The intent of the stay-at-home order is clear: To keep people away from one another and from the novel coronavirus unless going out is essential.
Is art essential?
Leon Gallery’s artistic director Eric Dallimore hopes creativity can be a balm at a time when Denverites are fighting a potentially deadly virus with isolation, even as the isolation means “their mental health and their emotional health is being strained.”
Dallimore is not inviting people to gather at his nonprofit gallery and event space at 1112 East 17th Avenue, or even go out of their way to come by. But starting April 22, if you are in the neighborhood, perhaps on the way to or from picking up a latte to-go from Link Coffee Bar next door, Dallimore has something to offer if you glance Leon’s way.
From April 22 to May 4, while the gallery doors will remain closed to the public, a Jared D.P. Anderson installation will be visible through the broad windows facing 17th. Camille Shortridge rotates in May 6 through May 18. By the time Michael Dowling takes a turn for a week starting May 20, Dallimore is hoping the stay-at-home order will have been eased enough for people to linger one at a time by appointment outside while Dowling, sitting inside, sketches their portraits.
“It’s something to do to give back to our community,” Dallimore said of his plan to offer “beauty amongst all this kind of dark chaos. It’s such a quiet chaos in a way, because we’re all stuck at home.”
Leon Gallery executive director Eric Nord said the idea hearkens back to a late 2016 show at Leon by prolific multimedia artist Jonathan Saiz.
“He changed up the windows almost every day,” Nord said. With the upcoming shows “if people are out getting exercise or are on the way to the grocery store, they have something interesting for the journey.”
Dallimore said he was inspired in part by what Brendan Picker has been doing further west since opening The Storeroom gallery in 2018 in what was once a storeroom for Vine Street Pub at 1700 Vine St., and by other artists’ and curators’ responses to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re all trying to figure out our way through this,” he said.
Dallimore had toyed with the idea of a window display and initially discarded it. Then friends urged him on, some texting to say they were tired of only looking at art on a cell phone or computer.
Still, Dallimore is uneasy at having artists come to the gallery to install their work. He has plans for keeping the person-to-person interaction to a minimum. He’s left a lockbox at the back door so the artists can let themselves in, and a container of wipes nearby for cleaning the box and the door knobs as they enter and leave. He’s given the gallery a thorough cleaning and asked the artists not to bring anyone along when they visit.
“We’re essentially letting the artists into the space to do their own thing,” Dallimore said.
Anderson, the first artist to take over, said he feels as at home at Leon as he does at the Barnum house where he’s been spending the lock-down with sculptor and illustrator Kalindi DeFrancis, who is his wife, and their dog.
“It’s like my little satellite home,” Anderson said of Leon. “I feel safe in there. I like the idea of being in there.”
People who come by on the first day of his show will likely see Anderson painting directly on Leon’s walls. Later, he plans to add some of the 200 or so drawings he’s produced since the stay-at-home began. Anyone who sees a drawing he or she likes through the windows is invited to take a picture, email the image to Anderson and, if so moved, make a donation via Venmo or by slipping some cash through Leon’s mail slot.
“I’ll just take it down and send it to them and hang up new ones,” Anderson said. “I’ll probably just mail them out to people.”
He describes the drawings he’s been doing as something to hold onto in uncertain times.
“Art knows what it is and what it’s about,” he said. “I’m just offering a little quietude and peace.”
Dallimore has nudged artists toward using or re-use existing pieces because he doesn’t want any unnecessary trips to hardware or art stores. But that’s just a suggestion.
“I think a big mistake of some curators and even some collectors is they tell artists, ‘You have to do it this way,'” Dallimore said.
Nord lives above the coffee shop next door. He can keep an eye on things, but says he doesn’t have to.
“A lot of the people we work with, they feel like family,” Nord said. “The way we operate in the community and the way people see us is, ‘We’re all in this together.’ People respect that.”
The window installations could be a dress rehearsal for a May performance art festival that Nord is putting together for Leon. Five performances will be offered online, but Nord said artists are welcome to record their pieces in or livestream them from the gallery.
Nord said artists are responding to the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus in instructive ways.
“Part of your training in art school is you’re given strict criteria to work with and it’s about, ‘How do you create within those limitations?'” Nord said. “It helps you think differently and come up with solutions.”
The series by Anderson, Shortridge and Dowling at Leon is called “Please stand by.” Dallimore hopes that will get viewers thinking about what will come after the pandemic has passed.
“We’re going to be back,” Dallimore said. “You’re going to be able to see and participate in wonderful things.”
We’ll be following Leon throughout the pandemic.