Hydro muralist strengthens his community through art.
By Ray Mark Rinaldi | July 1, 2022
OF ALL THE THINGS ANTHONY GARCIA SR. HAS ACCOMPLISHED at the age of 37, the most crucial may be that he has cut a path for how an artist can exist meaningfully at the center of a community.
Not on the outside, like those artists who choose to live on the fringe and observe, offering occasional social commentary through their painting or poetry. Not above, like those artists we place on pedestals because we believe they have special gifts. And surely not below, in that underground of artists who struggle to get by, starving in the name of their art.
Garcia has branched from murals into studio painting, often using a serape motif. The works pictured here are, from left: At the End of the Day, acrylic on canvas, 12” x 12”; Wild Grass, acrylic on canvas, 40” x 40”; White Washed 2, acrylic and latex on canvas, 72” x 72”; and Sunrise, acrylic on canvas, 48″ x 48″.
Garcia has branched from murals into studio painting, often using a serape motif. The works pictured here are, from top: At the End of the Day, acrylic on canvas, 12” x 12”; Wild Grass, acrylic on canvas, 40” x 40”; White Washed 2, acrylic and latex on canvas, 72” x 72”; and Sunrise, acrylic on canvas, 48″ x 48″.
INSTEAD, GARCIA WORKS FROM WITHIN: with neighbors and nonprofits, with governments and community groups, with private patrons and public funders, with politicians at the top of the social order and homeless people who struggle to find their place in the world. He is a Mexican American muralist who has created increasingly visible public art, and he is co-founder and executive director of a nonprofit called BirdSeed Collective. Based in the Globeville neighborhood of north Denver, where Garcia was raised, BirdSeed Collective works to strengthen the local community through art, civic projects, and programs for kids.
“I’ve always been focused on where I was from and being proud of being part of this community. When we started BirdSeed, we wanted to stay here and work to keep this neighborhood tight,” Garcia recently said on the “Spur of the Moment” podcast, which spotlights people involved with CSU Spur. “Being an artist allows me the freedom to do community work and to use art as a platform. They both work together.”
Garcia greets Wilson Guzman during a weekly food pantry, which BirdSeed Collective hosts for community residents at the Globeville Center in north Denver. Garcia’s wife, Monica, holding a volunteer’s granddaughter, helps run the food program. Photo: Tanya Fabian
Garcia soon will begin painting a mural in the breezeway of the new Hydro building, which will open in January at CSU Spur. Titled Whirlpool, the work will feature striped patterns rendered in blue hues to suggest the movement and energy of water. As in many of Garcia’s works, the gradient colors will reflect a serape motif that evokes traditional Mexican blankets and the strength and beauty of Hispanic culture. The project is especially fitting, given CSU Spur’s location in the heart of the historic, working-class neighborhoods of Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, which have a largely Hispanic population. As he has done during creation of other large-scale murals, Garcia plans to hire youth assistants and artists who have experienced homelessness. In this way, the Hydro art project will enhance a building dedicated to research and public education about water – and will directly support and inspire community members.
“It’s always been important to me to make sure that if I’m doing well, everybody around me is doing well,” Garcia said. “I try to use my platform as much as possible to give back to others so that everybody around us is doing well.”
A schematic, left, shows how Garcia’s Whirlpool mural will fill a large breezeway at the Hydro building. It will be rendered in gradient blue patterns, akin to the study at right. Illustration: Hord | Coplan | Macht
A schematic, top, shows how Garcia’s Whirlpool mural will fill a large breezeway at the Hydro building. It will be rendered in gradient blue patterns, akin to the study on bottom. Illustration: Hord | Coplan | Macht
GARCIA’S PROPOSAL FOR HYDRO was rare in making formal provisions in support of local young people and other creatives, said Martha Weidmann, chief executive officer of NINE dot ARTS. Her Denver-based consulting firm created the public art master plan for CSU Spur and screened project concepts. “The thing that is most important to me about Anthony is that he is a community artist,” Weidmann, a Colorado State University alumna, said.
The Hydro mural will be one of eight permanent art installations at CSU Spur exploring the campus themes of food, water, and animal and human health. The works include murals, sculptures, a fountain, wall relief, and lighting installation. The plan for campus artwork arose from Colorado’s Art in Public Places law, which requires that state-funded construction projects spend a small percentage of appropriations on works of art that may be experienced by the public. The total budget was $1.15 million for installations at CSU Spur. A few of the commissioned artists live and work in Colorado, but Garcia is the only CSU Spur artist from the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods immediately surrounding the National Western Center.
Through his work as an artist and community leader, Garcia embodies the tradition of citizen artistry for the modern age – creating art while simultaneously supporting society. Garcia’s focus is on the Globeville community, an economically challenged neighborhood that is cut through by interstates 25 and 70 and is marked by a legacy of contamination from heavy industry.
