Updated: Oct 26, 2021
Photo by Chris Bagley from Memories of Earth, Leon Gallery, Denver
Thomas Scharfenberg is a brilliant multidisciplinary artist that has been producing work in the Denver art realm for many years. We first discovered his work within the legendary Rhinoceropolis venue where his painting style (along with several other collaborators) covered the walls from floor to ceiling---including numerous painted objects, as well as painted trees methodically placed throughout the space. Using every color that exists in paint, an enchanting and whimsical experience was created, much like his ongoing visionary works.
As an artist, Scharfenberg incorporates a magical flare wherever he goes; whether he's painting colorful dumpsters throughout Denver, creating stunning/award winning urban garden spaces, observing/altering nature through a camera lens, or contributing creatively to Denver's newest Meow Wolf installation. His work feels like stumbling upon a secret code---an unexpected camouflage...of brightly colored wild-flowers growing through the fragmented concrete of our city.
Be sure to explore more examples of Thomas Scharfenberg's work on his Instagram platforms:
@diamond_skys and @sharp_mountain
Wheat paste photo on paint can by Koko Bayer, ClaudeHaus gardens, Denver
Interview with Thomas Scharfenberg
by Amanda Varoz
Hey Thomas! It is an honor to interview you-- I am a huge fan of your work! Can you tell us how this all started, and why it has been important for you to you to continue creating?
My artistic inclinations were encouraged from a young age. Of course this included drawing pictures,1980s kid-type collages, and crafts. Making/wearing all kinds of costumes was how I spent a lot of time and creative energy on in my early years. I had/have quite an imagination, and fortunately my parents did take numerous documentation photos. Of course at the time I do not think I saw this as "art” but real life action… “creative play” and “nesting” have been/are taproots for my active life(style(s)) throughout the years.
Sculptures by Melissa Piazza outside ClaudeHaus, Denver
Painted concrete bricks/blocks/rocks ("Physical Pixels") by Thomas Scharfenberg, Denver
How long did it take you to paint Rhinoceropolis and what prompted you to do so?
3 1/2 years approximately; Little by little...not every day, but sometimes a week or two straight, sometimes 8 to 10 hour sessions... other times quick half hour sessions, early morning before work, afternoons on my way home, all-nighters with the assistance of residents Colin Ward, Stephan Herrera, Coleman Mummery and others.
We would paint different areas, layering over and weaving into each other's work---which was mostly abstracted patterns, brush work and color splotches. Stephan invited me to start painting an area of a wall in the fall of 2013. This was after we had a conversation about a large canvas he had hanging there at the time which was an abstracted noise/chaos/nature-type pattern.
It actually reminded me of television static or amplifier feedback— that was to serve as the underlying inspiration for all the painting, all the patterns/vibes. After the 1st wall (which was two sheets of plywood and a framework of two by fours) was painted we started painting all the walls, concrete and plywood, cupboards, doors, and hallways… by the spring of 2016 we had a celebration in honor of the painting process and after that it was pretty much over.
With the exception of a few additions during Fantasia 2016, I took a break as I habitually do during the summer months (I would paint at Rhinoceropolis mostly when it was inclement weather, during the winter and at night because my personal preference is to be out doors. It was hard for me to be inside a dark warehouse when it was bright and sunny outside. I got involved with some other projects and never really went back to the painting before the venue was officially shut down in November 2017…
Rhinoceropolis, Denver, 2016
It was truly a beautiful experience! Can you share any favorite memories from that time?
This was such an awesome time/era being involved as like the “resident painter” there at Rhinoceropolis. It was truly a gift, and I am for forever grateful to Stephan for the opportunity to be in that place. Though we didn’t know what it was going to be at the time, it became like a fly on the wall perspective to the happening lives and creations of people involved with that space at that particular time (punk time, shows, setting up shows, after shows, hanging out, getting ready, going to work, lounging, playing video games, preparing food, cleaning lol, personal dramas… (the space was a living room, kitchen, art studio and venue.)
For example I will always remember I could hear through the wall at the Glob space next-door Luke (French Kettle station) recording his album Dead Magnolia...recording each track and each instrument individually...it was amazing! I cherish the friendships and partnerships I made from collaborations; like the times we spent working on the Fantasia 2014 and 2016 exhibits, those were totally off-the-wall! Lol, it was really fun.
