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The archive room at 701 Gallery. Photo courtesy of 701 Gallery.

At Denver’s 701 Gallery, Creativity Comes Alive

The contemporary gallery near the Art District on Santa Fe gathers artists to experiment with wild ideas.

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Drive east through Denver on Sixth Avenue and you’re bound to spot the mural. Right now, it’s white and pink with giant skulls, on the side of a garage behind a narrow brick building you otherwise wouldn’t notice. The building sits close to the sidewalk, just inches from the street, on the corner of Sixth and Galapago, across from St. Joseph Catholic Parish. Its French front doors face the heart of the intersection, street numbers across the crossbeam. This is 701 Gallery.

The brainchild of Ramona Burns and Todd Duane Miller, 701 Gallery opened in 2015 and has grown into a space that exhibits art, fosters community, and sparks creativity. Ramona funds the gallery with her job as an interior designer for Humphries Poli Architects. She and Todd live there. Up until a few weeks ago, they spent most nights in the back room, but St. Patrick’s Day weekend, they were camping out in the gallery when a teenager in a minivan plowed through the back room’s wall, throwing rocks from the side of the street through the fence outside and bricks onto the area they normally slept. The hole in the wall is covered in plastic now, ready to be rebuilt. They joke about turning it into a drive-thru window for people to come and order artwork the way they would a cheeseburger and fries.

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Ramona and Todd came to Denver from Las Vegas, but they’re originally from small neighboring towns in Illinois, north of St. Louis, that have little (if any) art scene. In high school, Todd would skip school and travel to St. Louis to check out museums with a friend. Before long, looking at the art turned into reading all the placards. He credits his student delinquency for his knowledge of art history.

The afternoon I visited 701, the sky was its typical shade of Denver blue and a slight chill was in the air. Traffic rushed down Sixth Avenue, the noise slightly muffled by the gallery’s walls. The sun beamed through tall windows, illuminating the inside walls, where a series of psychedelic oil paintings by Chad Max Fay hung. Most of the paintings were of faces, all in wild colors, many with glowing eyes. Then Ramona opened the camera on her phone, inverted its color setting, and held it up in front of the paintings. The colors reversed on the screen and the paintings almost came alive, intense and nearly three-dimensional. Fay used digital technology to guide his color inversion when painting.

“He’s so good at painting what he sees that the effect works brilliantly,” Todd says.

This level of skill has become the norm for 701—and the gallery’s artistic community is developing even more, while providing space for art that defies definition to be shown and sold. Every Thursday night, 701 hosts free art nights, opening its doors for anyone with a creative idea to come, work, experiment, and eat pizza in the company of other artists. The events started in 2015 after Todd and Ramona attended an art night elsewhere in Denver and felt unwelcome the whole time. They set out to make 701’s art nights the complete opposite, providing food and a friendly atmosphere that greets everyone like they would their neighbors back in Illinois.

“I come to art night religiously,” says Val Burnside, a photographer and sculptor and baker who credits 701 Gallery for keeping her in Denver. “It’s like church for me.”

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When she came for the first time, Burnside was nervous. “I always go out and do things, but I would find it very hard to break the ice and get to know people,” she says. “At 701, the artists do it for you.” Walk in, and you can expect people to turn to the door, say, “Hi!” and offer you a chair.

Burnside has lived in a lot of places—moving doesn’t faze her—and last fall, she was thinking about leaving Denver for California. She told Todd and Ramona to give her a reason to stay. A couple weeks ago, she signed a lease to live in 701’s neighborhood. “I decided to stay because what we were doing at the gallery … and what I see in the talent of the other artists there is something I want to be a part of,” she says.

“It’s not a collective and it’s not a group and there’s no membership, but it’s an environment,” says Gabriel Gutierrez, a frequent art night attendee whose work 701 took on the road last year to the LA Art Show.

Gutierrez works as a graphic designer, but before he started going to 701’s art nights, he didn’t draw regularly. He felt jaded toward the art world, and he didn’t know what he wanted his artwork to say. “I thought to make powerful, good art, you’d have to have some sort of unique, deep message,” he says.

In October 2017, he did a joint show at 701 with friend and fellow artist Chris Loge that united around the theme of monsters. Gutierrez’s work focused on the more mundane parts of life: He drew movie monsters from the mid-1900s in ordinary scenes—at the DMV, washing dishes at the kitchen sink, shoveling snow. Rather than being deep and profound, Mundane Monsters was relatable and humorous.

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Humor is a common theme through a lot of the work displayed at 701. In the gallery’s archive room, where past exhibited work is available for purchase, the sense of humor covers three walls. A collage pokes fun at a shirtless Ernest Hemingway. Wild portraits of women and their lookalike dogs stare down sharply. More monsters. It’s art you’re supposed to laugh at or at least find amusing.

The mural on the back of 701’s garage is a temporary installment. In a couple months, they’ll enlist another artist to paint a new one, providing all of the necessary materials and food to get it done. The artist who made the current mural had never done one before and landed two mural-painting jobs in other cities as a result of the project—an example of how 701 encourages artists to explore their creativity in new ways.

“As a creative, you can’t create and compose your best work in a vacuum,” Gutierrez says. “You need other people to bounce your ideas off of.”

For Gutierrez and Burnside and the other artists who show up each Thursday night, 701 Gallery has become the place to forge their creative ideas, experiment with different mediums, and share their work with others. Some weeks, Todd will show them how to do wet plate photography or forge metal in the garage. Other weeks, there’s little structure, but conversation flows and creativity begets creativity. One person’s inspiration sparks a wildfire of ideas, and before long, the space is blazing with creative work.

If you go: 701 Gallery’s latest show, featuring typographical work by Todd Duane Miller and Jonny Light, opens on April 5 with a celebration from 6–10 p.m. 701 W Sixth Ave.

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