Blair Sagan makes art out of trash and has an uncanny ability to turn the worst situations into something positive.
From April to August, the non-binary artist, activist and graphic designer lived at Night Window, a new artist housing project, in a motel room converted into an $800-a-month live-work studio apartment at 8400 East Colfax Avenue. Upon moving in, Sagan (who uses "they" pronouns), thought it would be a semi-collective space where creatives could come together and build community. Instead, they found the residents were isolated from each other.
"I moved in here thinking this was a dream, and I wanted to start something similar and learn what they're doing right and wrong," says Sagan. "It turned into a nightmare pretty quickly."
The artist — who once worked as the deputy communications director for Colorado Senate Democrats before becoming disillusioned with the party — became worried that Night Window was a Trojan horse for gentrification. Developers Kyle Zeppelin and Neil Adams owned the project, and Sagan feared that they were trying to take over the East Colfax corridor on the border of Aurora and turn it into the next RiNo Art District. Sagan didn't want the neighborhood to become yet another art-washed site of mass displacement in an increasingly unaffordable city.
And that wasn't Sagan's only issue with the place.
The artist also worried about domestic violence in one of the Night Window apartments. Sagan complained to management, but the noises continued. One night, the fighting sounded so bad, they called the cops. Officers who showed up determined that no violence was taking place. Soon after, Sagan received an email terminating their lease.
Night Window didn't offer a reason, Sagan says. It didn't have to.
"Blair's lease at Night Window was not renewed due to failure to set up a payment plan for rent, or pay rent," says property manager Nikki Dechent, a claim Sagan denies. Reporting a family to the police multiple times had nothing to do with it, Dechent adds.
Moving from Night Window into their Jeep, Sagan decided to create something positive out of a terrible situation.
"Two good things came out of that eviction," says Sagan. "One is an eviction watch — kind of like a neighborhood watch, but for evictions — that East Colfax is starting. The second thing is, I reached out to a listserv when all of this was going down, and two legislators committed to working on legislation on renters' rights: Dominique Jackson and Faith Winter."
Sagan also started working with the East Colfax Community Collective in its attempt to influence the East Colfax Area Plan, hoping to stop the gentrification of the diverse community of immigrants and refugees who call that part of town home. Through that, they met Tim Roberts, founder of the experimental arts and culture space Counterpath, which had moved into an old garage off East 14th Avenue and set up a food bank and free bookstore. Roberts offered Sagan a residency and a place to live.
"It turns out there is a small living space within Counterpath that has everything I would need," says Sagan. "I've been living there. ... I pulled my Jeep in because it's a mechanic shop, and slept in my Jeep."
Downsizing hasn't been an entirely bad thing.
"Moving into my Jeep — at first it was a bit scary, but it's been so freeing," Sagan explains. "Only the things that fit in my Jeep are the things that I live with, which frees up money and time and forces me not to accumulate."
Living a cheaper life has also allowed Sagan to devote more time to creative pursuits and various hustles. The artist sells pins and merchandise that people can use to signal which pronouns they use, paints furniture with color gradients, designs campaign materials for politicians they believe in, and runs the Office of B.S., a sliding-scale design company.
It's only in recent years that Sagan, who worked as a graphic designer for Microsoft, among other large clients, has gotten over imposter syndrome and embraced the "artist" label.
"This summer, a little bit after the pandemic started, I was a part of the first book club that [arts group] Understudy put on," Sagan says. "We did Detour 303's book [Be the Artist: The Interactive Guide to a Lasting Art Career] with Thomas [Evans]. It's kind of like a workbook about how to create a sustainable art career. For a long time, that's why I couldn't think about [an art career] — that it's not sustainable. But it is. Especially when I lower my expenses."
Sagan's creative works as an artist and activist will be on full display Friday, October 9, at Counterpath's Mutual Paid: Art Opening + Pop Up Market. The show will celebrate the end of the residency, include pieces by fellow artists, and drum up energy for the fight against gentrification.
"This artist residency is about the arts, connecting the community, preventing displacement," Sagan explains. "Essentially, I want all the organizations I love to meet each other and be in the same room."
The event will also see the unveiling of a project that Counterpath commissioned Sagan to create.
"My project is to revise the signage, which faces 14th Avenue," the artist says. "I'm painting that with a gradient and making it a marquee sign, kind of like a movie theater, where they can announce anything, promote anything — especially the food bank and free bookstore."
With most of their belongings in a storage facility, Sagan has been renting tools for the project from the Denver Tool Library. Mutual-aid resources like the Tool Library, the Counterpath food bank and its free bookstore all fit with Sagan's desire to participate in a bartering economy that can work outside of capitalism.
Even though living at Night Window didn't work out, Sagan has connected with the community they moved to East Colfax to find, and is creating what they view as a less brutal economic system, one in which people share and work together.
"I'm all about collab-ing," Sagan says. "Our ships rise together. I'm all about that abundance mindset. Capitalism teaches us scarcity, and I don't think it needs to be like that."
Mutual Paid: Art Opening + Pop Up Market runs from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, October 9, at Counterpath, 7935 East 14th Avenue. For more information, go to Counterpath's website.