Salamander Stink and the Haunted Handshake

The mural by artist Conor Mullen is titled “Salamander Stink and the Haunted Handshake.” The piece incorporates shared memories of sights and sounds of the LaBonte Park.

Editor’s note: This article was originally intended for this year’s Progress edition, but due to space limitations, did not appear. We present it now as an addendum. Please also note that this is primarily an overview and that there are a number of arts-related organizations in addition to those mentioned in this article.

It has been especially strange and difficult for everyone, including the arts community, which has historically relied on in-person interactions and community participation in order to flourish. March 2020 brought empty venues, museums, and exhibits. Art museums began posting virtual tours, and entertainers gave intimate peeks into their homes as they performed from their living spaces.

The Albany County arts sector has met this trying time with creativity and resiliency that has buoyed the communities through these lonesome months. For years, Laramie has been home to a burgeoning art scene, and not even a pandemic could squash its spirit.

PERFORMING ARTS

Gryphon Theatre, is a historic venue with an 850-person capacity, and a cornerstone of Laramie’s performing arts scene. Over the last year, these 850 seats have sat largely empty. Their website homepage reads, “Shows coming soon. Hang in there, Laradise.” But local music fans could catch glimpses of this iconic venue in Bob Lefevre & The Already Gone’s music video for their single “Raven Lee,” which was filmed there in the fall of 2020. As more citizens receive vaccinations, “Laradise” is certainly eager to fill those seats once again.

The University of Wyoming performing arts departments have engaged in many virtual performances over the last year. Programming for the university’s ensembles has been rearranged to accommodate limited personnel on stage, diminished rehearsal times, and lack of live audiences. In late January, the UW Symphony Orchestra (UWSO) performed Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring to an audience watching via livestream. At the time, Michael Griffith, director of orchestral activities at UW, had noted that he chose the piece of music because it was originally written for a small number of performers. Despite the strangeness of playing to an empty room, Griffith insisted that the act of performing was still incredibly essential.

“There is something special about a bunch of individuals working hard and then gathering in a space to put it together for one moment in time. There’s almost a spiritual quality to that moment,” Griffith said in a January interview with the Boomerang.

“Playing music and performing is just what we do,” he added.

“This year, we’ve been cramming old ways of doing things into new ways and technologies,” said Robert Belser, conductor of the UW Wind Symphony. Previous methods of teaching music have had to adapted, reconfigured, and invented to offer the best possible experience for students and audiences. He likened this to cramming “old wine” into “new bottles.” Belser said that he and the performers are all looking forward to the (hopefully) near future of getting back to offering “old wine” in their original live performance “bottles.”

In that same spirit, other UW theater performances were relegated to the virtual world. In February 2021, the UW theater department performed Qui Nguyen’s popular comedy-adventure, “She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms.” The performance was broadcast over Zoom, and each actor was in their own separate rooms. The UW theater department put on four different virtual performances since the summer of 2020. “She Kills Monsters” was their fifth virtual performance.

“It was super innovative and unique,” said Carson Almand, a musical theater student at UW and member of the production’s cast.

Relative Theatrics is another cornerstone of the performing arts scene in Laramie, and they have also sought more virtual pastures over the last year.

However, not every performance went virtual this year. The Laramie High School Theatre Guild performed a version of Noël Coward’s famous play, Blithe Spirit. Rather than livestream, they decided to perform with limited audience and a completely masked cast. In an interview with the Boomerang, young cast members noted that performing in a mask presented unique challenges. Rather than relying on facial expressions, they had to use their bodies to express their emotions and to hit their comedic marks.

“Theater is all about adapting and working with what you have,” Almand said. COVID-19 restrictions undoubtedly put that to the test over the past year. This year has been an absolute thrill ride of creative problem solving. Community members have been left asking, “How will a symphony perform? How will a Greek play translate to a virtual realm? How can this all possibly work?”

Despite all odds and despite the plethora of reasons to close the curtains, these artists have powered through and prevailed. It is true what they say: the show must go on.

VISUAL ARTS

One of the cornerstones visual arts in Laramie is undoubtedly the UW Art Museum. Nicole Crawford is the director and chief curator of the UW Art Museum, and has been with the museum for nearly 12 years. She said that next year, the museum will be celebrating its 50th year.

“Almost 50 years ago, it started out in a basement of the UW art building,” Crawford said. She explained that it began as a bulletin board, and has since grown into the museum the community knows today.

“In Laramie, artists are very much supported and they support each other. That’s not the case everywhere and it’s really something special,” Crawford said.

