Kosovo artists collaborate with Coloradans | PostIndependent.com
Jack Reyering
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Kosovo artists collaborate with Coloradans

The picturesque Rifle Falls provided some much needed down time Thursday for some special visitors from Eastern Europe. An unusual scene took place as artists from Kosovo and locals congregated at the base of the falls to capture its beauty with easels and brushes.

The visitors are gathering on the Western Slope as a part of the Colorado-Kosovo Culture and Art Exchange. The project, 10 years in the making, has a simple goal: Creating beauty, encouraging empathy and fostering reconciliation through cultural exchange, public mural projects, art education and community investment.

Mary Wade helped start the project many years ago. As part of a trip with New Hope Church in Rifle, Wade visited the Balkans in 2005. After meeting several artists in Kosovo on a side trip, an idea was born to bring Colorado artists to Kosovo. The first cultural exchanged happened the following year. The Coloradans collaborated with Kosovar Albanians to paint a mural in Viti, Kosovo. At the time, the project was unique and groundbreaking.

"It was the only public art in the whole area," Wade says. "It became kind of famous because it was something new."

Wade is referring to the cultural identity of the new state. Kosovo was born from the fallout of the Balkan wars, which ended in 1999, but Kosovo didn't gain its independence until 2008. Even today, Serbia still claims the state, and Kosovo is not recognized by the European Union.

After the wars, states like Kosovo and their citizens were focused on establishing their governments and economies. Art and culture took a back seat.

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Wade continued to stay in touch with artists through Facebook, and in 2007 the first group of artists made their way to Colorado. Working with local artists, the group painted a mural at the New Castle public library.

The exchange was revived last year, when another group of Colorado artists traveled to Kosovo to paint another mural.

Now, in 2016, six Kosovar Albanian artists are getting their first chance to come to the United States as a part of the project.

The two-and-a-half-week exchange will take the visiting artists across Colorado to explore and work on community projects.

"We just got done in Denver," Wade said. "We worked with at-risk youth who were able to talk about being involved in the cultural exchange. These are kids who have never had a chance to travel."

The artists worked collaboratively to paint a mural at a community pool. Their ideas came together with the objective to convey reconciliation and empathy across cultural divides.

"The mural in Denver is made up of big cubes with smaller cubes," says Zyrie Haziri, one of the artists from Kosovo. "We painted in symbols from Kosovo and Colorado. They represent friendship together and unity."

Haziri is one of the original artists whom Wade met in Kosovo. They were in high school when they met, and now Haziri works for a bank in Kosovo as an economist. Art is more of a hobby for her, but for others in the exchange, art is their profession.

Mervan Mustafa is a professional artist with a master's degree in graphics. Along with Mustafa and Haziri, the group consists of art teachers and other working professionals.

At the time of the first trip in 2006, Mustafa said art was not a high priority in Kosovo. Things have changed since.

"People were not interested in art," Mustafa said through translator Lonnie Alija. "Now that we are in a time of peace, people have more time to spend on art and their interests."

Luckily for small-town Colorado, people have not had to go through cultural identity crisis like the Kosovar Albanians. In fact, it is unusual to not find at least one art galleries in towns along the Western Slope.

George Cutting helped put together a combined free concert and art show in Rifle to showcase the visiting artists' works. As president of the Bookcliff Council on Arts and Humanities in Rifle, Cutting sees art and culture as a way of promoting community togetherness.

"With a collaborative effort, the community around us will succeed," Cutting says. "Art is a great way to bring a whole community together."

It's that aspect of community that inspired the exchange and has kept it going in some form for the past decade. The friendships and connections made from artists half a world away has led to a unique exchange and adoption of different cultural ideas.

"I loved the idea to come back years after," Mustafa said. "I talked to colleagues from the original project and we were able to keep the project alive. Now we are here in Colorado.

The group is staying on a ranch in Carbondale until Saturday when they will head out to Boulder for another mural project with local artists. On July 26, their Boulder mural will be unveiled, and on July 29, the Mosaic Foundation will host a dinner and discussion with the artists and locals.

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