AURORA | A stroll through Aurora’s Nome Park doesn’t elicit much excitement these days.
Packs of teenagers are often found giggling into ears and cell phone screens, and benches are frequently filled with slouching spines. A lonely pair of rusty barbecues sits nestled among a trio of haphazardly placed trash bins.
This week, a soggy layer of snow blanketed a galaxy of litter, including a shiny, half-buried pack of lemon mango-flavored Swisher Sweet cigarillos. The phrase “West Side 13” was stenciled on a tired-looking bench quickly shedding its last paint job, and some less-publishable words appeared to be hastily scribbled on both sides of a blue and gold “Park Rules & Regulations” sign.
All of these staples are ephemeral descriptors of countless neighborhood parks from Lafayette to Littleton.
But with some help from Aurora’s Parks, Recreation and Open Space Department, city council and a gaggle of other metro-area entities, Reven Swanson is aiming to change that weary, beleaguered image of unsung suburban greenspace.
“When you have a big, giant VA hospital going in with beautiful, new construction, areas like north Aurora tend to get overlooked because they’re in older parts of town with lower socio-economic status,” said Swanson, a Denver-based sculptor and metal worker. “I want to reach out to people, create stewardship and engage them with public art.”
Barring any unexpected city council disapproval, Swanson is on the cusp of seeing that community-minded goal come to fruition at Nome Park.
Over the next year, the artist is tentatively slated to spearhead the creative component of an overhaul of the north Aurora park, which is sandwiched between Aurora Central High School to the south and the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus to the northeast. A panel comprised of city staff, community members and a handful of Aurora Central students selected Swanson for the project from a pool of five artists earlier this fall.
The city’s approach to the Nome Park project has been different from many of its others in the realm of public art, in that exact plans for Swanson’s potential piece have yet to be decided. She will meet with a core group of planners starting next month, hold workshops with Aurora Central students throughout the winter, and chat with nearby community members for the next several months in order to begin fleshing out more concrete ideas based on their respective input. She said that the aim is to incorporate the community into the final product — both physically and figuratively.
“I’ll be conducting some workshops either at the high school art facility or directly in the park, and those will be more hands on, with pounding on stone, etching in metals, and carving some ceramic tiles for casting,” she said. “I would like residents to come out and be able to say, ‘Hey, that’s my chip, I did that corner,’ because that gives a sense of ownership and pride to the neighborhood.”
The choice to select Swanson for the retooling of the park was due in no small part to her previous involvement in Aurora, both as an employee and volunteer, according to Sally Mounier, city councilwoman for Ward I and a member of the selection committee for the Nome Street project.
“The committee was very taken with Reven’s presentation, mostly because of the community involvement that she has done in the past,” Mounier said at a council study session earlier this month.
Swanson helped lead projects with Downtown Aurora Visual Arts in the late 1990s, and currently works part-time at Aurora Stables, which has been in her family since it was built in the city in 1947.
“It’s a great way for me to clear my head instead of pounding steel all the time,” she said of her work caring for horses and teaching riding lessons.
Swanson’s installation only accounts for a part of the city’s plans for Nome Park in the coming year, however, as the entire property will be undergoing major renovations in coordination with a master plan penned in-part by the city’s parks department last year.
“We’re transforming this tiny pocket park into a true neighborhood resource,” said Tracy Young, manager of planning, design and construction for the parks department. “There are so many pieces and partners working on this tiny little site.”
Young said that the renovations will include the addition of durable outdoor exercise equipment, an urban garden, a new playground, a designated area for the Aurora Central students who frequent the area, and updated landscaping and irrigation. The park will also more than double in size thanks to efforts lead by the Trust for Public land, which resulted in the acquisition of two adjacent land parcels, according to Emily Patterson, manager of that organization’s Parks for People program.
With a current size of about one acre, the new acquisitions will add about 2.6 acres to the park, according to Patterson.
Funding for Swanson’s artistic commission is set to total $60,000, and will come from grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Trust for Public Land. The city also has pledged more than $250,000 for general, non-artistic improvements to Nome Park, the bulk of which is stemmed from the voter-approved Arapahoe County open space sales and use tax and Aurora park development fees generated by new projects northeast of the park along Peoria Street, according to Young.
Swanson said that this would be the largest commission she’s ever received and that she’s overjoyed at the prospect of working locally — something that’s never a given for many sculptors.
“It’s really hard for local artists to make their way in the local market, because sometimes they often aren’t taken very seriously — I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me to check out this piece that they’ve just bought from an artist in Santa Fe,” she said. “It’s exciting to work in something with a sense of coming home.”
The measure to grant Swanson the artistic reins was approved by both the Art in Public Places Commission and the Cultural Affairs Commission earlier this fall and was met with no objection at a city council study session last week. The issue of her selection will go before the full city council for final approval at the regular meeting on Nov. 23.