South Pearl Street hopping during First Fridays

Art and Shop walk features local merchants, artists, dining and entertainment


South Pearl Street in Denver’s Platt Park neighborhood is lined with one-of-a-kind small businesses that offer unique shopping and services, interesting art galleries and a variety of dining options.

Add some live entertainment and you get “not just an amazingly uplifting experience,” said Katherine Spahr, owner of Gallery 1505, which is located at 1505 S. Pearl St., but a “destination experience.”

The 2021 First Friday Art and Shop Walk on South Pearl Street began April 2 and will continue to Oct. 1. It takes place between the 1200 and 1800 blocks of South Pearl Street.

During First Fridays, merchants stay open late and most offer something additional in their shops for First Friday attendees, such as special sales or discounted merchandise. Others host live music, have family-friendly activities, offer free refreshments and/or have artist meet-and-greets.

Entertainment along the street includes live music and other performance acts, and live art demonstrations.

“If last month was any indication, everyone is ready to socialize again,” said John Cunningham, owner of J.J.Cunningham’s Gallery, 1523 S. Pearl St. “With the musical groups and pop-up artists on the street, along with the warm nights, I expect we’ll see people coming out specifically for First Friday, and many people staying (on South Pearl Street) after dining out.”

Jody Fidler, who opened her boutique gift shop called Wheelhouse Gifts, 1525 South Pearl St., on July 1 last year, agrees.

“The merchants of South Pearl Street are working hard to make First Fridays special,” Fidler said. “As someone who lived in the neighborhood prior to opening Wheelhouse Gifts, I always looked forward to the independent artists demonstrating and selling their crafts along the sidewalks of South Pearl, as well as the ability to shop the galleries and boutiques either before or after dining at one of the fabulous restaurants.”

Like Fidler, Laura Cruz has been attending the First Fridays for a number of years, and they were often the place she and her husband would choose for a date night. Today, Cruz — a local musician who has been performing and songwriting for about 15 years — is one of the live entertainers at some of the First Fridays.

“It’s nice to get to play and sing, and meet new people,” Cruz said. First Fridays are “a great time to get out and enjoy the local shops, and a fun way to experience South Pearl Street.”

Since taking over the existing frame shop and gallery at 1588 S. Pearl St. — now called RPO Framing and Gallery — in September last year, husband-and-wife team Bob Platz and Julie Lizak are “so excited to be a part of First Friday on South Pearl Street along with the other participating businesses,” they said.

The two started featuring some sort of special event — artist meet and greets and socially-distanced gallery opening receptions, for example — at their shop on the first Friday of each month since the beginning of the year.

“We have had our door open and featured live music outside of the shop to help entertain the bustling foot traffic,” Platz said. “It’s been wonderful to feature local artists to show at the gallery on a monthly basis, and the shows have been successfully vibrant with a lot of new and positive energy.”

Platz has about 30 years of custom framing experience, and is a Formula 1-inspired abstract artist, meaning he specializes in capturing the abstract characteristics of the motor racing circuits with special attention on the Formula 1. Lizak is a nature-inspired abstract photographer. Their artwork, and the work of other local artists, is regularly represented in the gallery, and RPO’s next First Friday event is a gallery opening for Platz’ original work called Monaco: Full Circuit.

“In just a few short months, we have felt part of this incredibly special and unique community,” Lizak said, “and look forward to the many more First Fridays ahead.”

South Pearl Street’s First Fridays got its start about 20 years ago as an art walk with only five destinations. Susan Bell, who formerly owned a studio gallery on South Pearl Street that operated for about 15 years before closing, is credited for starting the art walk. Today, Bell has a studio in Sedalia and sells her work through her website, galleries and national shows.

“I was a little shocked at first of how intimidated people seemed to be about art and art galleries,” Bell said. But “I was determined to make my business thrive and thought that an art walk would be more inviting to the people frequenting Pearl Street.”

Eventually, additional art galleries started participating and the boutique shops started sponsoring local artists to host at their store. Restaurants started supplying appetizers to art walk attendees, and even the non-retail local businesses — namely, a dental practice and a mortgage broker — on South Pearl Street wanted to get involved, so they converted their spaces into an art gallery for the evening, Bell said.

“We started to draw regular crowds,” Bell said. And “we were then also featured as part of Denver’s arts districts.”

After Bell closed her business on South Pearl Street, she handed the reins for First Fridays to Spahr, who has taken the lead in organizing the event for roughly the past seven years.

“I felt honored, terrified and a sense of duty flood through my veins,” Spahr said of the time when Bell asked her to take over organizing First Fridays. “I had to think about how to carry on, and honor, Susan Bell’s work and yet navigate through the changes ahead to engage this newer generation of art appreciators.”

But, Spahr was not completely alone — more people and businesses wanted to carry on what Bell started and they began to contribute to the success of the First Fridays.

“At our greatest capacity, we had over 35 artists on the street doing live art demonstrations for the community,” Spahr said. “Being able to sell their artwork and keep all the profits of their labors of love was definitely a big win for them.”

Through the years, First Fridays began to progress “at an alarming rate,” Spahr said.

“We are excited to be expanding the art walk into an art-and-shop walk, which enhances the experience by involving more businesses on the street,” Spahr said. “Bringing together more people to help create a vibrant experience will hopefully keep people wanting to come back each month for more.”


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