For the next entry in our ongoing Heroes series, we spoke with 10 local artists who work in a variety of mediums. These are lovers, renegades, activists, people who use their craft to better the world. Each is a storyteller that has figured out their own way to reach up into the cosmos and grab a piece of the universe, bring it in close and whisper to it messages of resilience and compassion and then let it go free to spread throughout our world. Let’s hear it for them.
Ben Shores calls his work “speculative illustration,” a term he appropriated from science fiction and fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin, author of the beloved Earthsea series. The term refers to the idea of pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, what actually exists at this time in our collective human history. It takes a basis of what does exist and expands it to what could, what, for now, exists only in our wildest imaginings, the things we dream about when staring out car windows on rainy afternoons and wondering what it would be like to live in a world filled with a bit more magic than our own. This idea comes through powerfully in Shores’ work. Using traditional painting techniques at times and more street art-inspired methods utilizing spray paint at others, Shores creates pieces simultaneously familiar and fantastical with a healthy dose of humor mixed in as well. The places his pieces hang are like sites of power, places of magic to draw from, fill yourself with, carry with you like a secret.
Shores calls himself “nuts,” but I found him to be quite easygoing, funny, and insightful. He said he was creative since he could remember, telling me, “I was the kid in grade school and middle school who would turn in their homework assignments with a bunch of drawings on it and none of the actual answers.” He described multiple times a lifelong interest in science fiction and fantasy, taking influence from some of the genres’ most important writers and artists, saying that he “will fight anybody who claims to say that everybody does not love Frank Frazetta.” He also mentioned Ralph Bakshi’s work on Wizards and Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel, Slaughterhouse 5. As we spoke about his own creative development, he made a point about how artists’ work develops as the artist does. He said, “When I was 19, I didn’t really have anything to say. What good is a voice to somebody who doesn’t have anything to say? A few decades of living on the planet will actually put you in contact with people and experiences that’ll actually give you something you could put a voice to.”
When asked for a final message, Shores left me with this:
“Imagine, build, then explore.”
Jamal Page is a filmmaker, owner, and founder of Black Sparrow Media, and he wants to show you something you’ve never seen before. He wants awe, shock, spectacle, the big screen experience. Popcorn shared between people in love, nails bitten to the nub, the edge of the seat approaching rapidly. The movie theater is a sacred place, a temple to intelligence, imagination, beauty, horror, all of it. It is a place meant to be safe, peaceful, where you can get a little lost for a little while. This is what Page wishes to create and preserve. For him, filmmaking is a way to simply make people happy and safe and entertained and comfortable. He told me:
“The act of making films is secondary to what my larger goal is. I would say that my goal is to essentially make people happy, put smiles on people’s faces, and give people a place to enjoy themselves.”
Through his production company, Page produces music videos, videos for businesses, short films, features, and also photography. His most recent project called “Welcome to Hollywood” is about to enter the film festival circuit. In our conversation, he spoke about “steering the ship” in the sense that he has an incredibly dedicated and talented team that follows his creative direction. He’s influenced by his love of blockbusters, the big movies. When I asked him what some of his biggest influences are, he spoke of movies like Independence Day, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and the first few Pirates of the Caribbean films. These are all big spectacle films, escapism. It pertains to the idea of the viewer slipping out of reality for a few hours and getting lost in these imagined worlds where anyone can be a hero, anyone can find greatness within themselves and use it to change the world, or at the very least, save it.
For more information on Black Sparrow Media, visit their website: blacksparrowmedia.org
Paul Wedlake is unique among the artists we are featuring in this piece as he has been one of Yellow Scene’s main photographers for years and has shot every one of the covers in the Heroes series, including this one. From what he told me, it sounds like he has photography in his blood, like he was born to do it. His father was a photographer, but Wedlake never wished to follow in his footsteps at first. He described a lot of hard times, hard living growing up in Detroit that made him wish to avoid his father’s profession. But once he got to high school, he learned that the camera can be a sort of key, a way to unlock a life of freedom. He started using his camera as sort of a “hall pass,” as he calls it, skipping class to go on shoots. When he got to college, he tried to go a more standard business or marketing path but became disillusioned, missing the excitement he got from being behind the camera. He soon left the more traditional path and returned to photography full time. Twenty-five years later, he’s still shooting.
Wedlake has enjoyed a large variety of work over the course of his career but enjoys projects that focus on people and their stories. When we spoke, he was preparing for a shoot featuring a 9/11 survivor. He’s worked with farmers, models, teachers, businessmen, journalists, among many, many others. He also shoots landscapes and architecture, applying an artistic eye to shoots that could turn out to be rather straightforward in someone else’s hands. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with him and hope to continue to do so.
For more information on Paul and his work go to his website: wedlakephoto.com
Marley Kinkead loves a lot. Her work is a warm celebration of quiet beauty, like dancing to your favorite song when home alone. It is those moments in which we are alone, in which we are naked, our pure selves in all our glory that Kinkead hopes to capture in paint, “the minute moments of beauty,” she calls them. In doing so, she hopes that those of us who see her art will open our eyes more to those small, fleeting moments that slip through our fingers to be lost to the ether of time so easily and to learn to love ourselves, to find the beauty of ourselves both external and internal and hold it tightly.
