Colorado artist Nalye Nor grew up in a suburb north of Denver wondering why the city didn’t have a Chinatown like other states—but she didn’t learn the neighborhood’s tragic history until years later.
In 1880, Denver’s Chinatown, a previously thriving district largely located in what is now known as Lower Downtown or LoDo District, was destroyed by a race riot. After a saloon fight, a mob of white residents destroyed nearly every Chinese home and business in the area, and one man, Look Young, was lynched. The community never recovered, and there haven’t been many efforts to honor its significance—until now, thanks in part to Nor.
To commemorate the former Chinatown and the contributions of Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) community members to the city, social-justice-promoting nonprofit Colorado Asian Pacific United (CAPU) commissioned Nor to paint a mural at Denver Fire Station 4 near Sakura Square. The vibrant masterpiece, which was completed in June 2023, highlights the past, present and future of the Chinese diaspora via depictions of railroad and laundry workers and a railroad track that turns into an infinite noodle. It also features the Chinese Proverb: “Be not afraid of going slowly. Be afraid of standing still.”
The mural is part of the Reimagining Chinatown Project, established by AANHPI leaders and organizations in the city, including CAPU and the Denver Pacific Islander Commission. It is Nor’s first large-scale work and was installed in about three months with the help of her painting teammates Keanu Lynn and Hannah Elstad.
“I’m so honored to be able to create artwork in remembering the past,” she said. “It’s incredibly special because I was also prepared for CAPU to flat out say ‘no’ to my submissions since I had no mural experience, but I would’ve walked away with portfolio pieces that I am still proud of.”
Local's Tip: Art and Culture
Embark on a tour of artsy destinations. “RiNo art district is a favorite place to see art because you’re immersed in it when you step foot there. I’m also a fan of Meow Wolf’s immersive universe. Your senses might get a little too stimulated, but in the best of ways.”
Admire masterpieces by local creatives. “There’s a lot of public art in and around Denver, so I would definitely recommend taking time to explore Colorado to discover artists you may have never heard of before … When it comes to murals you can see around Denver, I really like Casey Kawaguchi’s and Detour’s works. Online pictures just don’t do them justice.”
Take a sipping and painting class. “I recommend Whimsy Paint and Sip Art Studio in Westminster. You learn from working artists who are passionate about what they do and have fun while doing it. You may also get to see the works of children’s books illustrator and tatooer, Lindsey Bell.
Look for art outside of the galleries. “My favorite is when artists are featured in local stores and coffee shops. It presents a lot of opportunities to be able to purchase artwork to take home with you.”
For Nor, the project came to fruition at a time when she felt unfulfilled by her job as a graphic designer.
“Not that I didn’t enjoy my work, I just sort of felt stale as an artist,” she said. “I lost my creative spark. I wanted to create more, I wanted to illustrate from scratch and work with traditional mediums rather than just create digitally—but it was hard to find the time to juggle everything I wanted to do.”
The mural gave Nor the opportunity to “do something more illustrative” and pushed her outside her comfort zone, all while commemorating an important part of Denver’s history. Nor credits many mediums for inspiring her to become the artist and illustrator she is today. Growing up, she watched a lot of animated shows and movies with vibrant characters and stories and read many graphic novels that conveyed emotion and magic, from “Arthur” and “Sailor Moon” to “Stand Tall,” “Molly Lou Melon” and "Peach Girl.” She was also captivated by famed painter and instructor Bob Ross and Disney artist Eyvind Earle, who worked on films like “Sleeping Beauty” and “Pocahontas.”
“I love art in all of its forms and mediums,” Nor said. “I don't think there was one particular moment that inspired me to become an artist, but rather, it was a culmination of everything inspiring me that led me here, to become an artist.”
See Nor’s mural on the side of Denver Fire Station 4 at 19th and Lawrence streets in LoDo, and learn more about the artist at nananalis.com.