Artists Mario Zoots and Amber Cobb were impressive when we named them individual Colorado Creatives in 2013, and since then they've grown both as artists and as a couple. They navigate together as the two-person collective Hardly Soft and apart as singular creatives, backed by a strong local community.
What's it like to be committed artists making their way through the societal and financial travails of choosing a creative lifestyle? Zoots and Cobb elaborate as they answer the Colorado Creative Redux questionnaire and offer some advice for those who are as green as they once were:
Westword: How has your creative life changed since you last answered the CC questionnaire?
Hardly Soft: Our creative lives have developed in many positive directions since our last Colorado Creatives interviews. We have been fortunate to participate in three artist residencies together: LightsOn! in Cheyenne; DEDAZO en Carrillo Puerto, Chiapas, Mexico; and at Taxi Artist-in-Residence here in Denver.
Working together in the studio led to us collaborating on a few works, which in turn started our collaboration Hardly Soft. Both of our individual practices have reached beyond Denver — Zoots is showing work in Los Angeles this February with K Contemporary at the L.A. Art Show, and Cobb’s silicone mattress skins were exhibited in Mexico City via Gildar Gallery in ZONA MACO and at Galeria Hilario Galguera.
During the last few years, we have traveled to see art outside of Denver and fell in love with Mexico City. With each art trip, we strive to connect with the art scene by visiting local galleries, residencies and artist studios. In July 2019 we set up a studio visit with Tomás Díaz Cedeño, whose work you can currently see in Trusting Only Ourselves at the McNichols Building, alongside Masha Sha’s large-scale text-based drawings.
As creatives, what's your vision for a more perfect Denver (or Colorado)?
More studio spaces that are affordable, and definitely more affordable housing for both artists and working-class families. Denver also desperately needs more commercial and noncommercial galleries, alternative spaces and co-ops. Finally, we need more money in the form of grants and stipends to support non-commercial art exhibitions and experimental works. We need more institutions like RedLine, Understudy and Black Cube.
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?
It honestly feels hopeless at times, and Denver’s current system isn’t working fast enough or hard enough to relieve the financial burden. We recommend cohabiting with other artists and sharing resources. Working together and participating in the community is a must to survive Denver. If you cannot offer financial assistance, consider what you can offer to help another artist in need. Share your studio for a month, help transport work, edit applications or statements and, as always, show up to to see the work.
What is Hardly Soft all about?
We both have significant independent solo practices. Zoots is well known for his 2-D collage works, and Cobb made her mark using the mattress as a platform to unravel the relationship between the physical and psychological. During our residency in Cheyenne, we both were looking to experiment in our individual practices, and felt a sense of freedom exploring new ideas and aesthetics through collaboration. Hardly Soft started organically with lighthearted intentions. The aim is to be playful and experimental. We like to say Hardly Soft is young in its inception, but we are well seasoned with immaturity.
Our collaborations start by passing things back and forth, responding to each other’s ingrained processes, use of materials and aesthetics. We leave constraints and concepts out initially, which keeps the collaboration open to any possibility. After a few passes, we lay it all out and visually analyze the results, look at each other with wide eyes and laugh at the unexpected results. From there we start to unpack the objects, materials and form, which leads us toward conceptually developing the work.
Another aspect to our collaboration is organizing/designing exhibitions. Since 2018 we have put together four exhibitions: Puddle Drop at RedLine, You're Just Okay, Too at Yes Ma’am Projects, Hall of Shame at MCA Denver and Trusting Only Ourselves at McNichols.
What’s your dream project?
An ultimate dream would be to have a large warehouse studio with all the amenities to make things happen. We also would like an opportunity to take over a large space like the Museum of Contemporary Art or the Denver Art Museum, creating an immersive experience with color, texture and sound.
A current dream we have that seems more attainable at the moment is to buy the house we currently rent in Athmar Park. It has a 1970s vibe, with wood paneling, glitter ceiling, a garage and an extra bedroom. Inspired by Georgia Art Space (Sommer Browning’s gallery) and Yes Ma’am Projects (Derrick Velasquez), we’d like to start a short-term summer residency program/exhibitions.
What advice would you give a young hopeful in your field?
First and foremost: Be nice, be kind, be open to vulnerability, and always remember your practice/career is a marathon, not a sprint. Also, take some initiative and start something new. Work with other like-minded artists/creatives and start a collective. Denver is a tough place in regard to financial burdens, but it is also has an art community that’s open and supportive of new ideas. Don’t wait around to be discovered; make things happen.
Who is your favorite Colorado creative?
We have many favorite Colorado creatives, but these are the cutest: Cortney Lane Stell, Louise Martorano, Phil Bender, Derrick Velasquez. Stell organizes some of the best, thoughtful exhibitions in and outside of Denver, through Black Cube. She boldly takes on whatever is needed to get things done and supports artists in a multitude of ways. Martorano works endlessly at RedLine to support artists living and working in the Denver community. Phil Bender, a staple in our scene, can be seen every week supporting emerging and established artists by showing up with his cute face and sandals. Derrick Velasquez is our “Mayor” and, on occasion, Denver’s “Art Dad.” His kindness and support for artists warms our hearts.
What's on your agenda right now and in the coming year?
Hardly Soft just finished a few big projects at the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020. We will be on a short hiatus while we focus on a few things developing in our individual practices. Zoots is working endlessly in the studio, challenging his process with new materials and scale. He is also developing a curatorial project to be revealed in the near future. Cobb will shift her focus toward some upcoming exhibitions with Hyperlink, a collective initially started in 2015 with Xi Zhang, Don Fodness, Tobias Fike and Matt Harris. She is also developing a new series of sculptures/assemblages, layering found objects and furniture with thick coats of plaster, clay and, of course, a little bit of rubber.
Who do you think will (or should) get noticed in the local arts community in the coming year?
One of our goals when organizing exhibitions is to show emerging artists alongside more established artists. Over the last year, we showed works by Coleman Mummery, Madelaine Jo, Megan Bray, Marco Cousins and Maria Amalia Staffeld. These artists caught our attention in 2019, and we look forward to seeing what they do next.
Trusting Only Ourselves, curated by Hardly Soft with works by Masha Sha and Tomás Díaz Cedeño, is on view through April 5 at the McNichols Building, 144 West Colfax Avenue, as part of Dearly Disillusioned, a larger exhibition mounted in conjunction with the centennial of women's suffrage in the United States.