This is captured most powerfully by her “Bathroom Series,” which Kinkead says is her favorite of the work she’s done. The “Bathroom Series” is what it sounds like: she photographs people she’s met throughout her life and her extensive travels around the world using the bathroom for its various purposes and recreates the photographs in watercolor or acrylic in order to capture people at their most vulnerable. She told me:
“I’ve always been really intrigued and kind of obsessed with bathrooms. I think they’re a very undervalued space that are super nuanced and beautiful. You can look at it from gender, you can look at it from any sort of sociological aspect, you can look at it socioeconomically, culturally, anything. I think it’s one of these underrated mundane beauties where we’re very raw and humbled and secluded and isolated. It gives the opportunity for these super mundane moments to be these poignantly beautiful meditations or these fleeting moments that might otherwise get breathed over.”
Kinkead also laughs a lot, this rich ringing sound that reminds me of birds and freedom. Throughout our conversation, she would quietly expound on the virtues of human nature and beauty and then the next moment make some dirty, deeply clever joke that would catch me off guard and crack me up. A light of a human being.
“Community service has always been a part of my upbringing.”
Brian Hedden is more than a documentarian. He’s an activist, a journalist, a badass. His most recent work is still in the editing stage but is a film called Fracking the System: Colorado’s Oil and Gas War. Produced by Hedden’s company, Earth Dog Films, the film is about the devastation the oil and gas industry causes in our beautiful state and the brave souls fighting against it. I was granted the opportunity to see the film and was truly blown away by its power, its rage, its small moments of beauty captured amongst the chaos. It comes off like a ‘70s conspiracy thriller like The French Connection or All the President’s Men in that it is filled with such extreme tension and paranoia that it can be easy to forget that this is a very real, very true story happening in our home.
In watching the film, I first was struck by the sheer tenacity of Hedden. I don’t want to give any of the film’s surprises away, but he himself becomes a subject in his own documentary in an incredibly intense way. The sheer bravery it takes to stand up to such a massive, powerful, ruthless industry really impressed me.
Hedden describes himself as an activist from an early age, saying, “Community service has always been a part of my upbringing.” This is evident in the way he speaks and carries himself with a sort of easy confidence that comes with one who has an awareness of all the darkness in the world yet chooses to keep fighting in the light.
There is a shot in the movie that sticks with me. The shot itself was taken by Hedden’s creative partner Lisa Gross. It’s a shot of a stuffed Lorax next to a withered picket sign. The shot evokes such melancholy and power, saying so much about the film’s subject in just one second. I don’t want to give the context away, but it shows the creators’ eye for symbolism and ability to use art to make a real difference.
Wira Babiak’s laughter stuck with me well after our conversation. A very kind, joyous woman, she has this way about her that calms, comforts, makes one think of easy winds blowing through an open field as you stand in the middle and let it tousle your hair. This feeling is reflected in her work. She works in many mediums, telling me, “I do everything. I do oils, acrylics, Ukrainian Easter egg designs, photography, manipulated photography,” though she describes oils and acrylics as her primary focus. Out of all the people we spoke with, Babiak is easily the most prolific, telling me she completes multiple pieces a day, depending on which medium she’s working in. Her work varies quite a lot as well. She does many landscapes, the mountains and trees and says that oil is her favorite medium because it is the most “forgiving” as she put it.
Babiak was originally born in Toronto before moving to Boulder in her teens, around the age at which she started exploring her creative endeavors. The daughter of Ukrainian immigrants, the current situation in her family’s home country has greatly affected her, and she is not one to sit idle. She instead uses her craft to benefit Ukraine, creating oil paintings of traditional Ukrainian headdresses in order to benefit Ukrainian wildlife and ambulance drivers living and helping people in the midst of the chaos.
In addition to her warmth, she also was quite insightful about the nature of being an artist. She told me:
“Some people think I’m an artist, so I will work as an artist. I don’t work that way. I don’t force myself to be an artist. Just happens.”
You can find more about Babiak and her work at her website: wirababiakartwork.weebly.com
If you have ever worried about the future of art, what it’ll look like years from now in this ever changing, gradually darkening world of ours, take heart that there are those like P.J. Rosen out there to keep the light shining. Rosen is a teenage artist who has become incredibly accomplished in a short amount of time. They told me that they’ve been creative since the womb, telling me they’ve had a pencil in their hand for as long as they can remember. They told me:
“It started out as a hobby that a toddler takes on. But my drawing, I guess, began to become more progressively detailed and a little more advanced than people around me. I guess around fourth grade, I realized I really want to pursue this because this is something I’m really interested in. And I started working a little harder, making more pieces, and improving.”
