Wall murals for public awareness programs and other special events add character to U.S. communities, and in Northern Colorado the creative voice of mural artists like Jennie Milner are becoming well known, well loved, and well appreciated.
Milner, who lives in Loveland, Colorado, creates wall murals with distinctive, cartoon-like characters. While lighthearted in imagery, the message of the art is often quite serious.
For residents in the towns of Fort Collins, Colorado and Loveland, her murals dot the towns’ landscapes.
For instance, her murals line the walls of schools and offices in Fort Collins. And in April 2019, she painted a mural for a special exhibit at the Lincoln Center of Fort Collins. In Loveland, she will begin a new mural in late September.
Her stand-alone paintings, quirky wooden houses, and jewelry also adorn galleries and art-focused businesses like Wadoo in Fort Collins.
Wall Murals in Colorado
But Milner’s growing public art reputation also takes her outside Colorado’s Front Range to cities like Denver and Arvada. When the Denver Art Museum held a fundraiser to support renovations, the organization invited Milner into a fun event for patrons. She painted a wall mural of black outlined-figures and then handed patrons champagne flutes with paint and paintbrushes. They filled in her outlines with the hues, giving them a chance to interact and leave their mark.
To find out more about Milner and her art (because I’ve long been a fan), I met her in her Loveland-based studio at Artworks Loveland. Studios line hallways attached to this contemporary art gallery filled with abstract paintings and sculptures. Each studio has a large metal door that slides open to reveal garage-like spaces.
In Milner’s studio, large boards from disassembled murals lined the walls. Crates of odd metal parts and other collected items (Milner also sculpts) sat around the floor. There was so much interesting stuff sitting in stacks and piles I didn’t know where to look first.
I pointed to a couple of abstract paintings with wet paint sitting on the floor and told her I liked them.
“Not sure what exactly I’m focusing on at the moment,” she said as her eyes scanned the assorted works-in-progress.
Wall Art in Ajo, Arizona
I first asked her about a project that she completed in Ajo, Arizona (pronounced ‘ah ho’) last year. The mural received a lot of attention from her fans and the media.
Located only 43 miles from the Mexico border, Ajo sits amidst three cultures—white American, Mexican, and Tohono O’odham. The Sonoran desert surrounds the town, and migrants crossing the border try to navigate this inhospitable terrain on foot. It is often a deadly journey because the hot, dry desert soars to over 100 degrees and offers no food or water.
Wall Murals for Samaritans
The annual mural festival sponsored by the International Sonoran Desert Alliance seeks to connect these cultures while supporting immigrants. Maria Singleton, Milner’s friend and fellow artist, invited Milner to participate in the mural festival.
Singleton volunteers with the Samaritans, a group that brings water jugs, food, socks, and blankets to the desert for the migrants. (See my article, Help The Migrants.) Since 2001 , it is estimated that over 12,000 people have died in the Sonoran attempting to cross it. I asked Milner how she felt she contributed to Ajo and the harsh reality surrounding the town. (See No More Deaths for more information on Samaritans.)
She raised her voice slightly with emotion: “I feel I did right by the Samaritans.”
After a few seconds she added, “Also,I wanted to paint something upbeat, especially for the kids. That’s why I paint in a cartoon-like style.”
Waters jugs fill the painted space to show the good work of the Samaritans. It also has a large jackrabbit, which symbolizes the immigrant—a figure without a color or race. While many artworks tend to portray tortured images of the immigrant experience, and even the death of migrants, Milner said she wanted to show something more positive.
Also painting by the coffeeshop, which many of the Samaritans frequent, she wanted to honor them and their volunteer work.
Jackrabbits are an interesting choice, and I wondered how and why she chose that image. Milner opened a sketchbook to show me her many doodles of a jackrabbit. Her black and white line drawings inspire her, and some, like this rabbit, make it into her murals. The jackrabbit image began well before the mural and worked its way into her design.
Doodles from Sketchbooks
Like many artists, sketches made while not thinking of anything specific are an integral part of Milner’s artworks. She carries a sketchbook with her always and draws constantly. The prolific artist started her sketchbook practice early, when she was 9 years old. Her father died by suicide and an art therapist gave her a book and told her to draw her thoughts.
But why murals? I asked.
“This is going to sound strange, but when I walk past a blank wall, I start to draw it in my head,” she said.
As I glanced around Milner’s studio, I noticed part of a removable mural set against a wall. She explained that the mural, called “Drowning in Prescriptions” was for the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities. The theme centered on the opiate epidemic. She had cut down the wood panels to use for other projects devoted to overdose awareness programs.
Again, she used whimsical figures for this mural, yet conveyed a serious message. This combination of whimsy with life-and-death topics presents a unique challenge for any artist. Milner rises to the challenge.
Suicide Awareness Wall Art
Before I left, Milner invited me to her next upcoming mural project in Loveland. Sponsored by Clear Lighthouse, a nonprofit holistic mental health community center in Loveland. Its theme is suicide awareness.
One of the hardest topics of all, but I know with Milner, it’s in capable and talented hands. This is a topic that personally affected Milner’s life, and my life as well. It’s a problem disproportionately impacting Coloradoans ages 18 to 24.
If you are in Northern Colorado, come participate in the making of the mural, or watch it unfold. The event takes place Sept. 21-22 from 10 a..m. to 2 p.m. at Backyard Tap in downtown Loveland.
Article and photographs by Lynn S. Schwebach.
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