues, a local landscape painter and cartographer. If you’ve ever used a Colorado ski trail map, chances are that James is the artist who made it. He paints each map by hand. His creative process is meticulous and amazing. He’s never done an exhibition of his work, so this will be a special show.
Learn more about Jaime Kopke’s guided forest bathing walks online.
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