An off-beat path
March 17, 2016
Casa Bonita – Denver’s iconic Mexican restaurant – is known for cliff divers, Black Bart’s Cove and its many culinary tragedies. It’s not, however, known for inspiring creative expression – artists don’t typically flock to West Colfax to sketch or paint the restaurant’s decadent pink facade.
Then again, not all artists are like MSU Denver Sociology Professor Linda “Mariposa” Marangia and the small band of recreational artists that comprise Denver’s Hillside Artist Community.
Using watercolor, graphite and ink, Marangia and the Hillside artists captured Casa Bonita and several other unlikely landmarks, including St. Elizabeth Church Steeple, a Littleton tattoo parlor, and the Daniels and Fisher Clock Tower last year as part of a project that yielded the visual essay, “Imaging the City by Hand.” For a six-month period, the group rode RTD’s light rail and stopped at locations that don’t make most “Things to See in Colorado" lists, including Five Points, the Lamar Station Plaza on Colfax, and various points in Littleton, Golden and Arvada, to name a handful.
“Instead of going to places that the Chamber of Commerce tells the public to visit, why don’t we get an RTD map and start pecking away at some of these other sites,” said Marangia, recalling her proposal to her fellow artists. “We’ll go without any regard to what the landmarks are and we’ll take in the environment and record what we see.”
Marangia’s idea blends her work as a sociologist with her long-standing artistic interests – in addition to sketching and working in watercolor, she writes poetry, which she incorporated into the visual essay.
“I’m very much into blending academics and expression and application,” said Marangia. “I’ve also been thinking about how sketch notes operate as a qualitative methodology to lend insight into an observer’s world as he or she experiences locations. They say, one picture is worth a thousand words.”
Students in Marangia’s classes have long benefited from her propensity towards imagery. “If I’m teaching about urban sprawl, aerial views of population density and traffic congestion have a different communication intensity than a mere power point slide of definitions.”
While the concept of “urban sketching” isn’t new – there’s a global movement afoot complete with a nonprofit that organizes international symposia on the subject – Marangia’s work differs in its intention.
“I diverge from urban sketching in that I’m not too concerned about representational rendering,” she said. “Many people leading the [urban sketching] movement are former architects who put a heavy emphasis on truthfully representing an environment. Yet I question whether anyone can really do that. When a person photographs something, subjectivity seems unavoidable.
“I’m much more interested in how people perceive the environment from their own subjective point of view. They might go to a location and notice an element that other people walk by,” she continued. “I call what we’re doing ‘ethno sketches’ from a phenomenological point of view.”
Whatever its name, Marangia’s project proved to be an effective way to learn about the Greater Denver area while also telling its story. “What we saw is how much Denver is changing. There is a lot of development going on,” she said. “We can look at [the sketches] individually but together they’re pieces of a mosaic. They tell the story of redevelopment and expansion.”
And that story will be part of an even bigger one, if Marangia has her way. Ultimately, she would like to develop a guidebook of sorts – complete with her groups’ sketches – that encourages people to ride light rail in order to discover the city for themselves.
“This is one way of animating democracy from the bottom up,” said Marangia. “I would like to see RTD exhibit an ‘ethno sketch’ storybook at each stop, which could get people interested in riding light rail for recreation and leisure, beyond commuting. This would be an initiative to create traffic and economic stimulation as people get off at stops and spend time, appreciation and money. In this way, light rail becomes more than just a means of transportation. It becomes a bridge connecting people to other neighborhoods.”
Regardless of whether RTD gets on board with Marangia’s plan, this is clearly a story to be continued.
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