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Chrome Allies

When Stanton Stegner cooks something up for you, order it welded done.

A few weeks ago Stanton Stegner took over a small warehouse at the corner of 22nd and Curtis Streets, where an auto-parts supply store used to be. Using his 1969 Ford van and a flatbed trailer, he systematically began depositing sculptures made from old chrome bumpers and scrap steel around his backyard--a blacktop surface surrounded by chain-link fence.

"I figure I am beautifying the exact place where LoDo goes bad," he says, contemplating a twenty-foot-long sculpture of a skeleton astride a futuristic Harley. "Every homeless person in the world comes by here sooner or later. Sometimes I can't legibly tell what they're saying about my work, but I assume it's compliments."

As if on cue, an English-as-a-second-language carpenter who has been restoring a flophouse across the street comes over to lace his fingers through the chain link. "This? You do? Yes? Cool!"

"It's for sale," Stegner says hopefully.
"Oh? Oh, no," the carpenter says, backing off.
So far, this has been the story of Stegner's life, and it burns him. "I mean, look at this," he says, approaching a ten-foot-tall chrome head with a small trap door installed in its forehead. "It's called 'Open Up Your Mind.' And when you open it up, see, there's a little steel devil inside. Just like everyone has in their mind."

Who wouldn't want that installed in their yard, their health-club foyer, the conference room of their insurance brokerage? It beats Stegner. But after ten years as a struggling welder of cast-off car parts, he has decided to get serious about marketing. Already, in less than an hour of conversation, he's used the word "signage" twice. And last month he threw what could almost be called a gallery opening.

"It was quite a mix of people," recalls Jennifer Roberts, retail manager for Easyriders of Denver, a motorcycle shop affiliated with the national magazine of the same name. "He had some real upstanding, fancy art types there. Businessmen. When people see his work, they are just fascinated. It makes you want to help him get rich and famous."

Roberts plans to do this by talking up Stegner and his chrome art at biker rallies everywhere.

"I do okay with bikers," Stegner says, although he sold not one piece at this year's Sturgis rally in the Dakotas. "But that was okay. I just sat around and watched naked women get their pictures taken on my work."

No one got all the way naked at Stegner's party last month, but the atmosphere around the Wagnerian wet bar Stegner had welded for the occasion was loose and friendly. People loved the work. The chrome cow skull, the dancing aborigine with the pierced penis, the Star Trekkian coffee table and chairs. No one bought anything, Stegner says. No one was even willing to trade.

"Ah, no," says Ted, a consultant from New York who has come to Denver for two weeks to "slut" Stegner's work, as he puts it. "We sold two pieces, maybe three."

Stegner interrupts. "Really? Well, we had about seventy people--"
"One hundred," Ted says. "We had one hundred."
Ted is just one of the amenities--along with rent money and welding equipment--currently being supplied to Stegner by Denver investment advisor H. Corbin Day. "Usually my company does venture-capital things--start-up companies, high-tech," Day says, "but I'm helping Stan with marketing strategy. I've put some money into it. I see potential."

Day also sees a catalogue, ads in Iron Horse and Easyriders and a West Coast database in Stegner's future. Ted has been hauling around a Stegner trout--ten feet long and vicious--to various lower downtown restaurants and nightclubs, suggesting that they hang the art as a sort of Stegner Steel Works Billboard. "Stan's never marketed his stuff," Day explains. "What he's mostly done is moved around."

This is true. What follows is Stegner's itinerary from the past twelve years. He is now thirty.

Stegner grew up in Park Forest, a suburb of Chicago, with four brothers, a social-worker mom and a high-school-principal dad. "I drove them crazy," Stegner says. "I was a halfway hoodlum; I burnt my army men. I was raised on The Dukes of Hazzard and The Six Million Dollar Man. Talk about a product of TV violence." Stegner tried to get a design degree at a community college but left because the curriculum was "so bogus." At eighteen, he moved to Denver.

Stegner likes mountains, so he picked the Mile High City as headquarters for his own construction company. Denver picked this era to undergo a building slump. Stegner spent the next six years selling off his heavy equipment and living on the proceeds. And Jet-Skiing, which is how he met Sean Guerrero, arguably the best-known chrome sculptor in the world. (You can see his bumper horse on the roof of Denver Bumper Works, just east of the Eighth Avenue exit on I-25.) Guerrero was struggling at the time, but Stegner was intrigued enough to begin welding his own giant pieces. "I had to build things their way in construction," Stegner explains. "Now I build things my way, and if you don't like it, goodbye."

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