Alley Cat

When Longmont painter Rick Stoner starts snapping photos in an alley, some people get suspicious. They wonder if he's an FBI agent, or a surveyor for the city setting them up for a property-tax hike. They wonder if he's a plain old snoop. But nothing could be further from the truth: A professional artist who sells his bread-and-butter work at the Merrill-Johnson Gallery in Denver, Stoner took some time out from that rat race, courtesy of a Scientific & Cultural Facilities District grant, to paint Longmont's backside. The resulting show, Backyards & Alleyways -- Hidden Visions, opens Saturday at the Old Firehouse Art Center.

"Longmont has a real old-town flavor, and the backyards often tell more about the people living there than the front part of the house," Stoner -- who works both plein air and in the studio, from photographs -- says in defense of the project. "People let their hair down more in the backyard; there's more of a story there." When he sets up his easel in an alley, though, he's not necessarily working toward a sentimental, or even a narrative, end. "The paintings are not so much about the garage as they are about how the light hits the alley, creating a shadow from the garage," he explains.

For the most part, when residents encounter Stoner in their alleys, they're simply fascinated. "I get both sides of the coin, but most people think it's a cool idea. They wonder, 'What would this guy be doing sitting out here painting in the alley? What does he see that I don't see?'" The upshot, he notes, often turns out to be a snap lesson in art appreciation -- the people who watch him turn around and begin viewing their own backyards from a more aesthetic point of view: "They start seeing it in an entirely different light instead of just seeing a bunch of junk."