"It was a really incredible DIY space," Squirm artist Ruby Sumners says of the legendary Rhinoceropolis. "When we were younger, we all used to go to shows there, because it was a really important part of the early DIY scene. A lot of really incredible artists worked here and lived here."
Sumners is standing inside the small brick warehouse at 3553 Brighton Boulevard that was once home to Rhinoceropolis and now has been taken over by the members of Squirm, who moved here from another shared studio. Most of them met at Rhinoceropolis, and they'd been thinking of starting a new DIY hub when Zach Burke, a Squirm artist who lived at Rhino and kept in touch with the landlord, heard the space was available. It seemed like kismet.
"When I think about my adult life, Rhinoceropolis was there for most of it," says Michael Stein. "It was a fixture in the constantly changing underground scene in Denver for well over a decade."
"It was the experimental and more immediate expression of art," recalls Alishya Swenning. "I think it was one of the first DIY venues I ever went to at fourteen, and seeing pure expression and people with similar interests...coming into a space where people are just on the same page — it was something that I immediately became enamored with."
Rhinoceropolis opened back in 2005, when Brighton Boulevard cut between warehouses and vacant lots, and the River North neighborhood was just turning into the RiNo Art District. The DIY venue quickly became known as the place to be: Musicians such as Grimes, Dan Deacon, Future Islands, Matt & Kim (the list goes on) performed there, while artists covered the walls with lively, emotive works. Creatives lived there, worked there and found community there.
"I first went to a show there when I was living in Boulder in 2009. I remember being into the way it felt to be there...I mean, when you picture a punk/DIY warehouse in your head, that's what it looked and felt like," Stein says. "A few months later, I moved to Denver, and I’d find myself there weekly — for a show, or just to hang out, for band practice, to drop someone off or pick someone up. I became close with people involved with the space, people living there."
But Rhinoceropolis and its neighbor, Glob, were forced to close in 2016 after the city cracked down on DIY venues in the wake of the deadly fire that took 36 lives at Ghost Ship, a DIY space in Oakland, California. After an outcry from Denver fans and thousands of dollars of donations (including from Meow Wolf) to renovate the space, an up-to-code Rhinoceropolis returned for a short stint through 2020. But without artists living and working there, the costs became untenable.
"Rhino went through different phases over the years, depending on who was living there and what the scene was like at the time," Stein recalls. "Some phases I liked better than others, but it was always a place that I liked to play and book shows at and probably both booked and played at least a few dozen shows there. On more than one occasion when it was at risk of being shut down, I organized fundraising events for the space and its residents at the bar I worked at.
"Rhinoceropolis was very much of an era to me," he continues. "The pre-Ghost Ship tragedy era, specifically, where nothing is up to code, people are living there not exactly legally, kids are partying there 24/7. There was something a little dangerous about it, and that was part of the appeal. When you have a space like that, especially when you’re young and not really following a ton of rules, you don’t expect it to be a permanent thing. Every day after the first noise complaint is pretty much borrowed time. So it’s always wild to me that it was around for so long."
And now it's back. "This space has made possible something that we had been trying to do before," says Squirm artist Cyrena Rosati. "We just didn't have the space to make it possible."
When Sumners, who makes luminous prints as well as evocative stained-glass works, returned to Denver after getting an art degree in Chicago, the artist was hit by a hard reality. "There's definitely a lack of artistic resources," Sumners says. "Especially with these machines, with screen printing, there's just no open resources here for people to use."
Before Squirm, the artists shared a studio with Barry Rose, a longtime ceramicist who was retiring and passed down kilns and tools to the group. At Squirm, they can share that equipment with others. "We want to share space, knowledge and skills, community aspects," says Sumners. "The idea with the last space that we've brought into this one was an interdisciplinary arts, collective kind of setup."
Stein's work, the focus of the first show, which opens Friday, reflects the raw acceptance of Squirm and the DIY community at large. His brightly saturated surrealist pieces seem the work of an accomplished, lifelong artist. But music was Stein's true passion, when he played in local bands that performed both at Rhinoceropolis and other venues. His story took a Bukowskian turn after he began to dabble in heroin seven years ago, with detox periods between, until it became an addiction in 2022. After a robbery at gunpoint in Las Vegas, he says he was homeless for three months before returning to Colorado to get sober.
"I knew I had all of this shit bottled up in my subconscious and wanted to get it out. In the past, playing and making music was how I would do that," he reflects. "Unfortunately, I couldn’t play guitar, because I had temporary nerve damage in my hand from an EMT in Vegas hitting a nerve while trying to give me an IV for sepsis. Just thinking about music made me depressed and worried that my hand wouldn’t heal. One day I started drawing with some acrylic paint markers I found. Unlike my early attempts, I didn’t feel pressure to make anything in particular; it just felt good to drain some of the images from my mind and let them spill out onto paper. Soon I was spending six-plus hours a day on it. Now that my hand has healed, I’m playing music again, but drawing/painting has become a regular part of how I cope with things. It’s been exciting getting better at it.
"Some of the pieces in this show are from the first month or two, and some are very recent," he continues. "The pieces are inspired by dreams and images that come from my subconscious or that flow through me from the universal consciousness that we all access via creative expression."
"It's a little bit splintered right now," agrees Vella, adding that even at the music-centric spots, "there's not much commingling" in genres. "That's why I was always going to Rhino growing up...it was like, fucking everything — a hardcore band with a jazz band with a death-metal band, all in one night. It was incredible."
Squirm aims to bring back Rhino's inclusive feel, where music and visual art are equally paramount. "Bringing that ethos specifically into visual art is really special, and it's something we don't have too much of," adds Swenning. "We have some of it. But we're creating a space for that to exist in a different way, and I think that's something that we're really stoked about."
Swenning, who has exhibited her ink work at galleries like RedLine, Pirate and Emmanuel, also grew up going to Rhinoceropolis shows. "We're all artists. We all care a lot about the Denver community. We all have been part of the DIY community for a long time. We just want to continue that in some regard," she says. "Just do what we want to do for ourselves and for our people — all of the people that we have grown up with and hung out with for years — and just have that revitalization."
The nature of DIY lends itself to constant reinvention and metamorphosis, a trait that will sustain it forever, Stein believes. "The things that help the community thrive are diversity and inclusivity, the fact that it offers something that isn’t super accessible in traditional society and the tradition of passing the torch," he says. "I think providing artist studios is incredibly valuable, and having an environment where creative people can share their craft and ideas with one another is even more so. I like that Squirm is more than a space for events. The collective aspect of it and the focus on creating art is really exciting."
Squirm will host a two-day, all ages opening, starting with the gallery show by Stein on Friday, December 8, followed by a concert with DIY mainstays KYC DJs, American Culture, Fragrant Blossom and Angel Band on Saturday, December 9, 3553 Brighton Boulevard. Donations of $5-$10 are encouraged.