We had the good fortune of connecting with Claire Swinford and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Claire, why did you decide to pursue a creative path?
If I could get one thing across to my younger self, or any creatively-inclined high school student today, it would be this: Don’t believe anyone who tells you that there’s a straight line between what you set out to do and where you end up. I could have saved myself a lot of angst as a brainy, ambitious teen if someone wiser had sat me down and explained that you don’t need to find the right path — it will find you. I declared dual majors in journalism and French literature in college, and now I’m doing arts-fueled public engagement programming for a quasigovernmental entity while maintaining a studio practice as a narrative realist painter. Go figure! Between Point A (journalism school) and Point B (pushing local creative industries like Kellogg pushes breakfast cereal) I worked for libraries, newspapers, schools, restaurants, bars, theaters, fundraisers, orchestras and for one memorable summer, a summer camp where they educated students through historical reenactment. (Fun fact: 18th-century fur trader garb is even itchier than you imagine.) The throughline was curiosity. Saying curiosity is essential to living a creative life is not exactly headline-grabbing news, but it is funny how asking questions and seeking new experiences will inexorably move you toward a career that fulfills you creatively — and sometimes in ways you never expected. I never set out to pursue a career in the arts, but I feel fortunate that my two vocations feed each other. It takes a special kind of Type-A weirdo to speak right-brain to the artists and left-brain to elected officials; right-brain for planning special events that bring communities together and left-brain to make all the timelines and stakeholders function efficiently. My studio practice informs my work in the community, and my work in the community gives me a sense of connection and allows me to give back in a way that I wouldn’t have access to as a working painter. That’s such a compelling feedback loop; it’s hard to imagine doing anything else as satisfying.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I always tell people it took me six months after I was hired to understand what my job really was. As Director of Urban Engagement — which, by the way, is a title I made up during my interview — I am broadly responsible for public-benefit programming that uses art and the creative industries to boost civic engagement, cultural vitality and local small business in Downtown Colorado Springs. We’re a quasigovernmental entity, so I work very closely with city, county and state departments as well as nonprofits and the business community to carry out programs and initiatives that ensure our city’s historic downtown continues to be a functioning nucleus to hold the greater Colorado Springs metro area together. We’re a city of 200 square miles, but a lot of that is very decentralized. Downtown is one of only two pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods, and the only state-certified creative district, so we’re working constantly to garner more community support for the artists, artisans and entrepreneurs that call this neighborhood home. On the other hand, we see every day that folks citywide are hungry to participate in the culture of Downtown, so we do just as much work ensuring that folks from every neighborhood, background and walk of life feel welcomed and seen when they arrive here. Part of why I was so confused when I got this job is because my work never looks the same from one week to the next. The owner of the local burger joint (shoutout to Richard at Bingo Burger) and the coffee shop in the park (hi, Don at Story Coffee!) like to tease me by calling me Construction Barbie, because they never know on any given day if I’m going to show up in vintage YSL or a hard hat. In my line of work I wield power tools and drive heavy equipment to do public art installations, plan speaker events featuring international design experts, facilitate marathon planning sessions between community stakeholders and city officials, do publicity for local art galleries and performers, lead cultural walking tours, round up hundreds of volunteers to paint a mural, advise construction firms looking to add public art to their latest projects, and do tons of community outreach to ensure that our programs really do serve and welcome all citizens. The complexity of this work is what makes it so rewarding, but that’s also what makes it the most challenging. I’m one of a staff of nine, so we rely heavily on community partners across a wide range of sectors to make our programs work. Accountability is essential when you’re counting on others to be generous with their time, resources and feedback, and every one of those partners has their own list of priorities and desired outcomes that may not occur to you unless you take the time to really listen and be present. Serving so many different sections of this community is the single greatest source of joy in my work, but I’m also very conscious that I have a duty to those who partner with us, ensuring they are met with clear communication, kindness, and openness to feedback — even and especially when things go counter to expectations! That’s been an important lesson, personally and professionally, as someone who values being able to convince others that she’s completely informed, has a great plan and is totally in control. (Ha!) It also means I’m just a teensy giant bit sensitive to criticism. I think that’s pretty common among people who were bullied as children, but it’s never an asset in a collaborative project setting, which I’ve learned many times to my regret (and to my project partners’ frustration, I’m sure). Being a great collaborator through listening, communicating and letting go of the need to be right is the best thing I’ve learned in my line of work, and it’s something I think I’ll never be done learning.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
