Chris Bates unites and delights a community through larger-than-life art.

Round the corner from Harper Goff Alley to Pine Street at the Fort Collins Exchange, the mixed-use open-air plaza constructed from old train cars on North College Avenue, and you’ll be forced to pause. Here, a 20-by-eight-foot mural soars in homage to the creative genius of Harper Goff, the Fort Collins native and Disney Imagineer who helped create sets for some of the media giant’s classic films, as well as its iconic Main Street.

The mural was commissioned through a joint venture with the City of Fort Collins and Brinkman Development to add some artistic flair to the revitalized 200 block of North College. Although its scale is massive, the work resembles an open, black-and-white graphic novel, intricate enough to take weeks to fully decipher.

With images and words that resemble doodles from your seventh-grade history notebook, a technique muralist Chris Bates calls “finetooning,” he renders historical details and emotional imagery into illustrations that light up your left hemisphere like a parade. Step back and the narratives of Goff’s life become clear; move in and a few inches to the left or right, maybe tilt your head just so, and a thousand lines evince individual tableaus that demand their own oxygen.

 “I’ve always been interested in the intertwining of things, how tools relate to jobs and how jobs relate to the community, and how it impacts everyone,” Bates says. “You can look at a finetoon as individual drawings, as a whole, as line work; it has tons of different levels and ways to appreciate the art work. Finetoons are just a unique way to tell stories.”

Our stories. Bates believes that by sharing those same tales, we become a tighter community.

The Chris Bates vibe is a bike-riding, flatbill-cap-wearing, can-we-all-get-along California cool. He speaks in an eloquent staccato, words flowing like a paint brush working its way across a canvas. He pauses comfortably between ideas, as if he wants your attention but is not bothered to let his thoughts steep for a bit. A finetoon of Chris Bates would doubtlessly include a swirling wave of snowboarding motifs, backpacks and treble clefs, and a reusable coffee mug. 

He considers himself an “analog” person, but he admits he is looking at using digital means to market his talents for more regional, national and international opportunities. Chris Bates the modern businessman understands that in order for Chris Bates the throwback artist to bring people together, he needs to share. And he understands why.

“With everything in society becoming more digital and readily accessible, people recognize the intrinsic value of handmade objects,” he says.

Bates’ mural technique starts with recognizing the site and its audience. For Harper Goff, he used a projector to form an outline on the wall, created a grid and drew the entire project square by square with charcoal. From there it was the slow process of filling in lines upon lines to create the illusion of grayscale, basically alternating black and white to create shades of gray. 

Bates says that memorializing a locally sourced creative genius like Harper Goff was an impactful step forward for his art-centered community in many ways, not the least of which is inspirational.

“I like being able to use this mural as an educational tool for the kids growing up in this town,” Bates says. “Here’s a person that was born and raised here and went on to do amazing things, and hopefully that can inspire people growing up to feel like that’s within their capabilities as well, and also to honor this person in a way that he would appreciate.”

Most artworks are often glanced at for a minute or two by a self-selecting audience; studied, then tucked away. But a piece that is embedded into our environment endures as long as the space does. Rezoning is a lot harder than tossing away a sketchbook.

Thanks to forward-thinking partnerships with the City of Fort Collins, the Bohemian Foundation and clients like local developer Brinkman Construction, Bates has been given a platform to brand his work for years to come.

“Having art out there accessible for people, no matter what your background is and where you come from, that’s the stuff that inspires me and keeps me wanting to do public art,” Bates says. “And having a developer that wanted to incorporate art into a whole block of downtown was something I never ran into before. They were supportive and into seeing what ideas I had, making my vision happen, and they let me run with things.”

The Rocky Mountain High School grad (who has no plans to visit Disneyland, by the way) began his career by tagging local mainstays like Hodi’s Half Note, Beaver’s Market, and Big Al’s newsstand, totaling about 40 murals over the past couple of decades, while also completing dozens of commissioned individualized Finetoon portraits. His artistic aplomb has opened the gate by allowing him to collect stories and present them back for all to share in an unusual fashion. Art is, for him, as much about connecting dots as it is about tickling the sensorium.

“People have been painting on walls for thousands of years,” Bates says. “Someone felt an urge to mark a spring in a desert with pictures of gods or animals, or talk about hunting stories to keep track of history. I’m honored to be the latest version of that.”

Through arcs of overlapping narratives, he turns inanimate structures into a reason to pause and reflect, or to grab a beer and share a few laughs. And doing it in in plain view, it turns out, is even good for business.

“Chris has these crazy ideas that just seem to work,” says Stephanie Ashley, marketing and communications manager for Brinkman Construction, who hired Bates to do freehand chalk art on the sidewalk along College to direct people to the the interior plaza of the Exchange that helped “activate” the property—developer-speak for creating interest, movement, life. Part of Brinkman’s mission is to create what Ashley describes as “meaningful places” through environmentally conscious developments. Essentially, she says, “a space that is going to positively impact families and communities.” Whether that means perusing artisanal wares or spending time with loved ones, Bates’s eye-catching skill has helped Brinkman create a “uniquely Fort Collins” space where coming together is the point.

Ellen Martin, visual arts administrator for the City of Fort Collins, affirms that the creative sector is integral to the city’s ethos, especially with consistent recognition as a desirable destination to both live and visit. Proof of this is the Art in Public Places ordinance, enacted in 1995, which allows city capital to fund art projects. The transformer box project, for example, enlisted Bates and other artists to turn 296 electric boxes around town into colorful eye candy that spoke to the town’s history. And surely you’ve seen and heard the Pianos About Town (another Bates work), which was a joint venture between the Bohemian Foundation and the Downtown Development Authority.

With this heartening commitment to art as a community pillar, the future of development in Northern Colorado has gradually skewed toward a symbiotic partnership where vendor, artist, developer- and the public all benefit similarly. In other words, it’s a win-win-win-win.

  At his core, Bates is a translator who just happens to manipulate city infrastructure to convey his message: This moment matters, he says, and we are all part of it. “Performing art in public breaks down the mystique of art creation that people don’t normally get to see,” Bates said. “And the thing about art is that you don’t have to be conscious of it for it to affect you. Once you put it out for public consumption, there’s a reinterpretation that you can’t control. I’m trying to create that dialogue, to make people want to look further, longer. If I can just get people to stop just for five minutes, that’s an accomplishment.”  

Photography by Don Markus
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