Art News

Tran Wills Envisions a Bright Future for Denver at Matriarch Mercantile

Tran Wills is the owner of Matriarch Mercantile.
Tran Wills is the owner of Matriarch Mercantile. Kyle Harris
Tran Wills, owner of the Base Coat nail salon chain and nationally celebrated non-toxic beauty-product line, lives and breathes Five Points — especially the part that has been rebranded as RiNo.

Her parents owned the gas station that once stood on Brighton Boulevard where the Dylan RiNo Apartments now promise to offer “bold, fearless, and authentic living” with “cutting edge interiors sporting clean lines, top-end appliances, and design accents that hearken back to the neighborhood’s industrial RiNo, Denver's hub for creativity and culture.”

Wills has a long history in Denver's cultural community, running FabricLab from 2007 to ’10 and cupcake bakery the Shoppe from ’08 to ’13, both on East Colfax Avenue; then she and husband Josh ran the popular gallery-and-retail space Svper Ordinary — first out of their home, and then at the Source on Brighton from 2013 to 2017. After that, Wills took a break from the city's art scene. In the years that followed, she devoted herself to building Base Coat — both as an expanding nail salon (now with two Denver locations and outlets at Nordstrom in eight other states) and a national product line distributed through Whole Foods.

But she hasn't abandoned Denver’s artists entirely.

“People still to this day say they miss Svper Ordinary and all those things, and I do, too,” says Wills. “I was like, what can I do that’s different — and you walk in and it feels good, and you feel welcomed, and you have this experience not only with retail, but also this art setting?”

What she did was open Matriarch Mercantile in the century-old building at 2700 Walnut Street that houses Base Coat's headquarters, in a space that once held one of her salons. Started during the pandemic and funded by Base Coat profits, Matriarch is a welcoming community center and shop where women and nonbinary entrepreneurs sell their artisan goods, from hand-stitched, high-end dresses and boutique floral bouquets to rescued plants and Wills's own Base Coat products. Electronica and soul music play softly on the speakers. Non-toxic fragrances waft through the air — a welcome breather from all the construction kicking up dust outside.

The shop also doubles as a gallery for Babe Walls, artist/curator Alexandrea Pangburn’s women and nonbinary street-art festival that debuted in 2020. Hanging on the walls are paintings by everyone from Pangburn to Chloe Duplessis, Marissa Napoletano, Lindee Zimmer, Danielle SeeWalker, Moe Gram, Kaitlin Ziesmer, Jodie Herrera, Alicia Cardenas, Ashley Joon, GrowLove, Chelsea Lewinski, Sandra Fettingis, Koko Bayer, Olive Moya, Taylor Herzog, Myah Mazcara, Romelle and Anna Charney.

When this “goddamned pandemic is finally over,” Wills says, she plans to also use the space to host concerts, community talks and more gallery openings than she has been able to hold in recent months.

“Remember when we used to go gallery hopping?” she asks. “Instead of bar hopping, we’d go gallery hopping.” She wants to bring that back. And Matriarch is well set up for openings and parties. The shop is equipped with a small stage and PA system, and designed so that the various goods being sold can easily be moved around to create an open space for gatherings.

Before all the social distancing restrictions lift, this summer Wills hopes to have musicians play from the second story to crowds on the street below — anything to create community in an area where so much of the original community has been wiped off the map.

For decades, this stretch was an industrial area dotted by small businesses owned by people of color, where artists could still find affordable spaces to create. Then galleries moved in, and those were soon followed by developers in a pattern played out in cities across the country. Many of the original brick buildings have been leveled to make way for massive apartment complexes that look like trendy generic imports.

Patagonia has moved in across the street from Matriarch. So has snowboard retailer Burton’s flagship shop. The nearby Denver Central Market, which Bon Appétit celebrated for showcasing "top-notch vendors who peddle grain bowls, cortados, and so much more," is a stone’s throw away. The streets are filled with entrepreneurial millennials who are as white and affluent as most Cherry Creek residents — just younger.

For a creative entrepreneur like Wills, trying to bring artists back to the area and offering some sense of its history as a BIPOC community is becoming increasingly difficult. But she’s trying, serving on the Denver City Council District 9 diversity and inclusion committee, and demanding that the district’s various business organizations quit erasing the contributions of BIPOC entrepreneurs and actually list them in directories — which she says those groups have repeatedly failed to do.

“I’m not going to let you leave me out,” she’s told them. “I’ve been part of this community for longer than you have. You’re not going to erase my history.”

And there are new efforts to list in addition to Wills's growing empire. The Museum for Black Girls recently opened, and even the nonprofit RiNo Art District, which is responsible for many of the colorful murals that have art-washed the area’s rapid gentrification, is making an effort to lift up creatives of color and celebrate their businesses.

In recent weeks, though, Wills has faced new challenges. With an uptick in anti-Asian hate crimes provoked by the former president’s xenophobic rhetoric and the March 16 mass shootings at Georgia spas, she and other Base Coat workers are bracing for the worst. Spa and nail salon workers are closely tied, Wills notes, and after the shootings, she talked to the Washington Post and CNN about the impact of the shootings on Asian-owned businesses nationwide. In the process, though, she fears she put a target on the back of both her business and her employees.

So she's planning a mass-shooter training — something she never imagined having to do. And she's investing in Mace, along with the hand sanitizer and other safety gear she's needed through the pandemic.

Still, her shop remains a soothing antidote to the festering anxiety produced by all that racism, and it’s designed so that anybody walking in feels comfortable. How that approach holds up in this rapidly changing area is still being tested.

As the mural across the street from Matriarch by RiNo Art District head and artist Tracy Weil states: “UNCERTAINTY IS THE NEW CERTAINTY.”

But Wills is working to guarantee some certainty. She's looking for an investor who will provide the $2 million she needs to preserve the historic building where her businesses have set up shop, turning the structure into a place where women, BIPOC and LGBTQ artists have a guaranteed space to create. Even if she one day sells Base Coat and closes Matriarch, she wants the space to carry on her vision — and not be scraped and replaced with more ugly apartments. She wants the community to continue.

“Don’t forget us,” she says. “We’re the ones who created this community that you love to come to and developers love to come gentrify.”

For more, go to the Matriarch Mercantile website.
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris