When Denver gift shop owner Erika Righter asked her Facebook friends if anyone wanted to sponsor a muralist to paint Hope Tank’s front window during Women’s History month, the response showed her how powerful a small community can be.
Righter, whose store’s sales plummeted as foot traffic along Broadway in the usually busy Baker neighborhood disappeared in the pandemic, found enough sponsors to turn the idea into a themed project featuring a female artist of color each month. The latest, focusing on Earth Day, was just finished over the weekend. But even though Hope Tank’s revenues are still about half what they used to be, this wasn’t about the store, per se. The community activist doesn’t make a cent off the sponsor, whose $500 goes to the artist.
It’s about what she calls “mutual aid.”
“The idea of sponsoring an artist and knowing that you’re directly impacting that person and their family, (this) is a very different kind of sponsorship,” said Righter, a single mother of two whose philosophy of social impact infuses the store. “They not only help the artists but they’re helping me. I’m not in the position to pay people what they deserve to be paid right now for art. The only way I was going to do this is if they get paid.”
Small businesses were forced to pivot last year like no other year. But it wasn’t as easy for brick-and-mortar retailers to jump online only to find themselves competing with the Amazons and Etsys of the world.
Righter kept her focus on “gifts that give back” and leaned into her community. They leaned back.
“It’s absolutely the small-business sector. It’s Erika, it’s Tran Wills from Base Coat Nail. It’s Jim from Mutiny,” said Alicia DeOlivera Cardenas, owner of Sol Tribe, a tattoo and piercing studio and store a few doors south of Hope Tank. “We wouldn’t be (staying) if it wasn’t a great thing to invest in — the community and Erika and the support system we have and hoping that Broadway bounces back.”
She said Righter keeps her informed about available grants and loans, including the Paycheck Protection Program loan that has helped her own business. Sol Tribe spent most of the past year operating with capacity restrictions, moving to an appointment-only business and battling the landlord who was unwilling to budge on monthly rent.
With like-minded business owners on her block, Cardenas said she’s found support and was able to take a step back to reexamine her own business practices.
“It’s also been very revealing and helping me reprioritize the business around wellness and not so much around revenue,” she said. “I’m not trying to make a million dollars. I’m trying to make a business last and survive and suffice so that people here can make a good living.”
The window mural project
Hope Tank’s latest project helps artists make some money. Sponsors get a little promotion for their own businesses. And Hope Tank gets a fresh new window each month as potential shoppers return.
“Even during the process, while the artists have been painting, people just stop,” said Righter, who is open to new potential sponsors and continues to hear from artists interested in participating. “This particular one, I have had more people say, even while Jannah (Farooque) was painting, say, ‘This is such a blessing.’ That’s not something you hear every day.”
On Saturday, artist Farooque put the finishing touches on her piece in her nod to Earth Day. Farooque’s sponsor, Keo Frazier, was thrilled to support a Black artist and the environment.
Frazier, a marketing consultant, founded New Thinkers, an organization for people working on solutions to the world’s problems. She picked environmental justice as the mural theme to coincide with Earth Day and her own group’s meeting this month.
“If we’re not seeking to make the world a better place than how we found it then why are we wasting our time being here?” said Frazier, who is also vice president of communications and engagement at Emily Griffith Technical College. “Erika embodies that. Hope Tank embodies that. … And when she posted on social media that she wanted to do this project, I was like, ‘Yes, I’ll sponsor a window and artists. I’m here for it.’”
The money is helping artists like Farooque pursue their own projects and still take care of her five children. The Denver native is self-taught and picked up her first paint brush a decade ago at 24, starting with painting on earrings. Given the theme of environmental justice — and complete artistic license — Farooque said it meshed with her own social justice activism. She went big, filling the glass window with all sorts of color.
“This is Mother Earth and she’s holding her baby, which represents all of humanity,” said Farooque, whose company is Vibrant Love Artistry. “The title of the painting is ‘Be Good to Your Mother,’ really just to remind people we literally come from the Earth, we’re literally all connected, we’re all cousins and we have one Earth and we need to be nurturing her just as she’s nurtured and taken care of us.”
Farooque said the community project brings people together. She didn’t know Frazier or Righter before this. But friends of friends helped make the connection and Farooque said she understands why the community is growing.
“Erika was telling me that she feels so lucky that her community has been able to sustain her,” she said. “But I think a big part of that is because she gives back to her community so we recognize the value of what she does so helping her is like helping ourselves.”
Stephanie Salazar-Rodriguez, who started her own consulting firm during the pandemic to assist under-resourced communities with public health issues, asked Righter if she could be the first sponsor.
“I was like, ‘I want to be the first one. I want to do Women’s History Month,’” said Salazar-Rodriguez, owner of Blazing Cloud Consulting. “I thought, what better way to start this with a woman of color helping a woman who’s trying to help communities of color who would be featuring an artist of color who would be doing a mural of a woman of color. This would be just an amazing opportunity.”
That first artist was Cindy Loya. Loya, who was born in California and raised in Mexico, last month chose to paint Ynés Mexía, a Mexican-American botanist. Mexia started studying botany in her fifties, and ended up discovering more than 500 new species of plants.
Loya, who is also Mexican American, said Mexia reminds her of herself. Loya became an artist in college but left the art industry to become a full-time mother. A few years ago, she decided it was time to finish her degree and returned to college. Now 37, she’s almost done with her degree and she appreciates getting paid for her work.
“When you’re starting up as an artist, a lot of people are like, ‘You’re gonna get exposure for this, you know, if you do this for me,’” Loya said. “At first you know you’re like, I’ll take any opportunity. But after a while, it’s like I kind of need to pay bills.”
Righter, who said foot traffic on the block is still down 47% compared to before the pandemic, said she’s using her voice as a local shopkeeper to support fellow small businesses and issues, such as living wages for workers. She hasn’t given up on getting Denver city and tourism officials to support merchants in the historic Baker neighborhood. She suggests they use COVID recovery funds to help the block pay for way-finding signs and shop-local street banners, plexiglass dividers near registers to protect merchants and even a public bathroom.
“We all have a sphere of influence and people can either choose to use it or not. And so this is a great demonstration of what we can accomplish on our own,” Righter said. “But how much more could we accomplish if the funding went back into the community to determine what we best need versus committees who do not represent us deciding what we need. That’s where I see the big opportunity that is being missed.”