Garcia carries a box of produce and staples for Javier Baltierra and his family during BirdSeed Collective’s weekly food program. Photo: Tanya Fabian
HERE, GARCIA GREW UP ENCOURAGED to create art by his mother and a grandmother who supplied paper and pastels. He became a graffiti artist, which shaped his style and, later, his mission of supporting up-and-coming artists from the community. “If it wasn’t for the graffiti, I would not have met the people I know today,” he said. “So I was very lucky to be exposed to that.” Working in those circles put him in the right place at the right time: Just as Garcia was emerging, so was street and mural painting as a popular art form. When civic leaders wanted to dress up streets and underpasses, or when developers wanted to increase property value with handmade art, they went looking for local talent. Garcia came with skills and a good reputation; he rode a wave of public art that has transformed Denver’s aesthetic.
Yet, his work did not come naturally for Garcia, who grew up without role models in the sphere of professional artistry. He has become a key player in Denver culture using his skills as a salesman for his personal talents and his unflagging advocacy for his neighborhood. “I’ve always been a hustler. It didn’t matter what the job was, I was able to make it happen,” he said.
The Globeville Center bustles with activity during BirdSeed Collective’s weekly food program. CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Anthony Garcia Jr. jokes with his grandmother, Carla Padilla, the nonprofit’s associate director; a recipient carts home groceries; BirdSeed staffers Sebera Casillas, Lance Garcia, and Kezia Lozano load a car; Wilson Guzman carries a box for his family; Vonna Wolf, leader of Beats by Girlz, sets up DJ equipment; Monica Garcia takes a photo of her husband with musician Franklín Quezada, a visitor from El Salvador, and BirdSeed volunteer Laurie Bretz; and food recipient Anastasia Ortiz checks out a Denver Public Library bookmobile staffed by Ernesto Escarrsega. Photography: Tanya Fabian
The Globeville Center bustles with activity during BirdSeed Collective’s weekly food program. FROM TOP: Anthony Garcia Jr. jokes with his grandmother, Carla Padilla, the nonprofit’s associate director; a recipient carts home groceries; BirdSeed staffers Sebera Casillas, Lance Garcia, and Kezia Lozano load a car; Wilson Guzman carries a box for his family; food recipient Anastasia Ortiz checks out a Denver Public Library bookmobile staffed by Ernesto Escarrsega; Monica Garcia takes a photo of her husband with musician Franklín Quezada, a visitor from El Salvador, and BirdSeed volunteer Laurie Bretz; and Vonna Wolf, leader of Beats by Girlz, sets up DJ equipment. Photography: Tanya Fabian
Garcia evolved into a painter with a number of high-profile commissions, sometimes valued in the tens of thousands of dollars. His major projects – many in his characteristic serape style – serve as billboards for his talent. For instance, a popular, city-sponsored mural at Sixth Avenue and Federal Boulevard creates an entrance to Denver and reminds people that the city, at its best, is a diverse and welcoming place for all, including those with Latino and Indigenous identities, like Garcia himself. Two other well-known Denver projects are murals on an underpass at 40th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard and on a pedestrian bridge at 47th Avenue and York Street.
In 2009, Garcia expanded focus from his own work to the broader community by co-founding BirdSeed Collective. It began as a traveling art gallery, showing work from up-and-coming artists, including Garcia, whose talents – often influenced by street art – did not fit into the mainstream gallery scene. BirdSeed’s events included musicians, DJs, fashion designers, and on-site muralists. The pop-up art shows led to formation of Alto Gallery, which offers studio and exhibition space for local artists and now is located in the RiNo ArtPark near Globeville.
Garcia is a popular Colorado muralist who has completed many public works, often with the help of young artists and artists who have experienced homelessness. Two of his well-known murals are Crossroads / Encrucijada (left), at Sixth Avenue and Federal Boulevard in Denver; and Floating Bridge (right), the pedestrian bridge at 47th Avenue and York Street.
Garcia is a popular Colorado muralist who has completed many public works, often with the help of young artists and artists who have experienced homelessness. Two of his well-known murals are Crossroads / Encrucijada (top), at Sixth Avenue and Federal Boulevard in Denver; and Floating Bridge (bottom), the pedestrian bridge at 47th Avenue and York Street.
BIRDSEED USED ITS STATUS AS A NONPROFIT to raise money for Alto Gallery’s overhead costs; that allowed the gallery to experiment with artists whose work wasn’t an easy sell. For the public, it was a casual place to catch a new name. For the city’s art scene, it became a crucial incubator for new talent. And for artists, Alto Gallery became a school of sorts, fulfilling BirdSeed’s mission of helping emerging creatives find a place in the art ecosystem. BirdSeed gives artists platforms – maybe a spot in a group exhibition or their own outdoor wall, where they can make the mural of their dreams – and provides resources and know-how to complete successful projects.
