Hand in Hand: Fort Collins, Colorado

Hand in Hand: Fort Collins, Colorado

The neighborly charm of this quaint city makes for a convivial craft scene.
Fort Collins Downtown

Historic buildings line downtown Fort Collins, here glittering with holiday lights. The district is a hub for art, music, and community gathering.

Jack Gillum

An hour north of Denver, nestled between the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains, Fort Collins, Colorado, is a small city bursting with creative talent.

The locals are friendly and easygoing, and business meetings often take place over pints of craft beer – fitting, since the self-described “Choice City” claims more microbreweries than anyplace else in the state. The region is also an outdoor wonderland, with easy access to some of the state’s best hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking. Named one of five platinum-level Bicycle Friendly Communities by the League of American Bicyclists, Fort Collins is home to a number of custom bicycle makers, including Boo Bicycles, which handbuilds its frames using high-quality bamboo.

Fort Collins is equally known for art, music, and craft. Institutions such as the Lincoln Center feature galleries that showcase contemporary artists and makers, and Colorado State University’s Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising shows rotating exhibitions with an emphasis on fashion design and textiles. You can find even more art outdoors. A public project places painted pianos around town for anyone to play, free music festivals feature national acts and local talent, and craft fairs such as the French Nest Open-Air Market are a common sight from late spring through fall.

Old Town
If you’ve ever wandered through Disneyland’s Main Street, USA, you’ll get déjà vu in Fort Collins’ picturesque downtown. That’s because Harper Goff, a Disney art director, grew up in Fort Collins and drew on his hometown for inspiration.

The Fort Collins Museum of Art, in the old Post Office building, stands on Old Town’s southern border. The museum’s annual “Masks” exhibition showcases ceramic masks decorated by about 200 local artists, and the museum also mounts craft-oriented exhibitions, such as fiber artist Elizabeth Morisette’s weavings and basket forms that incorporate toys and game pieces.

Just across the street is Wadoo, a colorful shop with a wide variety of gifts for craft lovers. Most of Wadoo’s employees are also makers, and their wares are scattered throughout the store. “It gives them two ways to be invested in the shop,” says owner Amy Satterfield. Satterfield’s daughter, Mari Gades, is one of Wadoo’s top sellers, specializing in ultra-soft crocheted fingerless mittens and funky pins made from recycled wool sweaters.

Walk a few blocks north to Trimble Court Artisans, one of the oldest makers’ co-ops in the country. The shop features displays of pottery, jewelry, woodwork, fiber art, blown glass, paintings, and mixed-media work by more than 50 local makers. As jewelry maker and member Sharon Gloss remarks, “We value diversity, and we don’t want too much overlap between the artisans.”

Nearby, Walnut Creek offers an eclectic mix of craft and vintage finds. The expansive building seems to go on forever, and the shop sells a wide variety of handwork, including wooden birdhouses découpaged with pages from 1950s children’s books by Nicole Zentveld of Silver Bird Creations, and metal robots made of bottle caps and upcycled metal parts by Terry Hildebrand.

Farther northeast is the Art Lab, an experimental community initiative that helps artists transform vacant storefronts into venues. Anyone with a creative idea who needs a space to make it happen can contact founder Dawn Putney. Participants can pay a small usage fee to cover supplies and overhead, or they can provide volunteer services to use the space for free. Events have included performances, classes, parties, and exhibitions ranging from tattoo and batik art to more traditional shows of quilts, sculpture, and oil paintings.

Art Lab also recently launched Pop Up Art Carts, an art-on-the-streets program that uses mobile displays to showcase local talent and build awareness of art and craft. Featured “cartists” include potter Laura Birlingmair, who also makes jewelry, and painter Bonnie Lebesch, who started the art-cart project with Putney in 2015.

Across Linden Street from Art Lab is the Downtown Artery, another hub for craft in Old Town. The Artery offers studio and office space for makers of all types, and its small retail store primarily sells work by local artists. A mix of work, including planters for succulents by Kevin Kato of Taproot Pottery and jewelry combining metal and small animal bones by Riley Furmanek of Erebus Crow, make this a fun stop for anyone seeking a creative jolt. The facility also has three bed-and-breakfast rooms available.

The River and Warehouse Districts
Cross Jefferson Street, Old Town’s unofficial north border, to enter the developing River District. Wool Hat Furniture has been there since before the River District got its name. Co-owners Danelle Britt and her husband, Matthew, who focus on selling and sourcing their wares locally, build furniture using upcycled and vintage materials such as old basketball court flooring, 1960s lockers, government-office filing cabinets, and salvaged metal.

Wool Hat shares the building with Smokestack Pottery, a gathering space for clay artists. It has a shop showcasing the work of Fort Collins ceramists, and offers group and private classes with an emphasis on wheel throwing and glazing.

The Wolverine Farm Letterpress & Publick House is a newer addition to the River District, recently opened by the nonprofit publisher, which also has a bookstore in Old Town. The open two-story space is home to a letterpress workshop that offers classes, shop time rental, and opportunities for guest printers. The light and airy downstairs area sells work by local makers on its upcycled shelves, such as handcarved spoons and bowls, hammered copper bracelets, handcrafted metal flasks and wallets, and flowers made of recycled books.

A short drive to the east places you squarely in the Warehouse District, an industrial maze with makers occupying shared workshops. Tucked into one of these buildings is woodworking and metal fabrication shop YendraBuilt. Zach Yendra, who owns the business with his dad, Carl, specializes in custom wood and steel furniture as well as retail, restaurant, brewery, bar, and office design. “We’ve shipped custom furniture all over the country, but we stick to Colorado’s Front Range for commercial installations,” Yendra says.

The builder also supports makers-in-training. This winter, he’s teaching a welding course to high school students at Fort Collins Creator Hub, a nonprofit maker space next door.

Fiber enthusiasts can take a five-minute drive from the Warehouse District to My Sister Knits, a carriage-house-turned-shop that feels like a well-kept secret. Among the yarn and fiber arts supplies are merino sheepskin pelts, hand-sewn project bags, and beetle-kill pine yarn bowls by local woodworker Jerry Ertle.

A few minutes across town, longtime institution Lambspun features rooms full of hand-dyed fibers, including alpaca, sheep, and buffalo. The shop offers classes, loom rentals, and demonstrations. “We have a very thriving fiber arts community,” says owner Shirley Ellsworth. “We make our own patterns, have weekly knitting groups, and we love to help beginners.” This welcoming approach – makers helping other makers – is evident throughout Fort Collins’ arts community, where camaraderie prevails over competition.

“The craft scene here is bustling with energy,” Wolverine Farm founder Todd Simmons says. “I meet new people each week who are making this, that, and the other, and no two people are doing the same thing the same way.” Fort Collins is good in that way, he says – forgiving enough to allow some trial and error, and supportive enough to make living creatively a reality.

Molly McCowan is a writer and editor who has called Fort Collins home for 12 years.