AVON — The teacher at the preschool asks for a photo with the artist. As she poses with Pat Milbery, a local passing by on a scooter waves and honks at the muralist’s 40-foot tall paintings covering the cinder-block walls of the rec center.
“Your kids have been watching for three weeks. What do they like most?” Milbery asks the teacher as her kids peer through the fence.
“The crane,” she says, laughing and pointing over her shoulder to the boom lift Milbery uses to paint his wall-sized masterpiece.
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Anyone who has roamed Colorado has seen Milbery’s murals. They transform humbug facades with striking hues and shapes. His work adorns dozens of walls in coffee shops, hotels, brewpubs and offices as well as parking garages and public spaces.
The mural on the Avon Recreation Center bursts with glowing blues and rusty oranges, reflecting, he says, “the substance and depth of our sunsets.”
There’s a volleyball player mid-spike, a soccer player readying a big kick, a casting angler and a SUP surfer, all reflecting the summer fun surrounding downtown Avon. A magpie strumming a guitar beckons toward the town’s amphitheater. (“I love magpies,” he says.)
One section is a simple smile.
“My mom, even when she was really ill with cancer, she always reminded me to focus on what I have instead of what I don’t,” Milbery says. “That smile is for her.”
Milbery can’t remember a time when he wasn’t creating art. One of his first sketches recreated the industry-shifting photograph of pioneering snowboarder Ingemar Backman setting a world record in 1996 while floating 20-feet above the snow.
“That whole counterculture of art, expression and individuality really grabbed my soul in my early teenage years,” he says.
Even as a pro snowboarder, when he was winning medals and traveling the globe, he was a creator.
“I always thought of snowboarding as more of an art form than a sport,” he says, picking at the flecks of paint dotting his arms. “It’s similar to this. There are a lot of challenges … and you are critically analyzed as both a creative and an athlete. I think a lot about how I can contribute to the community and a place and its people as a whole. Snowboarding taught me to think like that, think on a larger scale and about how to manage all these different challenges.”
More than 30 artists responded to the Town of Avon’s January request for artist proposals to paint the blank-walled rec center.
The town wanted to create “a significant landmark” at the intersection of Nottingham Park and a pedestrian mall, says Danita Dempsey, Avon’s manager of culture, arts and special events.
“We wanted to identify Avon as an art community with something delightful and unique and cheerful that represented our mountain lifestyle,” Dempsey says.
As the month-long installation has unfolded, Milbery has happily greeted locals and shared his work.
“He almost embodies his design,” Dempsey says.
Milbery submitted his plan with three color choices for the three-wall mural.
“It’s so cool, the city decided to go big,” Milbery says. “They said they wanted something bright with the biggest impact and they chose the brightest piece we submitted, which is awesome.”
Milbery tapered the ebb of his professional snowboarding career by hosting snowboarding camps across the country. He would organize crews of coaches, enlist hundreds of kids and teach them snowboarding skills. It was fun, but he wondered what he could leave behind that was bigger than memories.
“I thought, what else can I do to leave a real impact and positive perspective?” he says. “Something that leaves a lasting impression that can bring people together with a blast of color, energy and enthusiasm and brings beauty to a space.”
In 2013, after nearly a decade of his SoGnar Snowboard Camps, he assembled a team of artists and created SoGnar Creative. The Milbery-led art collective has splashed color across Denver and Colorado. That’s his mural covering the Emily Griffith parking garage in downtown Denver. He’s done streets and walls all over the city. His murals are in Granby, Vail and Breckenridge. The Avon mural is likely one of the largest on the Western Slope, he says.
He’d been painting nonstop for about three weeks and had one more week to go in Avon. He and a partner spend long hours on the boom lifts, spraying and taping while referring to a digital rendering of the mural on their phones. Down below Milbery’s Westie, Tora, waits patiently.
Milbery estimates he will use about 160 cans of spray paint on the Avon mural. The empty cans will be recycled into a piece of art. He always has time for passersby, like the teacher. He grew up riding Beaver Creek, close to his family’s home in Edwards, so he knows a lot of folks. The owners of condos in the complex across the parking lot from the rec center often stop by and ask if he has plans to expand his mural onto a fourth blank wall facing their windows.
That’s not part of the plan, but he’s ready to do it if Avon gives the OK. Dempsey says the town expected residents would call out for more Milbery.
“It’s doing exactly what we wanted to do, which is inspire conversation and creativity,” she says.
Milbery already has ideas for what could happen on the remaining blank walls. His design focuses on summer, even though Avon is the gateway to Beaver Creek ski area.
“Maybe we could add something wintery, you know rolling from the fall autumn colors with icy blue and deep greens,” he says. “Hey! There goes a magpie. She’s checking us out.”