It's all darkness and glitter inside Union Station tonight. Despite the venue's industrial atmosphere, the stage glows iridescent under a disco ball. Young hipsters swagger in hats and suspenders, hotties teeter about in 6-inch heels, and more reclusive types with shaved hairstyles, pierced faces and hoodies mingle in the melee.
Though it looks like a club scene, complete with a doorman and a gaggle of carousing smokers outside, it's all about art. Makeshift stalls hold paintings, photographs, drawings with bulldog clips and tacks, illuminated by hot lights. Toward the back, sculpture and jewelry tables beckon, though getting through is tough — a crowd has gathered around a nearby tattoo artist's display.
Against the flow of traffic, girls spackled with sparkly eye make-up and anime-inspired hairdos skip around, preening each other and adjusting their patchwork clothing, the product of a budding local designer.
Later, the girls nervously pose while standing on tabletops as part of the fashion show — which, through the course of the night, will share the spotlight with a spoken-word performance, a rock band's set and an outdoor show featuring a fire dancer.
This is RAW: Colorado Springs. Like a latter-day, corporate-organized Nocturnal Mockery (an urban art fair, for those who remember from a few years back), this July event is the first of what will become monthly one-night showcases from each February through November. Backed by a company out of Los Angeles, the RAW: Natural Born Artists organization promotes the work of young artists — generally within the first 10 years of their career — in more than 50 U.S. cities.
Via phone in San Diego, southwest regional director Sara Wilwerding says RAW actually reaches as far as an outpost in Brisbane, Australia. (Sites in China and Europe are slated for 2013, according to the website.) More U.S. cities are on the agenda, as soon as the company finds the right person to direct each one.
'An indie scene'
Locally, Anna Carver is the 25-year-old who's pulled this mayhem of make-up and paint together. And in the days following the event, she says RAW: Colorado Springs' first show was a success.
"I was surprised, I'll be honest. I was expecting to have to put out more fires," she says with a laugh. She says they sold more than 400 tickets, and netted 275 to 300 attendees. Her artists were happy, many having run out of business cards, and the drinks flowed, pleasing the bar, too.
RAW's umbrella organization saw the Springs as a viable RAW site, Wilwerding says, because it met the criteria for population size, distance from the nearest RAW cities (the usual suspects, Denver and Boulder), and evidence of an artistic community, e.g. an arts council and number of artists living and working here.
Carver isn't an artist herself, but she grew up in an artistic family, and understands the struggles of trying to break out. She has a background in event planning and came from Boston to Denver, where she interned for 5280. In the Springs, she waits tables at the Blue Star.
With RAW she works as a contractor, getting a cut of ticket sales for her efforts. (Wilwerding says the company operates something like a nonprofit, with all gains going back into the shows.) That leaves Carver with lots of responsibility, including hand-picking the 20 or so artists she'll feature each month. Initially, she wasn't sure how she'd find them, but she visited tattoo shops, posted on Craigslist, ran the social media circuit, and used word of mouth.
"It's been a process of referral, actually," she says. "A lot of it is, artists know people and want to bring their friends in on it, so it's more underground than I was expecting."
She adds, "I was expecting more from Manitou Springs, to be honest, but a lot of people have come from Colorado Springs, which is really, really exciting.
"I don't know if this is the correct word that I'm looking for, but it is an indie scene. A lot of people aren't necessarily trying to make a living from it, but are just really passionate about art, and that's why they want to do the showcase."
Dáreece Walker thought he knew everything he needed to know about art. With no training but a natural knack for drawing, he was content to set it aside until he was in his senior year at a Nebraska high school. Before that he focused on running track and playing basketball.
"I was kind of thinking I was really good and didn't need to get better, but I didn't even draw in color and I didn't know how to paint ..." the 23-year-old recalls. "I was just into my drawing skills with a pencil."
A high-school instructor taught him otherwise, and in the process, changed the course of Walker's life. He took on more art classes until graduation and returned to his hometown Colorado Springs to study visual art at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Now in his last semester, he's applying to graduate school for an MA in art.