Rosen loves the control that painting with acrylics affords them, the whole world in their hands to shape as they see fit. This allows them to experiment, to let a piece form itself from the ether. They don’t usually go into a new piece with much of a plan. They let the art emerge on its own. This creates a unique style that begins in realism and becomes more and more abstract as the piece develops, creating these beautifully complex pieces that are striking in color and composition. The pieces are confident. They have something to say, and the world should listen.
While they still have a ways to go until the college years, they aren’t fully sure what the future holds for them. They said, “I’m honestly not sure. But it is definitely something that I’m interested in. If I don’t do it as a major or minor, if I don’t study it in school, I definitely want to keep it up. It’s been such a big part of my life, to drop it would be terrible.”
Check out their instagram: @justsomeartsystuff08
Carter Wilson has the distinction of being the only novelist we’re featuring in this piece. For Wilson, writing wasn’t always the plan. He originally studied hotel administration before he ever picked up the proverbial pen. He actually still retains a full-time job in the hospitality space, which makes his work even more impressive. “I kind of just fell into writing in my 30s,” he told me. “Just, literally, one day, I started writing, and I kind of haven’t stopped.”
The journey was not an easy one for Wilson. Having no previous background in writing, he basically had to teach himself, had to develop a voice, build the skill. We spoke about writing as a muscle that needs to be exercised, that, through exercise, can be built, grow stronger. It just takes time and effort and passion to do so. For Wilson, this exercise manifested in three novels that never sold. But he didn’t let that slow him down. He spoke about the love of the craft, how if you truly love it, there’s no prying that pen from your hand. He kept at it and now has published eight thrillers that have allowed him to become a USA Today bestseller.
For final messages, Wilson gave advice anyone with any modicum of interest in writing should take to heart:
“Write every day. Do it every day. Even if it’s just 15 minutes. You have to have it become a habit, and habit has to become a routine. When that routine is established, you can get a book done in a year no problem. But if you just wait for the muse, you’re going to keep waiting.”
Check out his new novel The New Neighbor and his other works on Amazon and his website: carterwilson.com/works
Leah Brenner Clack
If you’ve been to Boulder, there’s a strong chance you’ve seen Leah Brenner Clack’s work. She is the founder of Street Wise Arts in Boulder, a non-profit dedicated to promoting social justice by uplifting the voices of local creators through mural projects, community events, and youth education programs. Responsible for installing over 100 murals in Boulder, Street Wise works with some of the best artists in the state, artists that paint the walls of Boulder with stories and history and color, that cover the town in compassion and hard lessons, using art as education about diverse cultures that otherwise might not be represented in a place such as Boulder, Colorado.
Clack herself is an impressive figure. She speaks of her work and her life with a casual, laid-back sort of confidence cultivated from years spent in the artistic space. In addition to Street Wise, Clack has overseen galleries and workshops and was one of the first people to help run the Denver-based gallery/late-night music venue Knew Conscious. Art has filled her life since she was young. She remembers the time she lived with her grandmother, a kind woman she describes as “super creative.” She told me, “She was always making things like quilts and porcelain dolls and clothing, and she was always in her little sewing workshop making stuff, and I would be in there helping her.”
Each year, Street Wise holds a mural festival celebrating all of their artists and their messages. When asked if there was one unifying message behind Street Wise’s work, Clack told me:
“It’s about amplifying artists’ voices, and those voices are so different, but providing that platform for representation and connection. That looks like so many different things. There’s so many different sublevels of themes like climate justice, indigenous rights, Black lives. It’s so broad, right, but it’s about our experiences as human beings and connecting with each other.”
The mural festival begins on Sept. 29 and runs through Oct. 2. For more information on the festival and on Street Wise, visit their website: streetwiseboulder.com
Before I even spoke with her, I was struck by Edica Pacha’s compassion and commitment to elevating voices that could otherwise be drowned out. I gleaned this from her “UndocuAmerica” series, a photography, monologue, and mural project that seeks to tell the stories of undocumented people in America. She pairs her subjects with images of the Front Range, using a complicated double exposure technique that creates an ethereal feeling, like smoke drifting in front of your eyes. She then turns these photos into murals that also feature a QR code that links to a monologue from each of the murals’ subjects. These monologues allow the subjects to tell their stories of being undocumented in America, their lives, their journeys, their hardships and triumphs. It’s truly a beautiful series.
In addition to her work, Pacha is an incredibly vibrant human being. Smart, confident, quick with a joke, our conversation ended up running quite long compared to some of the others because we kept finding more to talk about. She initially picked up a camera when she was in her teens and fell in love with the medium for its ability to capture qualities of the world and its people that she described as “mystical.” She used that word a lot in our conversation, and it made me feel a sense of reverence for the existence of art in this world as a whole and left me quite aware of the world around me, its hidden beauty, its magic. She also spoke of the idea of the beauty of uncertainty. She can point her camera at a subject, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the photo will come out well. She said:
“I don’t always know what’s going to show up. I love that because that’s what keeps me intrigued, inspired, and in tune with the channel that is greater than us.”