Boulder County’s vibrant outdoor murals, sculptures and other outdoor works—often found in unexpected places—make art accessible to all.
By Kate JonuskaOne of Boulder County’s most vibrant art scenes is not bound by gallery walls. The area’s abundant murals, sculptures and other public artworks are open to everyone, and no entry fee is required to view them.
Leah Brenner Clack, executive director of Street Wise Arts and the Street Wise Boulder Mural Festival, says people who aren’t collectors or work in the art industry often don’t think about going to galleries. “But with public art, you can take a simple walk, and it’s a great way to be exposed to art,” she says.
Street Wise has installed more than 100 murals engaging with themes of connection, diversity, empathy and social issues in addition to other grassroots work in Boulder.
Clack says outdoor art is not only more accessible, but also allows for a more private experience with the works. “In a gallery, you might feel watched or constrained. Outside, you have the freedom to experience that art in any way you want.”
“It is not a rarified environment,” agrees Stacey Bernstein, public art coordinator for the City of Lafayette, which hosts a vibrant arts scene in east Boulder County. “It’s up close and personal. There are no guards telling you to settle down, and the art beautifies our urban environment for everyone. It’s really, truly for everyone.”
Lafayette sponsors an Alley Art Amazin’ mural program and also takes outdoor art into another dimension via sculpture. Lafayette’s Art on the Street, the biggest art-on-loan program in Boulder County, installs new sculptures in the community every year. Art on the Street actively grows Lafayette’s permanent public art collection by purchasing many of the sculptures, beautifying the city year after year.
Instead of competing, the area’s outdoor artists seem to have found mutual respect and harmony, says Boulder’s beloved anonymous street artist known only as SMiLE. Renowned for multi-layer stencil art of both people and animals, SMiLE works mostly on electrical boxes, signs and other unexpected places as a way to spread joy as well as opt-out of the traditional art world.
In that traditional world, “art becomes for the elite and all about the money, then they put the art on a T-shirt for the people,” SMiLE says.
Unauthorized, unexpected art, on the other hand, is very personal and immediate. “It brings people out of their thoughts and into the moment,” he says. “Unexpected art gives them a chance to enjoy something they didn’t expect at all and perhaps smile. Smile, that’s where the name came from.” You can keep tabs on SMiLE’s work on Instagram at @smileboulder.
Joel Davis, who runs Boulder-based e-bike touring company JD’s Joyrides, also recognizes outdoor art’s ability to reconnect people with their more artistic, joyous nature. Davis says his most popular program is the Wall-to-Wall Mural Ride.
“People are really impressed by the quality and quantity of outdoor art in Boulder—as they should be. It’s a pretty impressive collection,” says Davis, who shows folks everything from Street Wise murals to more hidden treasures like a personal car-charging station with a painted ceiling he calls the Sistine Tesla Charger. “There’s a lot to see if you just pay attention.”
Your Guide to Public Art in BoCo
Boulder has nearly 50 pieces of permanent public art on display, including the five-pillar “Human Glyph Series” near Boulder Public Library. boulderarts.org
JD’s Joyrides offers public art tours via pedal-assisted e-bikes. jdsjoyrides.com
The Street Wise Boulder Mural Festival, Sept. 29–Oct. 3, features artists painting live throughout the city. Scan the QR code at each mural to learn more about the art and artists. streetwiseboulder.com
Now in its 14th year, Lafayette’s Art on the Street features 20 new public sculptures for 2022. The city’s See & Respond program encourages the public’s artistic responses to the sculptures and holds a reception for public and professional artists every October. lafayetteco.gov/562/Art-on-the-Street
Alley Art Amazin’ is a grassroots program turning Old Town alleys into showplaces of imagination and whimsy. Photos and a map of walking and bike tours are available. alleyartamazin.com
Since its inception in 1987, Longmont’s Art in Public Places program has installed more than 100 pieces of artwork throughout the city, including more than 50 permanent pieces, dozens of vibrantly painted electrical boxes and Art on the Move, featuring works that are on display for one year. longmontcolorado.gov
Check out the gorgeous mosaic in the McCaslin Pedestrian Underpass, featuring images of the native flora and fauna that make up an underground ecosystem. There’s also a sculpture garden at Community Park, showcasing sculptures like “Melody,” a realistic bronze piece depicting a little girl dancing and playing the flute. louisvilleco.gov
For a small town, Lyons is big on public art. The goal of the heARTS of LYONS Outdoor Arts Collection is to “offer a compelling parade of art that escorts travelers through town and entices return visits.” Many of the artworks rotate, so check for updates. lyonscolorado.com
Nederland is working with talented local artists to install two vibrant outdoor murals. Visit the Nederland Public Art Facebook page for locations and photos of the works in progress.
The Niwot Sculpture Park & Outdoor Gallery, a community park established in 2018, features on-loan sculptural works from local, regional and national artists. niwotarts.org