Because I was there so frequently, I got to see and became aware of so many shows (regulars at this time were: Bang Play, Sugarsplat, Midwife, Petit Garçon, Pizza Time, Kid Mask, Born Dumb, Echo Beds, Lockbox, Noise Fest…) being there working, and visiting with other residents and neighbors … I should mention too, at the time I was living (don’t ask don’t tell) just two blocks away at the artist studio warehouse known as Wazee Union. So, Rhinoceropolis was just a short walk away… I had shyly been attending shows at Rhinoceropolis since it opened in 2006 but during this time 2013-2016 I felt really involved and it was really fun!
You also work in a lovely green house/garden space. Thanks again for lending us this wonderful oasis for one of our first NS photoshoots BTW! How does nature play a part in your work?
Thank you. I take a lot of pride in the work we do at the greenhouses. I understand gardening to be an artistic practice and we (in the greenhouse's production facilities) are supplying this practice with the materials, certain types and colors of plants to be arranged, planted, living compositions etc. Currently I have 2 different greenhouse gigs that I refer to as my “day job.” Though it is true I have worked at various greenhouse jobs since I was a teenager, and I am sure the years among mass production of plant material has no doubt had an effect on my art practice, aesthetic and personality.
To me... nature (is everything?) is both an escape from the hum drum of daily routines and an inspiration/point of exploration for art making… I feel/see nature as a state of natural evolving balance of (different shades of) light and dark, (varying volumes of) chaos and order, like a dance, rhythm, back-and-forth dialogue of interacting forces…many of the patterns in my artworks were discovered from a close up/microscopic view of something intriguing (mud puddles, tree bark, ice crystals, etc.)These are visual representations of both highly ordered and turbulent (dis)systems occurring in the "real” world…
Mountain Grown Gardens, Alma
Your kaleidoscope creations really resonate with me as I also love experimenting with this effect! When did you decide to take your love of photography to this level and how has it changed how you view a typical composition?
I am happy you are inspired by these works. I know I am not the only one out there making these type of works, but the way I discovered it was an around way about on Instagram… (One way to look at an Instagram is like a magazine in which the user gets to choose and pick who and what contributes to their feed.) The sky diamonds is like something you would see at the end of a monthly magazine.
You open the page (seems fitting that it would be at the back of the issue) and see the diamond image, and initially you might not know what the original/source image is, but on the next page (or lower/smaller on the same page) would be the original photo with information about where the image came from and it would probably relate to one or some of the monthly features of whatever magazine you’re reading. It’s kind of like a fun little guessing game. This is how I see the sky diamonds fitting into the world of media.
This was not my intention when I started however. In the beginning I was putting four images together in a simple 2x2 grid to create one image with the intent of posting this one (4 in 1) image to Instagram (at this time the application only allowed users to post one picture per post.) It had already been my habit to shoot images from iPhone in a square format and also a habit (not always but frequently) to include/crop a horizon line or diagonal line dissecting these square images through the middle at approximately a 45° angle. So then I was playing around with these different square images which had been dissected at 45° angles and arranged in a simple 2 x 2 grid format...and the diamond appeared.
I have had numerous exhibitions of this work and it has been pretty successful, but I kind of see it as a B-side/side project that happens in tandem with whatever I’m exploring at the moment…
Kaleidoscope ("Skydiamond") photo by Thomas Scharfenberg
Not only are you an amazing visual artist, but you are also an avid music enthusiast/performer? Can you please tell us a little about this and how music influences your visual art and vice versa?
The way I interpret Music is basically like an arrangement or composition (a patterning) of different sounds or flavors. Using a variety of instruments is like using a variety of paint applicators (brushes, spray cans, pencils markers…) or a mixture of ingredients (sweet and salty, sour and savory…). The different sounds and pitches are like different colors, highlights, flavors and textures. I interpret lyrics in a song like the text in or accompanying a visual art work.
I am not currently involved with or on any music project per say. I do enjoy playing drums in percussion instruments, working as fun, exercise, stretch once and a while…
Frequently I refer to my fellow installation collaborators as/like band members . For our project BBS (Chris Bagley, Koko Bayer, and myself) we literally call ourselves an art band. The band gets gigs at different venues and we create a multi sensory show specific to that location.
