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Every year, the start of fall brings colors to the trees, and Arts Month brings a world of colors to the city. October is always Arts Month in Colorado Springs, a time when the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region works to elevate arts and culture throughout El Paso County. 

And this year, much of that color blossomed in Southeast Colorado Springs. 

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Community members gathered for a group photo during the unveiling of a mural honoring the late Sam Dunlap Jr.

OnebodyEnt/K-Land Community Cares, Relevant Word Ministries, Hillside Connection, and the Dunlap family unveiled a mural in John Adams Park honoring the late mentor and youth advocate Sam Dunlap Jr., painted by Paes 164 of the Knobhill Urban Arts District. Community advocate Juelz Ramirez worked with Claire Swinford, director of urban engagement of the Downtown Partnership, to get murals installed at the Mission Trace Shopping Center and the Hillside Community Center just in time for the November election. Soon, the utility boxes around Pikes Peak Park will sport a variety of designs and colors.  

“Claire Swinford of the Downtown Partnership reached out to me,” Ramirez said. “She knew I was already kind of trying to activate art in the Southeast, and so she thought I might know of a cool location to install this. She connected me to the guys who were installing the artwork, and I reached out to Matt Craddock, who owns this part of Mission Trace, and he was for it.”

That mural, and another at the Hillside Community Center, are part of Facebook’s “Voting Is Voice” initiative, which placed five murals in each of 10 cities across the country to encourage people to vote. 

In addition to working on the two new murals, which will be removed after the election, Ramirez is working to bring art to the utility boxes in Southeast Colorado Springs, just like the ones in downtown and Old Colorado City. 

“I’ve lived in this neighborhood my whole life and to see downtown blossom with all this beautiful artwork and to look around here is so sad,” said Ramirez. “I thought the utility boxes would be one of the easier routes to go, especially because it’s printing the artwork out versus somebody having to go spend time doing the work. I figured that would be one of the easiest, quickest ways to get a lot of art installed. We have four utility boxes picked out right now. Selfishly they’re all surrounding my neighborhood in Pikes Peak Park. I’ve teamed up with Chinook Center and we are just leveraging the funds to pay for the vinyl to get printed and then coordinating getting people to submit their artwork. We’re going to have a jury to select the artwork to go on the utility boxes. I see it as Phase One of getting more art here.”

More art around the city is part of Swinford’s master plan. 

“Downtown Partnership’s perspective on doing public art programming has always been, ‘Hey, we will show people the value of this,’” she said. “We will get them to expect it, and appreciate it, so by the time all the people in the Cultural Services Department of the city have the political steam in order to start to put some of these things into place within city government, they will have a firm mandate from citizens to say, ‘Yes, this is needed; this is wanted. It serves a utility. It’s not just a ‘nice-to-have,’ it’s a ‘need-to-have,’ and here is a 23-year track record to prove it.’”

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Community members were invited to place handprints around the Sam Dunlap mural to symbolize their commitment to Southeast.

Swinford is happy to share resources with community groups that would like to install utility box art throughout the city. 

“[Juelz] is a perfect example,” she said. “We were very open with her about sharing our templates and our contacts for the wrap utility box program we started back in 2015. We said, ‘This is exactly who you need to contact to get this done,’ and because there was a precedent, because this had already been vetted by city planning and traffic engineering, her road was paved in ways that it wouldn’t have been if Downtown Partnership hadn’t identified that as a priority. Which is not to pat ourselves on the back, but that shows that our plan is working. ... All of this builds up into a big tidal wave of support and to be able to then see our Cultural Services Department respond by getting funding allocated for the city’s first ever public art master plan, that is the culmination of so many hopes and so many actions by so many people beyond downtown. The fact that folks like Juelz are taking the ideas and running with them just serves to strengthen the support for that public art master plan as it goes through to corridors of city government.”

 In September,  the Public Art Commission recommended “Public Art COS,” the city’s first public art master plan, to the City Council for adoption. The goal to put public art around the city — not just downtown. Council is expected to vote on the plan this month. 

The plan suggests building consensus by including developers and others interested in the projects: neighborhood organizations, city council, city planning, master-planned communities — and any neighborhood without public art installations. 

While the city works on a cultural arts master plan, local community groups in Southeast Colorado Springs aren’t waiting for an official project. 

Last month, community organizations gathered in John Adams Park to unveil the latest public art piece in Southeast Colorado Springs: a mural dedicated to the memory of Sam Dunlap Jr., who was an athlete, coach and mentor in Southeast Colorado Springs. The group also painted a tribute to other local community leaders — state Rep. Tony Exum has his likeness on the mural.

Yolanda Avila, the District 4 city council representative, was present for the unveiling. 

“He looks like us,” she said, “and we don’t have that in a lot of the city. There are murals that are going up in parts of the city, and except for maybe Conejos Street, which represents a really strong Black and brown community, this is a first for this community. Our community needs to know that there are people who are trailblazers and people that have shown the way, and have worked on making this area vibrant.”

Avila is working to bring additional art to Southeast Colorado Springs. 

“Mauricio Ramirez, who did the Conejos Street mural, let me know that he had a lot of paint, so if I had a building and a wall for him, he would put it up,” she said. “I’m working with Matt Craddock at Mission Trace to see if we can get a mural right there, representing the community around the Mission Trace Shopping Center. It would be just a gift.”

The mural at John Adams Park was painted by Paes 164, president of the Knobhill Urban Arts District. The work done by the Knobhill district is considered “street art,” or art inspired by urban graffiti. 

“Street art does stem from graffiti,” Paes said, “it’s all coming from the spray-paint can. Graffiti was a steppingstone for a lot of these young artists that evolved into these amazing street-artists.”

Paes recently held an art show for First Friday at a vacant building on South Tejon Street. 

“It was last-minute put together,” said Paes. “We got the invite from COPPeR to

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In addition to memorializing Dunlap, the mural also honors local heroes and the K-Land community.

join in on the Arts Month situation. That kind of fell in line with a local property owner who was like, ‘If you guys want to do something with this building, I can’t rent it, come and bomb it up.’”

Paes and fellow artists decorated the walls of the buildings with colorful murals, which in turn helped make those spaces more marketable. 

“Because of the murals this guy who couldn’t rent these buildings has now rented both sides,” Paes said. “A gym is coming in and a dance studio, and they’re going to keep the murals.” 

It’s all part of the plan, Swinford said.

“That’s the goal with all of our public art programs,” she said, “getting people to interact with their surroundings a little bit more.” 

Heidi Beedle is a former soldier, educator, activist, and animal welfare worker. She received a Bachelor’s in English from UCCS. She has worked as a freelance writer covering LGBTQ issues, nuclear disasters, cattle mutilations, and social movements.