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//Cindy Loya, Denver artist, paints a portrait of Ynés Mexía on the window of Hope Tank gift shop in Denver on March 6. Photo by Polina Saran | polinasarana@gmail.com

As lockdown orders went into effect last year, Erika Righter of Hope Tank gift shop on Broadway was one of many shop owners who boarded up her windows. However, she wanted to bring a little color to what was otherwise a dark time. Through crowdfunding, she commissioned artists to paint the boards that went over her windows. The fund later helped other shop owners on Broadway to decorate their windows as the stay-at-home order went into effect. 

The boards have since come down but the experience of raising money to support artists stayed with her. That’s why with the help of some local businesses, she’s launching a new mural series that will revolve around progressive themes and underrepresented figures. 

“We’re always going to prioritize artists of color and women, or LGBTQ, BIPOC artists,” Righter said. “And also, artists who people haven’t necessarily heard about.” 

Instead of boards covering storefronts, Righter will commission an artist each month to paint the windows of her store. Each month’s painting will reflect a different theme. For women’s history month, Righter wanted to feature a woman of color. April’s theme will be environmental justice.

Artist Cindy Loya kicked off the series on March 6 with a portrait of Ynés Mexía, a Mexican-American Botanist. Mexía was a renowned scientist. She undertook excursions to Mexico and traveled down the Amazon River by canoe, amongst other places. Overall, she collected at least 145,000 specimens over a 13-year career. And this career she started later in life, at the age of 52. She died in 1938.

Loya found out about Mexía from a book she was reading to her daughter. Like Loya, Mexía was born in the United States but lived in Mexico. She was bilingual, same as Loya. The fact that Mexía was Mexican-American did not hold her back. Loya instantly felt connected to her. 

“She’s an incredible woman,” Loya said. “She found her passion at 52 years old, which is unheard of. Usually, if you don’t have your passion by the time you’re 18 in college, you’re done for. Me, returning to college when I was 34, I realized that if the passion was still there, it’s ok to take my time and finish on my own terms.”

Putting up the work was a team effort. Loya provided the talent and Righter provided the wall space, but they still needed the capital. Righter wanted to provide artists with more than exposure as compensation. That would be tricky because her store’s finances were being battered by the pandemic. As a single mom whose only source of income was the store, she would need help to pay the artists anything. However, Righter was adamant that if it came between not doing the project or offering exposure as compensation, then she preferred not doing the project at all.

Fortunately, Righter has a large Facebook following. She pitched the idea to her community of fellow activists and the response was positive. Aside from receiving interest from several artists, she was also able to lock down three sponsors for three different sets of art. Stephanie Salazar-Rodriguez was the first sponsor. She loved the idea of featuring Mexía for Women’s History Month. 

“She was a Mexican-American woman, and some of the work that she did was also organizing in Colorado, Mexico and Peru,” Salazar-Rodriquez said. “I saw her as an environmental activist who worked through earthquakes, really just to get the work done.” 

As someone who has experienced ageism in the workforce, Mexía’s story spoke to Salazar-Rodriguez. She was laid off from her job last February at the Mile High House Alliance where she was the director of community engagement and regional health connector for four years. Rather than deal with ageism in the workforce, she chose to expand her side hustle of consulting into a full-time job. 

Through the sponsorship, Righter was able to pay Loya $500 for her work. Furthermore, the sponsorship has a beneficial knockback effect which Righter was eager about. She hopes she can direct some attention back to the businesses, such as Salazar-Rodriguez’s, that are providing the money for the artwork. And the first three sponsors are all women-owned businesses. Salazar-Rodriguez’s business, Blazing Cloud Consulting LLC, focuses on equity and inclusion in public health. Keo Frazier, April’s sponsor, is a brand and marketing strategist. Finally, Megan Ivy and her wife will split the cost of the sponsorship between their two real estate businesses for May. 

Although she’s only covered through May, Righter hopes to attract more sponsors so she can continue hosting artwork for a full 12 months. Righter grew up in the art world and is very personally connected to art. When the pandemic began, she had a lot of friends who lost their art gigs. She’s also seen a lot of small businesses like hers struggle to keep their doors open. By leveraging her connections, Righter hopes opportunities like connecting artists to patrons or driving customers to a small business can come out of it. Community is how they get stuff done, she said. 

“It’s about mutual aid, that is how we’ve always survived,” Righter said. “It’s especially how we’ve survived COVID. It’s like, I have this, you have this, I need this, and we all find a creative way to have our needs met, collectively.”

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//Video by Polina Saran