free box

Local artist Brandon Berkel at work putting up a mural on the boarded-up Free Box. (Courtesy photo)

The Free Box has long been a community storyteller of sorts. Heaps of discarded tie dye? Must be the post-Bluegrass Festival exodus. A surplus of brand-new items, tags still on? The re-gifting of unwanted Christmas presents. And last week, when the Free Box was abruptly boarded up due to COVID-19 containment efforts, local artist Brandon Berkel interpreted the latest plot twist in the Free Box story as the moment he realized how serious the situation was getting.

“When the Free Box closed, everyone was really bummed,” Berkel said. “That felt like the first sign things were getting really serious.”

When he wandered over to check out the scene and observed the plain brown boards over the shelves, however, the artist had a light bulb moment.

“The Free Box never stops giving!” he recalled thinking, realizing that the boarded up box was tantamount to finding a blank canvas for public art in the Free Box. “And when you find something really good in the Free Box,” he added, “you gotta act quick.”

That’s how his latest creative endeavor began, a renegade midnight art project of sorts that culminated in the town’s latest display of public art. The mural, which depicts a Tom Hanks cowboy wielding a spray bottle at a glum-looking germ, is topped by hand painted letters reading in all caps, “This town ain’t big enough for the two of us,” a “Toy Story” nod.

Berkel, who originally moved to Telluride from St. Louis after googling ‘mountain towns,’ is a collage artist who finds inspiration in various images from the internet, magazines or other sources, and then pieces them together to create surrealist composites of fanciful scenes. The process is typically slow, sometimes taking several days to find the images that will line up just so, provide the right angles, and match the artist’s vision. This time, however, all the pieces just fell into place quickly. After the moment of inspiration hit, he headed for the library to search the internet for images.

“I found my cowboy, then I found a Tom Hanks face, and everything was just lining up perfectly, and the process started speeding up a lot,” he said. “Then I called Laurence over at Happy Print, and usually it can take some time for a print to get made, but he was excited to be a helping hand in the process.”

Before Berkel could say coronavirus, he had a high-quality print of a six-foot cowboy ready to go.

Next, he enlisted his artist friends to take part in the project, with fellow local artist Brooke Einbender painting her interpretation of a mean green little coronavirus germ to go toe to toe with the facemask-wearing cowboy. After gathering all the separate bits and pieces of the collage for the mural, the artists simply waited for midnight to give the lonely, boarded up Free Box a facelift. Armed with paint, adhesive, cameras, caution tape and creative juices, the crew set to work getting the mural up on the boards, and by about 2 a.m., the nighttime street art project was complete. It was a true team effort, with local artists Jacque Garcia, Stephen Burns, Michelle Griffith, Ryan Yassen, Anthony Tavano and Henry Frawley-Fulcher all lending a hand. During the process, only two late-night passersbys stumbled across the crew in action, both giving enthusiastic responses.

“One guy was like, ‘Is that a Banksy?’” Berkel said, referring to the famous London street artist known for his compelling and illicit public paintings. “We were like, ‘Uh, kinda?’”

The second passerby, Berkel surmised, was likely on his way home from a late night at the bars, and expressed his unbridled enthusiasm, shouting, “This is what we need! This is what we need!”

Responses in the light of day have been positive as well, with community members, including Telluride Town Council members, sharing their support and appreciation of the art piece on social media.

“I figured the town needed some kind of positive symbol to look up to, something besides your phone,” Berkel said. “The Free Box is kind of like the heart of town for locals. You know, like when you first meet the Free Box when you’re new to town, it gives you a little bit of hope that you can survive here. When the Free Box got boarded up, it was like, ‘Uh oh, survival.’ So I think that with the mural on top of it now, it kind of gives back that message of, ‘Yeah, we’re going to be alright. We’re going to get through this.’”

Stephen Burns, who helped photograph the nighttime escapade, added that art continues to give us all creative control and expression during uncertain times that feel out of control.

“When the world ends, despite our best efforts, art will carry on,” Burns said.