The pandemic has not been easy. Crawford said that art is something that people tend to socialize around. Typically when the museum has a new exhibit, they have a reception and a community gathering. This allows people to come together to discuss the art. Over the past year, the museum has not been hosting any parties or events. She hopes that they will be able to start thinking about having an opening with a party and visitors in the near future.

“Art provides a safe space to have difficult conversations. It’s a personal experience, but it’s also important to be able to engage with others about their experiences,” Crawford said. She added that the transition out of COVID-19 lockdown will be interesting, and she is excitedly looking to the future. However, one positive thing that has come from the pandemic is that many museums have put their collections in the digital universe. This has resulted in their reaching broader audiences.

“I want to make this art museum a beacon for the West,” Crawford said of her overall vision for the future of the UW Art Museum. She hopes to accomplish that by providing outstanding programming, and engaging with contemporary, local, regional, and international artists and exhibits.

PUBLIC ART

In addition to the art museum, Laramie also has a rich tradition of public art. In 2013, the City of Laramie partnered with the Laramie Beautification Committee, the Laramie Main Street Alliance and the UW Art Museum to seek grant funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Wyoming Arts Council, and the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund to develop a strategic plan for public art. Following this effort, the city approved a resolution in 2015 to adopt an official public art plan to support the incorporation of art into public spaces throughout the city.

Prior to this adoption, the community was already engaged in significant public art projects, including the Laramie Mural Project, which was started in 2011. This project has birthed many of Laramie’s most iconic and enduring public art pieces, including an in-progress mural titled “Wild West (Social) Justice” by artist Adrienne Vetter. This mural incorporates images of the UW Black 14 and the action angels who blocked the Westboro Baptist Church protestors at the Matthew Shepard murder trials.

Currently, the Laramie Mural Project is co-hosted by the Laramie Main Street Alliance and the Laramie Public Art Coalition (LPAC). LPAC’s stated mission is to the enhance the vibrancy of Laramie and Albany County in a way that encourages participation and engagement from the entire community. Laura McDermit is the new executive director of LPAC, and she feels strongly that everyone should have access to art.

“Public art is free,” McDermit said. She added that this past pandemic year has made being outside even more important and necessary. She believes that, when done properly, public art is a representation of the soul of a community, and is especially important because everyone can easily access it.

“It’s really important to listen to the community to learn what they want to see and have memorialized,” McDermit said. One of the first projects she worked on at LPAC was a mural at the skate park in LaBonte Park that she felt captured the essence of collaborative public art.

The mural by artist Conor Mullen is titled “Salamander Stink and the Haunted Handshake.” The piece incorporates shared memories of sights and sounds of the park. Mullen engaged with community members and representatives from organizations including Feeding Laramie Valley, Friends of Laramie Skatepark, Laramie Interfaith, and Laramie Youth Crisis Center. The inclusivity of the community inspired a tapestry of imagery that Mullen used to inspire the piece, which was completed in 2020.

“That was the first project I saw from start to finish,” McDermit said, adding that Mullen was an incredibly thoughtful artist, which made the experience even better.

McDermit noted that not only is public art about community building, but it is also an economic driver.

“It boosts tourism and provides new energy into spaces,” she said.

After her first year on the job, McDermit is thinking about the next five years of the organization. Her overarching goal is to make LPAC into the most dynamic public arts organization in the Mountain West. She also hopes to find diverse and sustainable funding. She explained that, in times of economic hardship, the arts are usually the first thing on the chopping block, and so funding will be a high priority. Additionally, she hopes to build an artist-in-residence program, and bolster input and participation from the community.

McDermit said that she has also started to collaborate with Relative Theatrics’ founder, Anne Mason, to form a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) coalition. They hope to look for ways to make the future of the arts in Laramie a more diverse and inclusive environment.

“If anyone wants to participate in this process, we would love to have community members reach out,” McDermit said. While the coalition is in its nascent stages and does not yet have a website, community members can reach out to her though the LPAC site at www.laramiepublicart.org or Mason at www.relativetheatrics.com.

This year has been a perfect storm of public health crisis and economic hardship. Citizens have had to adjust to new and unprecedented ways of existing. Performers and artists in the community have also had to answer this call to endure in creative ways. Through it all, community artists and art professionals have provided the community with beauty, respite, and the vessels to engage in difficult conversations during troubling times. They have been a rock through this tempestuous storm, and a testament to the enduring progress of the arts in our community.

“Can you imagine a world without art? What kind of world would that be?” McDermit said. Thankfully, we won’t have to find out because the arts are as strong as ever in Albany County.

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