Artist Ella Vance’s “Golden Afternoon” screens as part of Side Stories’ 2019 installment in RiNo. (Provided by SideCar PR)

Many street artists risk their lives to emblazon interstate exits and train cars with their work, while gallery hopefuls may toil their entire lives to reach the kind of audiences that billboard designers take for granted.

For the past few years, they’ve been meeting in the middle (of buildings, that is) in the River North Art District.

If you go

Side Stories. Free outdoor short-film festival, 6-10 p.m. nightly Feb. 28-March 6. Various locations in the River North Art District in Denver. Visit sidestoriescolorado.com for an interactive map, audio guides and more.

“As an artist, it’s pretty amazing to have your visuals projected on that scale,” Loveland-based Kendra Fleischman said of her work at last year’s Side Stories festival, which lit up Ardent Mills’ grain elevators. “I mean, you can’t get that scale in any gallery or museum. It’s just huge. But it’s also daunting at first.”

The third annual Side Stories festival, which returns to RiNo Feb. 28-March 6, brings “cinematic art to the urban exterior,” as organizers put it, by projecting short, custom-made films on outdoor surfaces throughout the hip and fast-growing district just north of downtown Denver.

Besides the free films showing on the sides of buildings, interactive maps of the walkable route, audio insights from creators, and various food, drink and shopping specials at area businesses (all detailed at sidestoriescolorado.com) are designed to attract people to the area during an otherwise quiet time of the year.

It’s both an injection of eye-popping art and a marketing tactic, said creator and real estate developer Fiona Arnold. She pegged this year’s budget at $150,000, including the $5,000 that each of the eight artists (sculptors, filmmakers, digital artists, etc.) receive to produce their work.

RiNo’s internationally known Crush festival, which introduces dozens of new murals to the area each year, follows a similar arts-commerce path. But for the third year of Side Stories, there will be a literal meeting-in-the-middle, Arnold said.

“The first year we did it in east RiNo because Brighton (Boulevard) was still under construction,” said Arnold, the president of Mainspring Developers. “The second year, with Brighton being open, we decided to try that area. This year, we’ll be doing both sides of the train tracks, from Zeppelin Station and across the bridge into the east RiNo side.”

In fact, Arnold said, the private, opening night party will be held in the covered bridge that spans the tracks. She and her team, including filmmaker Patrick Hackett, choose the locations based on walkability (in order to keep all of the films close together) and the size and availability of big, blank walls (which are few and far between following Crush most years). Hackett then designs the layout of the event, secures permissions, orders equipment, and helps install and test the pieces.

“You’ll find me out all week making sure all the projectors are working,” Hackett said, “and facilitating fixes if they aren’t.”

Boulder-based artist Laurel Cohen works on her Side Stories piece, “Creature,” which depicts “a RiNo monster visually inspired by Colorado’s natural setting and RiNo’s industrial history,” according to organizers. (Provided by SideCar PR)

This year’s eight featured artists offer a mix of new and returning names — Laurel Cohen, Xadie Janes Antonio, Tom Ludlow, Natalie Einterz, Annette Isham, Phillip Faulkner, Kendra Fleischman and Daniel Fickle — who custom-created their films for their walls and locations, often playing with themes related to the history of the building (see titles such as “Colorado Peeks,” “Colorado Crystal Cave” and “Love Hour”).

“Last year, my canvas was five really big grain elevators,” said Fleischman, “so I did a piece centered around flour. It was very abstract, very surreal, but it told the story of growing wheat and turning it into flower and making bread and donuts at the end.”

For this year, Fleischman created “Road Trip,” an interactive work that explores silhouettes and shadow, to be screened at 35th Street and Brighton Boulevard.

“What I’m hoping is that people can actually cast their own shadows in it,” she said. “I’ve participated in Supernova in the Denver Theatre District (a digital art festival on LED screens), and Night Lights (3-D projection mapping on downtown’s D&F Clocktower), but this might be the only one where you can actually become part of it.”

It’s also, as noted, one of the biggest screens anywhere. Not only can RiNo visitors see the pieces for free, but people sailing by on RTD’s University of Colorado A-Line commuter rail will get glimpses of the work, whether they’re headed to downtown’s Union Station or Denver International Airport. That kind of exposure can cost millions to buy in conventional advertising campaigns.

Big, blank walls are a lot harder to find in RiNo these days than they used to be, Side Stories organizers said. (Provided by SideCar PR)

“Trying to measure how many people come and see the art based on who’s walking around is almost impossible,” Arnold said. “But one of the yardsticks of success is how many people engage with it on the website and on social media, and how many people take advantage of the buy-one-get-one-free and other offers at small businesses.”

This year they include RiNo’s Great Divide Brewing Co., Mockery Brewing, Queens Eleven, River North Brewery and Ironton.

The event wouldn’t exist without them. While Side Stories has stuck to a relatively modest, $150,000 budget over its history — funded by Mainspring Developers, The Martin Family Foundation, RiNo Art District, the Colorado Office of Film and Television Media and Denver Film Society — this year’s new sponsors include Great Divide, Visit Denver and Bigsby’s Folly, all of which are donating food and drink to the private, opening night VIP party.

Artistic submissions have held steady, with Arnold reporting nearly 80 submissions this year, similar to 2019. A jury including Mary Lester (Martin Family Foundation), Matt Campbell (Denver Film), Lizzie Terry Dolan (Denver Art Museum) and Mariel Rodriguez-McGill (Colorado Office of Film Television Media) then picked the participants.

Eight seemed like a good number again, Arnold said. Her goal is not to grow as big and quickly as possible, but to hone the event year-over-year to create a tighter, more satisfying experience.

Ardent Mills Grain Elevators provide a screen for Side Stories. (Provided by SideCar PR)

“In the winter, we have tourists coming to Colorado to go to the mountains, and a lot of them are increasingly staying in Denver as its own destination,” Arnold said. “Our winters can be fairly mild, so to have something like this to do at night — even in February or March — encourages people to get out and see the city. And as we’ve learned, a vibrant city is one with a vibrant arts-tourism industry.”

For Fleischman, it’s an artistic dream come true, however briefly.

“It’s such an interesting way of capturing time and holding it for a bit, these forms of art that are there for a moment and then gone,” she said. “There’s something magical about it in that it reflects our own lives in a way. The only thing ‘permanent’ is the canvas.”

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