Happy atmosphere: Aspen restaurants in abstract at Denver’s Crush Walls 2018 | AspenTimes.com

Happy atmosphere: Aspen restaurants in abstract at Denver’s Crush Walls 2018

by Amanda Rae

Alaina Mulawka is in her happy place. Saturday evening at Maru is warming up, and though most patrons have settled on the breezy outdoor patio upstairs to catch an Aspen sunset, friends and family hang in the lounge underground to sip wine, share stories and watch the artist work.

Mulawka absorbs this energy with quiet concentration, scribbling abstract swirls in one continuous line onto a clear, 24-by-48-inch plexiglass panel with a black paint pen. She's been at it already about 45 minutes and won't finish this craggy outline for at least another hour.

"You pretend there's an ant crawling around the room," Mulawka explains, her eyes—and pen—still focused, laser-like, on the transparent canvas. "You follow the ant, and draw. You capture 'the movie' in a two-dimensional piece. You can film the whole thing…or buy a painting of the experience."

Mulawka has chosen more than a dozen Aspen-area bars and restaurants—including Maru, L'Hostaria, Jimmy's, Brunelleschi's, Su Casa, Ellina, Chefs Club, Pine Creek Cookhouse, and La Crêperie du Village French Alpine Bistro—as subjects for her upcoming solo show at the m. Romero Gallery in Denver's River North Art District (RiNo). Appropriately titled "If It Makes You Happy," the exhibit opens Friday, Sept. 7, during Crush Walls 2018, the ninth-annual festival of large-scale mural and street-art installation that runs Sept. 3-9. Mulawka's paintings will hang at m. Romero Gallery in Denver through the month.

The interior landscapes of these haunts, as well the people who inhabit them, Mulawka says, serve as backdrop to many meaningful memories spanning eight years and counting.

"Most connections I've made since moving here have been when out to eat," says Mulawka, a Minnesota native in Colorado by way of New York City. "I picked restaurants because these places make me happy. So do the people. It's the people you meet and the culture and stories that make it worthwhile to stay."

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The artist tells the tale of her first performance in this room, back when it was known as Takah Sushi. It was a Tuesday (natch), and she played guitar in a black-and-white striped skirt, yellow top, and checkered Vans. "I sang a song about the guy I just broke up with, who booked me for that night," she recalls. "I sat right here in the lounge, just two feet forward."

Interestingly, that type of performance may be easier for audiences to understand. "I hear all the time—'it's just chaos and bullshit'—and they walk out," Mulawka confesses. "I don't take it personally, because they'll see it in the end."

Gallery owner Michael Romero saw it at first glance, at Ryno's Pub & Pizzeria, located at the opposite end of the Cooper Avenue mall from Maru. In fact, he met the artist that night; she just happened to be sitting alongside him at the bar. Romero bought Mulawka's piece, finished in colorful acrylic, off the wall immediately.

"Her work, to me, transcended the common graffiti style of younger artists," Romero says now. "It had what I considered to be a sustaining and timeless image of movement, and good design."

A few weeks before the Maru session, Mulawka set up in the dining room at Allegria in Carbondale on a sunny afternoon. Bartender Liz Raymond was there to test recipes for an upcoming cocktail competition. Though surreal as it was to sit in what is typically a bustling nighttime trattoria during daytime hours, Mulawka captured creative energy in shades of raspberry, yellow oxide, and hibiscus: booze bottles stacked behind the bar, and Raymond's smooth motions as she poured a bright, beet-colored elixir into a martini glass rimmed with salt.

"I'm doing portraits of humans in this valley doing their job that makes them happy," Mulawka says. "The people around me make my art."

The Denver show's title is inspired by an old man that Mulawka saw singing Sheryl Crow's catchy 1996 hit at Slow Groovin' BBQ in Marble. Surrounded by pals of more than 30 years, the guy, wearing a hat circa-World War II, grinned the entire time.

Venues elsewhere in the Roaring Fork Valley feature into "If It Makes You Happy," and each finished work captures a unique atmosphere. When Mulawka painted outdoors at Butch's Lobster Shack on Midland Avenue in Basalt, for instance, some 300 people passed by—in the rain. "They put tarps up," she marvels.

Tempranillo in Basalt, the Redstone Inn in Redstone, and St. Benedict's Monastery in Snowmass are other upcoming locations for the artist, 35, who resides in Emma.

Back at Maru, Mulawka continues to channel the ant, now creeping over a new visitor, belly up to the bar. "It's constantly changing, like a movie reel," she says. "I have no idea how many people are going to come, who's gonna talk to me. The end of the painting is a summary of my experience."

Suddenly she stops, then turns the canvas quickly sideways by 90 degrees. Abstract art must work in all angles, she notes, since a buyer or curator will ultimately decide how to orient it on a wall. "It's like as a chef: you're putting it on a plate, and the element of non-control is human experience," she says.

A guy named Dave notices. "That's that dude at the bar—I see him!" Dave says, peering at the black outlines on acrylic. "That's the side of his head!"

Conversation sparked, now Dave remembers meeting Mulawka and her boyfriend at Zocalito last winter. They all laugh at the memory of Dave's dope sweater so long ago. Such encounters come to define Mulawka's work.

Romero, a widely commissioned portrait artist who has worked out of Aspen for 40 years, is drawn to such interaction—in live performance art, especially.

"The spectator becomes a participant," he says. "Art, artist and the viewer become one. As with all of Alaina's shows, I expect her opening night (at m. Romero Gallery in RiNo) to be electrified! Her dynamic approach, and spectator engagement, create an exciting, living moment far removed from the static walls of a traditional gallery or art opening."

Indeed, I vaguely recall Mulawka painting inside the old Crystal Palace during the first-ever cannabis-pairing dinner in Aspen over X Games in 2015 ("So Dope," Aspen Times Weekly, March 5, 2015). Diners approached her easel and nearly nose-tapped the work as she brushed on bright paint beneath purple and green lights. Often she'll use glow-in-the-dark or blacklight paint for a surprise effect.

"It's like I just came out of 'Hot Tub Time Machine'—she belongs in the '60s," says proud papa Steve Mulawka at Maru, seated next to wife, Barb, observing their daughter brush short strokes in "burnt umber" onto the panel. "She wants to make people happy (through her art)."

It seems to be working. Across the room, Maru chef-owner Taylor Hale is in a flow behind the sushi bar. Patrons are sipping sake. And Mulawka is still painting. Later she'll declare this her favorite in the show.

"Everything has energy," Mulawka says, studying the scene. "These people are happy—doing their job because they love to, and hoping the right crowd interacts. Sometimes with an art piece you think you're doing great, but people aren't responding. Here, I've found the right crowd."

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