“We’ve always been that space that gave artists a chance to really grow and experiment and do these ideas they’d been working on for a long time,” Garcia said. Such support allows rising creatives to blossom, which is especially meaningful for those who cannot yet make a living with their art. “If you really want to be an artist, you have to put in 24 hours a day. It has to take over your whole life for it to be reciprocated back to you,” Garcia said. “Living check to check, you don’t have the time to really grow, and you need that space, especially in becoming an artist.”
While waiting for basketball practice at Globeville Center, Garcia shoots hoops with his 13-year-old son and a teammate. Gym walls feature murals painted by Garcia’s artist colleagues from around the world. Photo: Tanya Fabian
As BirdSeed developed, Garcia and his team sought additional opportunities. They found one with a 2012 Urban Arts Fund grant from the city of Denver that paid them to work with local youth on murals and other arts projects. Before long, BirdSeed started offering programs at the city-owned Globeville Center, a recreation center at 45th Avenue and Grant Street, where Garcia often had gone as a child.
BirdSeed soon expanded programming at the rec center, offering not only art classes, but cooking, music, and sports. The nonprofit took over management of the center in 2018, after the city completed a long re-evaluation of the rec center’s role in the neighborhood, sought competitive bids for a new operator, and chose BirdSeed as its steward.
Now, the place bustles all day long. Kids play basketball and learn how to DJ in a music studio. There are break dancing classes, public meetings, and rehearsals for Grupo Tlaloc, a local organization that teaches Aztec cultural traditions and movement. The rec center also hosts funerals and community meetings that allow neighbors to discuss proposed developments and other concerns. Also at the center, BirdSeed started a weekly food pantry that collects produce and staples and distributes food to local residents in need. About three dozen families come for groceries every Monday afternoon; most live below the poverty level. For the impact of BirdSeed’s work, Westword named Garcia a “MasterMind.”
Garcia’s many community art projects include, clockwise from top left, the front of elle.b Savvy on Federal Boulevard in Denver; the surface of the Cherry Cricket beer garden; the exterior of a neighborhood garage; a maquette for an untitled sculpture project, acrylic and epoxy resin, 48″ x 24″, exhibited at the Arvada Center this summer; and (below) a mural at Riverdale Regional Park in Brighton.
Garcia’s many community art projects include, from top, the front of elle.b Savvy on Federal Boulevard in Denver; a maquette for an untitled sculpture project, acrylic and epoxy resin, 48″ x 24″, exhibited at the Arvada Center this summer; the surface of the Cherry Cricket beer garden; the exterior of a neighborhood garage; and (below) a mural at Riverdale Regional Park in Brighton.
AMONG THE GROUPS REGULARLY USING THE GLOBEVILLE REC CENTER is Beats by Girlz, the local chapter of a national nonprofit that helps girls and young women learn music technology, which might lead to careers in music production, composition, engineering, and computer technology. Vonna Wolf, chapter leader, said it would not be possible to offer the programming without space provided by BirdSeed Collective and the rec center. “It feels like home,” Wolf, a DJ and educator, said. “People have been so welcoming and so caring. Everybody is happy to see you.”
Garcia’s work as an artist and community activist have come together organically, he said. Yet, he has not lost sight of his own need for professional development. Recently, Garcia has built more of a reputation as a studio artist and won a competitive residency at the RedLine Contemporary Art Center in Denver, an incubator for professional artists; the award came with free studio space and a network of supportive administrators and peers, all of whom have helped him develop new ideas. Some of his recent studio paintings are on display this summer at the Arvada Center in a solo show called Pigment. He also was named a 2022 Livingston Fellow by the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, a prominent organization that advances the arts and inspires creative leadership in Denver. The prestigious fellowship provides a year of mentoring and a $35,000 stipend to support professional growth.
In conferring the fellowship, the foundation described Garcia’s start as an urban street artist and noted that he has grown into a multifaceted creative entrepreneur and community leader, now recognized for his public artwork, community outreach programming, and leadership in championing emerging artists. “If Anthony is committed to something, he does it,” said Chrissy Deal, who directs the Livingston Fellowship Program and organized the selection process. “He just makes it happen with no fanfare, just action.”
Garcia, the father of three, admitted it’s challenging to make time for his family and to grow as an artist, all while working to support his community and other creatives. He finds motivation in the progress he sees around him. “The most rewarding part for me,” Garcia said, “is to be able to be successful and provide for my family, as well as helping others provide for their families – all through the arts.”
Photo at top: Anthony Garcia Sr. is creating an enormous commissioned mural at the forthcoming Hydro building at CSU Spur. He is executive director of a nonprofit that supports the Globeville neighborhood through art programs and civic projects. He is shown at RiNo ArtPark. Photo: Mary Neiberg