Leilani Derr is celebrating an artistic milestone this weekend — she’s creating her first public mural in Boulder. The mural is focusing on a nonprofit which offers support to those seeking abortion access, and is just one of the many murals that will take shape during Boulder’s fourth annual ARTivism Mural Festival.

"I’ve always had a respect and admiration for the confidence, vulnerability, and audacity of street artists,” Derr said. “As my journey of creating street art is just beginning, I see it as an important medium that offers cultural benefits and beautification while having the ability to spark community dialogue in creative ways.”

This year’s event, which runs Thursday, September 29 through Sunday, October 2, will add 16 new murals to the Boulder cityscape. Made possible by the nonprofit Street Wise Arts, the event will also feature group tours of the city’s street art, spray paint workshops, and installations. 

Getting the community on board with street art, let alone an entire weekend dedicated to it, took some work. The first year of the festival featured 10 mural walls and a few willing sponsors. “I think there were a lot of people that were pretty conservative about art or about allowing art on the building in the early days,” said Leah Brenner Clack, founder and executive director of Street Wise Arts. “The community didn't have a reference point or understand why street art would be valuable.”

A Boulder resident and CU Boulder alumni, Clack was a teen of the ‘90s and influenced by the edgy art she saw on skateboards and concert posters. Throughout her many professional roles within the art community, Clack realized that returning to her more contemporary roots was where she would thrive. Founding Street Wise Arts has allowed Clack to engage with art that brings her back to those edgy influences that shaped who she is, and allows her to help communities engage with art that sends a message.  “I love street art because it allows the community to see artwork that represents something about themselves,” Clack said. “If they’re a person of color or struggling with addiction, seeing a mural that reflects that gives them a sense of belonging.” Ensuring diversity among the festival’s artists is crucial, and Clack prioritizes giving opportunities to those who may not have as much exposure.  “Street art, mural making, and graffiti has largely been dominated by white males in the past,” Clack said. “A lot of that is because women artists of color weren't getting the opportunities to put their art out there. Seeing artists succeed is a big reason why we do what we do.”

For Derr, the mural festival is an opportunity to further the awareness of public art through her mural. “I chose to get involved with Street Wise Art because of their focus on community engagement and art activism,” Derr said. “It’s important for places like Boulder to continue to demonstrate the cultural value of public art.” While reminiscing on the roots of the mural festival, Clack recalls the festival’s second year, which took place during the summer of 2020. As national protests in support of Black Lives Matter erupted across the country, Street Wise Arts joined the conversation using murals.  “We were able to provide a platform for artists to use their voices and also provide a way for people to experience art in a safe way, due to the pandemic,” Clack said.

While the mural festival may be the marquee event of Street Wise Arts, Clack hopes to see growth in another key aspect of the nonprofit’s efforts — working with students in Boulder through youth programming and exposure to street art. Through artist mentorships, students explore awareness of social issues and how to use street art as a platform while building community, collaboration and mutual respect. “I think by doing this work with students, I just think it's inevitable that we grow as a community and to combat all of the social injustices that are out there and just to be a more accepting and diverse community,” Clack said.

This year’s mural festival is also in collaboration with the Denver-based Denver Digerati to bring augmented reality and projection mapping to the festival. As a hub for street art, Denver's RiNo District helps bring awareness to the art scene in Colorado. While places like New York City hold the crown for street art capitols, Clack believes that the wave of awareness and appreciation of street art in Colorado is well on its way. “I think the art community in Colorado in general is so supportive and collaborative and beautiful in that way,” Clack said. “I really think that artwork is a way that we can connect as human beings in a way that's a really pure form.”

Boulder’s mural festival headquarters are located at 1909 Broadway #100 in Boulder, Colorado. Start your journey through Boulder’s street art here, and visit Street Wise Boulder for more information.