Art News

Montbello Turning Drainage Canals Into Concrete Community Art

Courtesy of Pat Milbery

Street murals are proliferating faster than traffic in metro Denver. Now a new mural in Montbello is turning the heads of drivers heading along East 51st Avenue. It's painted on a unique canvas: the sides of an open-air drainage canal.

Although only a handful of open-air cement canals exist in the rest of Denver, they're common in Montbello. And the canal along 51st Avenue, a main thoroughfare linking busy 56th Avenue to the heart of the neighborhood, is impossible to miss, since school buses and parents drop off and pick up kids at the Montbello campus schools, which are adjacent to the canal.

Typically, drainage systems are either covered or blended into the environment so that they stand out as little as possible. But Montbello's canals have remained uncovered since they were constructed fifty years ago.

Denver City Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore, who represents District 11, which includes Montbello, believes that the cement drainage canals winding through Montbello are a sign of inequity. "Montbello is a historic African-American community and now predominantly Latino, and we have over eight and a half miles of these canals running through our neighborhoods," she says.

click to enlarge Here's what Montbello's canals look like without art. - COURTESY OF PAT MILBERY
Here's what Montbello's canals look like without art.
Courtesy of Pat Milbery
Not only are the canals unattractive, but they're dangerous. In July, heavy rain almost claimed two lives after a car drifted and began to descend into one of Montbello's canals. That flooding may have been exacerbated by the buildup of debris in the canals, which Gilmore says is an ongoing problem.

Denver's Urban Drainage and Flood Control District is currently working on a master plan that may hold a solution. "Part of the focus of the plan will be evaluating keeping the status quo or figuring out what these channels could potentially become," says Teresa Patterson, watershed services project manager at the district.

Right now, flood-control technology is trending toward open channels that are both aesthetically pleasing and ecologically beneficial, Patterson explains, noting that this philosophy is a direct contrast to the system built in Montbello decades ago. "A concrete channel is the epitome of fighting against nature," she adds.

The master plan is set to be completed sometime in 2019. But in the meantime, the Montbello community has taken matters into its own hands.

For years, Gilmore says, she drove along these canals and thought to herself: "There's public art everywhere in Denver. We don't have many warehouse buildings. What can we do with these canals?" Finally, she came up with the idea of painting a mural on the canals, a plan that evokes a four-decade-old, record-setting mural project along a three-mile-long stretch of a levee in Pueblo.

In the summer of 2017, Gilmore took Pat Milbery, a well-known Denver mural artist, on a tour of her district. As they were driving by the canals, Gilmore told him about her idea of painting a mural on the cement. Milbery quickly bought in.

"It was definitely a unique canvas," he says. "No one had really thought about doing a mural out there."

That August, Mayor Michael Hancock announced the IMAGINE 2020 District Challenge, which gave each city council district a $2,020 grant for a project of its choosing. Gilmore decided to fund the mural.

Imagine2020 Mayor Challenge 2017: "Community Channels" from Hunter Stevens on Vimeo.

On November 9, 2017, Milbery and colleagues Pat McKinney, Hunter Stevens and Remington Robinson went back to the canal. Milbery and McKinney laid down a base-paint layer; the next day, the canvas was ready. The team sketched out the mural's design, and students from the four schools located on the adjacent Montbello campus came out to paint. On November 11, Montbello community members joined the team for another full day of painting. And it was tough work, comprising back-to-back twelve-hour days. All told,125 volunteers ranging from students to senior citizens got involved with the project.

Both Gilmore and Milbery had been concerned about community response to the mural. Milbery was worried that Montbello residents wouldn't like an outsider coming in; Gilmore wondered if people would like how the mural looked. But those fears melted away as soon as they began painting. "We had people cruising by as slow as they could go with their windows open, fists in the air, saying, 'Yeah, way to go!' People were honking their horns. I will never forget that," Gilmore says.

click to enlarge The mural team after a hard day's work. - COURTESY OF PAT MILBERY
The mural team after a hard day's work.
Courtesy of Pat Milbery
Ron Taylor, a seventy-year-old Montbello resident who came out to paint with his wife, Tawny, is particularly proud of his work on the mural.  "Those drainage ditches are an eyesore to a lot of people," he says. "But now, when I am riding with someone, I point out the mural, and say, 'Yeah, I helped to do that. I helped inspire that.'"

The finished mural's palette includes red, white and blue, the colors of the city flag. It also has some yellow, a nod to Denver's 300 days of sunshine. Mountains dominate the piece: Montbello, or montebello, is Italian for "beautiful mountain."

The mural has won praise from residents, as well as a more formal award: District 11's mural project won the 2017 IMAGINE 2020 District Challenge. District 11 also gave another commission to Milbery in the 2018 challenge.

A second mural has already sprung up next to the original 51st Avenue drainage canal, and it won't be the last one. Gilmore and her team are working on more murals for the canals near Peoria Street and Andrews Drive.

"We would really love to paint more of the canals," says Milbery. "It has a lot of cool potential, both for neighborhood wellness and adding feel-good energy and art to the community."