Two years ago, Koko started working on a documentary on Herbert Bayer; her mother had married his son when Koko was young. "The more I thought about it, I loved this idea of bringing Herbert back to life," she says, and soon that idea grew to include taking his art "back to the streets, introducing it to the world."
Koko began adding her own twists to Bayer's images, then putting it in the open-air realm of public art. She carefully pastes posters along wooden fence panels to look like Aspen trees and places stickers and wheat-pastes in the alleys off Brighton Boulevard, in the neighborhood where she lives.
"I love doing it; it's a very hands-on and meditative process," she says. "I don't really call it street art or graffiti; I just think of it as public art. There are just so many more people who can see it, people who would never go into museums."
A transgender female with a wife and two kids, Koko Bayer has made a name for herself as a hardworking photographer; her photo was featured on the cover of Westword for "The Diva Dozen," and one of her main photography clients is Tracks.
As she began to work with Herbert's images, she realized that they are already familiar to many viewers, even if people don't realize who originally created them. The "Head + Heart + Hand" design that graced the cover of Herbert Bayer's Monograph, the artist's circa 1967 book, still looks very modern today.
"It's that fine line where, the way I think about it, I'm working with Herbert, it's his work," she explains. "So I need to be very protective of that; I honor his work. I want to make sure I'm respectful of it, but I take it beyond that."
She does so by changing the context, enlarging the images, saturating the color and, most important, expanding the range of where people can see Herbert Bayer's art around the city.
Koko says she felt an immediate connection to her late step-grandfather when she began working on her first wheat-paste; as she wielded the paper, buckets, brushes and wheat-paste glue, it seemed like she was creating art with him as opposed to creating something about him.
"Hebert Bayer was always a really big part of my life, even before I was actually related to the family," she recalls. "I remember going up to Aspen as a kid in the summer, and he was everywhere. The posters for the music festival — he was just this presence. And when my mom and my stepdad got married, he became even more of a presence. We had his art on our walls; we still always talk about him like he's in the other room." In the other room literally and figuratively, she adds: "Back in the day, he was so devoted to his craft that he would go to his studio every day and work so hard that he ended up missing out on a lot of other things that were going on in life. So even when he was alive, he was in the other room. And it's because of how much work he created. He created such a huge body of work, the bulk of which sits in the basement of the Denver Art Museum."
The DAM has one of the largest collections of Herbert Bayer's work in the world, after the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Bauhaus museum in Berlin; the DAM has an ongoing Bayer exhibit and switches out pieces periodically. Now the Aspen Institute is honoring Bayer's legacy by building a permanent exhibit.
"I always think if he hadn't made the choice to move to Aspen in the late ’40s and to stay there, that the city would look so different," Koko says. "He chose nature — or his love of nature, his love of skiing, hiking. That was so appealing to him, he left New York behind. If you look at a lot of his stuff, his career, it had his career ending almost at the point where he leaves New York. Back then, especially, if you weren't in New York, you weren't in the art scene."
But Herbert Bayer's artistic career continued in Colorado, most notably through the architectural work he did with an oil company called ARCO. "Sculpture, any new building ARCO did, he was a part of," Koko explains. "Since ARCO was down in Denver, he did a few projects here, most notably the 'Articulated Wall' at the Denver Design Center. The chairman of ARCO was one of the people who developed that part of town. They built the design center in the ’80s, when that neighborhood was one of the first real gay districts in Denver.
"That's why I started doing this," she continues. "All of his work is sort of imprisoned in a museum. That's where my passion for educating people about Herbert comes from. Everybody in the city knows the 'Articulated Wall,' but none of them know it's called the 'Articulated Wall,' and none of them know who did it. People have this connection to it — but the connection doesn't include the artist, for some reason."
But now, with help from Koko Bayer, Colorado's art museums and the managers of the Denver Design District, the connection is growing. "That's the hope," Koko adds. "One of the things that the Design District is trying to do is really highlight and have 'The Articulated Wall' as the center, then take the DNA from that and incorporate it in the process of redesigning that whole zone on Broadway over the next twenty years. They want to reimagine this area."
The district's reimagination is already beginning: Bayer helped curate four artists to paint the interior of Denizen, the new residential unit, including Artopia artist Chris Haven. Outside the building, there's a stunning sculpture by Sandra Fettingis, whose style aligns with the artistic foundation laid by Herbert Bayer.
See more work by Koko Bayer in our slideshow and feature on Project Colfax.