First off, we would definitely be planning this dream weekend on the first Friday in June, when the Art on the Streets public art exhibit officially opens to the public. I work with each and every artist who participates, so it’s a real labor of love. Seeing hundreds of people out interacting with the sculptures and murals during the Public Art Scavenger Hunt is such a great portrait of Colorado Springs culture. Plus, it coincides with First Friday Downtown, so the galleries and shops are full of great new art, performances, live demos and music. We’d probably start by grabbing a beer and appetizers at Local Relic at the Carter Payne, which is a food hall housed inside what used to be Colorado Springs’ first historic Black church. (The current owners do a great job telling the history of the Carter brothers and the AME congregation.) Local Relic never makes the same beer twice, and they’ve been kind enough to feature Art on the Streets artists on the labels of some of their brews. Must-see stops on First Friday include GOCA 121, the contemporary art gallery of UCCS; Cottonwood Center for the Arts, which houses over 90 artist studios; the Machine Shop, a design coworking space that has an amazing artist-in-residence program (disclosure: I was an AIR there in 2015); Novis Mortem Collective, an artist co-op specializing in entotaxidermy; Kreuser Gallery, which features a great selection of regional artists; and of course the Modbo and SPQR Art Space, two of the region’s best art galleries that are hidden away in an alley off Bijou Street. From there, it’s an easy choice to stop in at Shame & Regret or District E11even, two craft cocktail bars hidden along that same stretch of alleyway, before soaking up all those beverages with some delicious green chile fries at Odyssey Gastropub. Assuming this friend from out of town is not sleeping in my guest room, I’d absolutely insist they stay at Kinship Landing, which combines all the style and service of a boutique hotel with the quirky fun of a hostel — and yes, they do have private rooms available. Kinship was started by Bobby and Brooke Mikulas, a young local couple who intend their property to be the gateway for Colorado adventurers to the best the Springs has to offer, and their care and curation really shows. Plus, the mural on the north side of the property by Colorado artist Zach Prater is truly stunning. Kinship also happens to be right across the street from Loyal Coffee, one of the best craft coffee shops in the city, so we’d probably head there for cappucinos and croissants before doing a little midmorning shopping. Ladyfingers Letterpress (handmade paper goods and home goods by POC and LGBTQ+ designers) and Moonbeam Clothiers (sustainable, fair-trade fashions) are my can’t-miss stops Downtown, or the Men’s Xchange if I’m shopping with masculine-identifying friends. Proprietor James Proby is a local legend, and for good reason — once you get chatting with him, you won’t want to leave! Assuming, though, that it’s a gorgeous Southern Colorado summer day, we’ll have to quit shopping in order to do the thing that really sets Colorado Springs apart: go from cultured urbanite leisure to stunning mountain trails in just minutes. It’s a quick PikeRide (e-bike share) from Downtown to the West Side, where Garden of the Gods, Red Rocks Canyon and Section 16 offer miles and miles of world-class hiking and mountain biking. Post-ride rehydration happens at Cerberus Brewing, with killer beer slushies and one of the most dog-friendly patios in town, and from there it’s a toss-up whether we head to Front Range BBQ for pulled pork and live blues, or Stellina Pizza for the most delicious old world-style pie and gelato. Either way, we’re finishing the evening at Distillery 291, which won World’s Best Whiskey in 2018 — and for good reason. They also host live music in the barrel room, and their house-made cocktails are good enough to make a night of it, even if you don’t think of yourself as a whiskey person. On Sunday, I’d plan on taking my guest to the stunning outdoor Patrick Marold installation that occupies an empty field just north of the Ent Center for the Arts, placed there by GOCA. That also affords a chance to see the Starr Kempf wind-activated sculptures on Ent’s grounds, which are a renowned and beloved piece of local history. For brunch, it’s hard to beat Shuga’s or Urban Steam, both located on Downtown’s New South End, and in the afternoon there’s nothing better than taking dogs and kayaks up to Quail Lake (beginner-level) or Rampart Reservoir (intermediate). And if you get rained out, it’s an easy choice to head to Lulu’s Downstairs for whoever’s on the concert lineup that evening. Proprietor Marc Benning has killer taste, and the venue is soaked in history. — Tina Turner played there back in the day!
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
A lot of people say Colorado Springs feels weirdly small for its size, but I have experienced the best possible outcomes of that dynamic. So many of my favorite things about living in this city — my job, my studio practice, my partner, where we live — are the direct result of offhand conversations, serendipitous meetings and generous invitations from just the right person at just the right time. Put it another way: “Colorado Springs is the kind of place where if you stick around, you’ll end up with more opportunities than you know what to do with.” I can’t take credit for that line — it comes from Zach McComsey, now CEO of the Legacy Institute — but over and over I’ve found it to be true. My dear friend and mentor, the painter Brett Andrus, came into my life because I was assigned to write a profile on him for the local paper. I wouldn’t have gotten that reporting gig without the kind and patient tutelage of the staff of the Colorado Springs Independent, many of whom remain close friends to this day. The indomitable Susan Edmondson, CEO of Downtown Partnership, was a role model and a wise adviser long before she ever became my boss. I treasure my relationships with Abigail Kreuser (Kreuser Gallery) and Lauren Ciborowski (the Modbo), both of whom have been kind enough to show my paintings in their beautiful galleries, but more importantly, both of whom show up for this community time and time again as arts advocates and leaders. I remain incredulous that any of these smart, accomplished people wanted to spend time on the naive, anxiety-riddled twentysomething I was when I moved to Downtown COS in 2010, but I am unceasingly grateful that they did. Last but not least, a shoutout to my chaotic, perceptive, challenging, adventurous partner, Max Ferguson, who reminds me continually that there’s no such thing as one vocation in a person’s life. We met when I was tending bar and he was performing in the theatre attached to said bar — ironically enough, in an Oscar Wilde play called “An Ideal Husband.” Seven years later, he’s found a new calling in the craft distilling industry and still directs and performs regularly when he’s not working on his first YA novel. He is always my first and most insightful critic. I never imagined spending my life in Colorado Springs, but for warmth, generosity, resourcefulness and inclusion, its creative community is something I’ve never seen equaled anywhere else. To everyone who’s handed me a paintbrush, taken me mountain biking, schooled me in making charcuterie, invited me to their backyard for a concert, plied me with coffee during all-night studio sessions, taught me beekeeping, lent me a weirdly specialized piece of electronic equipment for an art project, let me help them make tinctures for their bar, gifted me seeds and hop rhizomes, or made me an extra in their movie — thank you. You’re what makes COS such an amazingly special place to be a creative.
Photo 2: Aaron Anderson Visuals Photo 3: Chancey Bush, the Gazette