Walker's shown here and there in town, with stints at the Business of Art Center and in Pulse, UCCS' Gallery of Contemporary Art senior show. He recently won the Campus Excellence Award in Arts, meaning that for a year, one of his pieces hangs suspended above the main stairway at the entrance of the University Center.
All in all, he's the perfect candidate for RAW. And RAW's good for him, too: After his turn in the August event, Walker can show in other affiliate cities, and his profile will also remain on the main website.
He'll also get the chance to compete against other RAW locals. Beginning Oct. 1, RAW will unveil a round of online voting for the best artist in each category (including music, fashion, etc.). The top three artists from each category, based on voters and Carver's choices (which are weighted 50-50), will return for November's showcase and be judged again by local luminaries and the show's attendees. The winners from there will be judged on a national level, and those winners will attend an awards ceremony in Los Angeles.
When the Indy spoke with Walker, he was still trying to decide what to take to the August showcase. He planned on some of his cardboard drawings, skillful portraits of young African-Americans, including teenage shooting victim Trayvon Martin. I mentioned his equally adept images of celebrities, done with chalk pastels on suede board.
"I might bring those!" Walker said. "I just found two in my room that I haven't completed all the way ..."
Hear and now
If Walker personifies the beginning stages of a career, Susan Peiffer is an artist hitting her stride.
An educator, poet and theologian, as stated on her business card, Peiffer came to July's RAW performance in a retro, Pucci-print-like dress and with her short, curly hair a hot red. Her part-written, part-improved performance at July's show was the talk of the night — at least until the fire dancer began. (To read it, see below; to watch her perform it, see rawartists.org/smpeiffer.)
The 36-year-old arrived in the Springs just this April and has already nestled herself in the literary community, having gotten acquainted with Word Wednesdays at V Bar — where Carver approached her about RAW — Poetry West workshops and the Saturday Hear Here gatherings at Movement Arts Community Studio (see here for more).
That kind of savoir faire doesn't extend to all of RAW's typically less-seasoned artists; many don't typically attend concerts and gallery events, according to Wilwerding. But Peiffer is glad to share what she knows. Of Hear Here, she has nothing but kind words: "It's been the most embracing community, in terms of being a new member around Colorado."
Her experience in lit scenes started in earnest in the early 2000s, when she became involved with the literary communities in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Around 2007, in Delaware, she started competing in poetry slam competitions, eventually with the Delaware and Philadelphia teams on a national level.
That only accounts for part of her skill set, though: There's that theology aspect on her card. Her background in youth and family ministry has sent her around the country speaking, holding workshops, and helping adolescents prepare for confirmation. She's also taught at a Catholic high school and studied post grad at Luther Seminary in Minnesota.
The way Peiffer looks at it, though, her poetry isn't about spreading the faith. Her outlook could serve as a model for all religious tension in this sometimes-divisive city.
"I try really hard not to be proselytizing, not to be standing on a pulpit with my beliefs," she says. "I don't think that I know better than anybody else. I think that everybody has an interesting opinion and that if we heard them all, we might get a better picture of what God is."
Peiffer's outsider's view is helpful in getting a better picture of Colorado Springs overall. Happily, it's pretty good.
"I think that Colorado Springs is on the edge of something really brilliant about to burst forth and explode," she says. "I think it's a really amazing time to be a writer and a poet involved in the arts community in Colorado Springs."
With RAW, we do have one more notch in our collective belt. Perhaps most encouraging is RAW's reflexive mission: "We're definitely trying to involve the community in the artists as much as we're trying to expose the artists to the community," says Wilwerding.
It can't hurt that the events are a bit more party than gallery, thanks to the bar-centric locations and dress code. (Invites call for "fashionable attire.") In a way, it's almost more approachable for RAW's target crowd: the young, non-gallery person. But it also adds dimension to its host city, and all the artists looking to find a start.
"The venue was not necessarily ideal for a performance poetry event, but it was really exciting," Peiffer recalls. "I think that the room's attention was curious and captivated, and it was a lot of fun to be in front of that audience who was really charged up about building community in the arts.
"The show was just a lot of fun. It was an easy show to do, there wasn't a lot of pressure and there was an awful lot of encouragement."