Breaking the ice with art: Washington Park resident shares his maze pieces to combat racial division


Warren Stokes loves his neighborhood.

He enjoys his daily six-block walk from his home to Washington Park, where he goes to create his art.

But he has noticed that other pedestrians will often cross the street or step into the alley until he passes.

“It’s not everybody,” Stokes said, “but it’s consistently enough (to notice) — on a daily basis.”

Stokes believes it’s more than keeping a physical distance because of the virus. He believes people may be avoiding him because they might fear him.

Stokes, who is Black, is a Colorado native, born and raised in Colorado Springs. He moved to Denver in 1997 for a job, after graduating from Colorado State University. He lived mostly in Denver’s east-side neighborhoods until February, when he moved to the Washington Park area.

“I believe that Black men carry every Black man that’s ever been seen on their shoulders. Whatever they (people) have seen in the media is what they see in me. However, you’ve got to push those stereotypes,” Stokes said. “So, I could be a Michael Jordan who can ball, possibly. But they probably see more criminals in the news, so they think I’m a threat.”

What Stokes feels is not uncommon, said Apryl Alexander, an associate professor at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology.

In fact, “a lot of Black people feel this way,” Alexander said. Black men being depicted as violent is embedded in some people’s cognitive thoughts, she added.

And “there’s nothing to debunk that if (a person) does not have a lot of experience with Black men,” Alexander said.

There are days when Stokes is able to not think about the issue, he said. But it happens on such a scale that he started sharing his art in postcard form to “break the ice,” he said.

Stokes, 45, is an artrepreneur/mazeologist, a father of three and a teacher.

Stokes’ forte is his maze art. He describes his creative process as “drawing a way out” of life’s difficulties. But along with using art as a healing mechanism, Stokes also uses his art to teach and for activism.

Man of many mazes

Stokes began creating his maze art in 2008, and in 2012, he challenged himself to draw a piece every day for a year. As of now, Stokes has created about 1,300 mazes.

Each of Stokes’ maze art pieces is unique and varies in size. Being a dumpster diver, Stokes uses discarded materials — a broken-up dresser drawer or shelf, for example — as his canvas.

“I’m unforgivingly going to be me,” Stokes said. “But what does that mean? That means sharing my art.”

Stokes added that people’s fear of him could be because there aren’t many people of color in his neighborhood.

According to the American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2019, the estimated population of the 80209 zip code, which includes most of the Washington Park neighborhood, was 25,367. Of that, 1.3% identified as Black or African American. For comparison, Denver’s estimated population in 2019 was 727,211, with 9.2% identifying as Black or African American.

There are still many places where there’s not a lot of racial diversity, Alexander said.

Leadership roles in corporate institutions are one example. In February, Fortune magazine reported that in the history of the Fortune 500 list — first published in 1955 — there have only been 19 Black CEOs, of the 1,800 total.

Alexander added that only a few of her students had a Black teacher or professor in their K-12 education or higher-ed studies prior to taking her class.

More institutions and organizations are incorporating diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in their policies. But Alexander urges people to consider what they are doing as individuals in their day-to-day life to stand up for Black people.

People can put up Black Lives Matters yard signs, but, Alexander asked, are they valuing their Black coworkers’ thoughts and ideas as much as those that come from their white colleagues?

“It’s not just police brutality that we’re highlighting in discussing racial injustice,” Alexander said. “It’s the everyday occurrences of Black people.”

She points to a December incident in a New York hotel during which a 22-year-old white woman falsely accused a Black 14-year-old of stealing her phone. Her phone was found soon after in a ride-share vehicle. However, the woman reportedly lunged and yelled at the teen during the confrontation. She has since been indicted on hate crime charges.

Incidents like this transcend across neighborhoods, Alexander said.

“Everybody should feel welcome,” she said. But, “how are white people communicating that to marginalized groups?”

Deeper meaning

Stokes likes to think of his mazes as a metaphor for life.

“The maze is beautiful as a whole, but it’s created from several different pieces that form a journey,” Stokes said. “A journey similar to life is full of obstacles and dead ends, but contains a solution.”

Stokes has held a variety of different jobs since moving to Denver, ranging from sales and telemarketing to substitute-teaching for Denver Public Schools. He has written many children’s books and coached various athletics.

Teaching is a skill that he has, Stokes said, but art is a passion.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Stokes started a subscription service business for daycare and assisted living facilities to purchase his mazes. He refers to them as brain gyms, inspired by his late grandmothers, who suffered from dementia.

Stokes now teaches on the online platform Outschool. His classes are geared toward preschoolers, and he uses his mazes to teach the alphabet. For example, solving a maze that is created inside the letter helps children with hand-eye coordination, all the while keeping the letter in mind and, thus, learning the letters of the alphabet, he said.

“My goal is to be an example of what I want America to be,” Stokes said. “I’m going to show you that through my art, my stories, through the way that I treat you, through the way I walk through this neighborhood and represent.”

Alexander added that “we all have biases.” They come from experiences, or commonly, the lack of experiences, with people who are different than us, Alexander said.

Though it sounds easy to do, it’s hard for people to challenge those biases. Alexander encourages people to think about how they can be a better ally to those who are different from them.

“What are you doing in your everyday environment to challenge your biases?” she said.

Stokes uses his art.

And he wants people to not feel fear when passing him.

“Maybe a story like this can help make everyone feel better and safer,” Stokes said. “I value our community and want to make this neighborhood as open and accepting as possible.”

Warren Stokes, Denver, artist, Christy Steadman


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