"Ojos en la selva" puppet performance at Claudehaus by Victor Escabedo, Denver
How is the Denver music and art scene acclimating? Where do you see it heading in the near future?
I see the Denver Art scene as ever evolving. The last 10+ years have seen a major boom in the general population. I would say right along side/in tandem with that, the art scene has been growing with the population. I am happy with the proliferation/regeneration of mural art and festivals that are inspiring to all---especially to newer generations.
Wazee Union Paintings featuring work by Thomas Scharfenberg, NSPIRE, PHERO, NICE, GIRLIE, ESME, Denver
I've seen your work all over Denver! Can you tell us about the dumpsters you painted, and the idea behind them? They are awesome!
Thank you! This was actually part of a bigger group project called “Birdseed Dumpsters.” The art collective known as “Birdseed” organized about 20 artists to come out and paint on-site dumpsters at three different public housing locations. Each artist was assigned two or three dumpsters a piece and given about a week to paint them. We did this three years in a row 2016, 17 and 18. I personally painted a total of eight dumpsters for these projects. The project was funded by the city of Denver...I have been involved with Birdseed Collective since 2015. They are a positive hard-working local nonprofit art organization.
Dumpsters with Birdseed Collective, Denver
What was it like working with Denver Meow Wolf? What are you most excited for regarding the space?
Denver Meow wolf was a very exciting project. It took a long time (due to logistics and pandemic) to get to completion so I always had it in the back of my mind, but was never overly invested in it. I figured “hey if it works out cool but if not it’s all good also.” I originally applied/submitted some ideas back in January 2018. Eventually everything did work out and with the help of three others (Samuel Mata, Neil Ewing, Stephan Herrera) created a large longform mural for the area known as “C St.”
For this project I saw myself the the composer/director of an art Orchestra/Band in which we were all "musicians” creating a visual composition. This is the thing I am most proud about the project was being able to hire my friends, local artists, also deserving of some support from Meow wolf. I hope visitors are DIY inspired beyond entertained by their experience.
We first became aware of Meow wolf art collective when they (2 individuals: Emily Montoya and Benji Geary) participated in Rhinoceropolis’ “Fantasia” 2014 and 2016 well before the opening of the now world famous space in Santa Fe. It was helpful/serendipitous to have these connections as we also had crossed paths further back in history as students at Fort Louis college located southwest Durango Colorado.
Meow Wolf, Collaboration featuring Thomas Scharfenberg, Sam Mata, Neil Ewing, and Stephen Herrera, Denver
You won The Best Yard Award from Westword in 2019! What was that experience like?
This was a complete surprise and something I am quite proud of. Gardening can be fully artistic and this acknowledgment inspired me to focus more time on it, and think of yard art as another pillar in my practice. That being said I also think garden scaping relates to “place making” which is a form of “nesting” which is also something I have been inclined towards from a young age.
Yard art/ClaudeHaus gardens multiple views, harvest moon celebration, flower costume by Tiffany Matheson
Aside from making stellar art, what else do you enjoy doing for fun?
I love riding bicycles! I commute across the city and mountains (depending where I’m at) via bike as frequently as I can and take long meandering exploratory routes to get home. I also really enjoy hiking and seeking out the trails without any other humans on them. In the city I call this practice “urban hiking” and I highly recommend it to everybody. There are miles and miles of back allies, side roads, parks, creeks, paths and shopping centers to explore when you're in the city in exactly the same manner people do when they explore in the mountains.
Photos by Thomas Scharfenberg
What advice can you give to the world when it comes to making art and self expression?
These are some things I like to keep in mind while working creatively:
visual art, music and cooking are all basically the same kind of practice.
Mixing paint is like mixing sounds, is like mixing flavors.
Photo by Sam Mata
In your opinion, what has been the most original human artwork(s) and what do you believe is the purpose of such works?
From my current perspective in human history, I believe cave paintings, (musical) rhythmic chanting or songs, and food could be the most original art forms. Furthermore I believe these were not created at the time with the intention to be "sold.” I believe they were created for a higher purpose…
Photo from Black Cube: A Nomadic Art Museum, Denver
Thank you Thomas Scharfenberg---for producing your art with a higher sense of purpose---a unique connection to nature and to each other.
For more images and info be sure to follow @diamond_skys and @sharp_mountain