LAFAYETTE — One of the metro area's largest grassroots residential art projects started with a simple stroll down an alley.

Lafayette resident John Weise was out walking a dog with a friend when he noticed that one of his neighbors had painted her garage door with a fanciful mural. As he admired the colorful swath of abstract flowers and clouds, Weise had an idea.

"I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could have some sort of alley art program that was both a social event and an art event, with neighbors helping out neighbors to make our town more beautiful?' " he said.

A mural on a garage expresses gratitude to John Weise for his idea to beautify alleys.
A mural on a garage expresses gratitude to John Weise for his idea to beautify alleys. (Photos by Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post)

Weise, an 81-year-old retired lawyer, doesn't have any particular love of the arts. But he does have a deep sense of community and an ability to get things done. Less than three years after his fateful alley stroll, 39 garages, sheds and backyard fences in Lafayette's Old Town have become canvases for a volunteer public art project that Weise has dubbed Alley Art Amazin'.

The project is so popular that a dozen homeowners and businesses are on a waiting list for murals this summer.

"This is a device that seems to attract people and get them quite involved," Weise said.

Five local artists serve as Weise's backyard Botticellis, volunteering an average of 50 to 60 hours per year each to paint the free murals on the homes and businesses that line Lafayette's historic alleys.

"We all have families and jobs, but we also want to be involved in the art scene around Lafayette. I think we're really changing the face of the city," said Tiffany Choate, one of the volunteer artists.

The murals range from a Japanese motif of birds and branches to the lyrics of the John Lennon song "Imagine." Giant, stylized sunflowers sprout on a garage next door to a bald eagle soaring through a forest — an enlarged version of one of the homeowner's own paintings.

A giant-sunflower mural at 303 W. Simpson St. Photos by Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post
A giant-sunflower mural at 303 W. Simpson St. Photos by Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post

Weise's own alley fence sports a puffy, whimsical rooster surveying a farmhouse, while down the street, a giant blue tentacle pokes out of a Monet-style lily pond adorning a garage.

One thing all of the murals have in common is that they look professional. The artists work closely with homeowners to incorporate design elements they want, while steering them away from inappropriate images or jarring color schemes.

"Ideally, we'd love to draw an outline, and then they finish the project, but it's hard to convince people that they can paint, so we end up doing a lot of the painting," Choate said. "We want people to really feel like the art is theirs. It's more enjoyable to say, 'I did this too.' "

A mural of a family watching the sun set behind the mountains at 403 W. Cleveland St.
A mural of a family watching the sun set behind the mountains at 403 W. Cleveland St.

Financing for the project is also a community endeavor, coordinated by Weise. The Lafayette Old Town Association Residents' Committee promotes it and last year donated $1,000 earned from home and garden tours for artist stipends.

Homeowners, an artists' cooperative, pARTiculars, and the Boulder County hazardous materials recycling center contribute leftover paint. The city's cultural arts commission donates $1,000 a year for supplies; sealant to protect the artwork; and ladder rentals, plus other incidentals. The city also prints a brochure with a map of the art for walkers and publishes a page about it on the city's website.

Jenn Ooton, executive director of the Lafayette Urban Renewal Authority, said not o nly does the public art help cut down on graffiti, but it also promotes community spirit.

Detail of a mural at 201 E. Cleveland St.
Detail of a mural at 201 E. Cleveland St.

"You drive down the street and see the art, and it puts a smile on your face," she said. "It gives you something to talk about with your neighbors."

For a list of artwork and addresses go to cityoflafayette.com and click the "arts and culture" link under "services"

Color your neighborhood

Want to start a public art project in your neighborhood? Lafayette's experts had some tips.

Follow the rules. Check to see if there are any city or homeowners' association regulations that affect your project. In Lafayette, the city requires that artwork on businesses in the historic downtown be covered with anti-graffiti sealant.

Get the space right. Consider alley or backyard projects, which are less visible and thus less potentially objectionable to neighbors.

Get to know local artists. One of the alley artists is a barista at the coffee shop near founder John Weise's house. Another is his neighbor.

Don't forget the business aspect. You'll need someone who can coordinate homeowners' and artists' schedules, and potentially solicit grants and market the project.

Knock on doors. Tiffany Choate and her fellow artists roam the alleys looking for building and fence "canvasses," and then pitch the project to the homeowner or business. Weise also hired a local student to distribute fliers about the project.

Make it easy. All Alley Art Amazin' murals are free to residents and businesses.

Incorporate framed art. Large paintings can be hung on structures where the owners don't want permanent art.