Carving a Niche

From body bags to gang shootings, artist Bill Potts has seen the horror--and held on to the dream.

Bill Potts gets along with just about everybody. Still, there was a woman at an art show in Boulder who managed to curl his lip.

A sculptor who carves vivid, exaggerated figures and tableaux out of wood--athletes, jazz musicians, street scenes, historic events, dinosaurs, you name it--Potts isn't entirely comfortable in art galleries; he'd rather swap stories with his neighbors than spout off about his aesthetic and his influences and all that art-school jazz. But Potts had several pieces in a Boulder show a few years ago, and that was how he happened to overhear this woman who was running down folk art, calling it something second-rate artists resort to "when they can't make it any other way."

"I said to myself, 'Lord, if this woman could work with me in my garage just one week,'" he recalls. "Cold in the wintertime. Hot in the summer. Hit my finger with the hammer. Knock over paint. Stand here admiring my work, and my wife comes out and says, 'I don't like it.' If that woman could put up with that for about a week, I bet she'd change her mind, buster."

Potts makes these remarks while working on a two-foot-high statuette in his Montbello garage and workshop, surrounded by heaps of tools and paint and sawdust. There's a bite in the air this early spring morning, despite the roar of a space heater in the corner, but Potts is too busy to notice. His large, well-scarred hands pick their way unerringly through the clutter around him, seizing brushes and rags.

The work in progress is a stunning rendition of a beaming, post-concert Louis Armstrong, clutching his trumpet in one hand and a sweat-drenched handkerchief in the other. It's almost finished, but there's a problem: The trumpet is painted a dull copper color rather than the glittering brass of Satchmo's horn. Ossie, Potts's wife of 37 years, got on him about it, so Potts--who often works with discarded lumber, whatever paints he has on hand and surprisingly crude tools, including hatchets and kitchen knives--is giving the trumpet a new paint job.

Such details are an important part of Potts's work. Not that he's interested in mere verisimilitude; his pieces are almost cartoonish, larger than life. Yet the key emotional details--Armstrong's trademark dazzling grin, the jauntiness of his Ray Charles, the severe brow on his gloomy Malcolm X--capture the essence of these personalities as they live in the public memory. They have been transformed, reborn but still recognizable, in the pantheon of heroes and scoundrels that resides in the imagination of one William E. Potts.

His best work has a disarming innocence to it, a kind of simplicity that belies the long hours spent on each piece. Around the neighborhood Potts is known as Mr. Bill, the Wood Butcher or Geppetto. It's in keeping with his almost-quaint image as a "self-taught folk artist," an image Potts promotes with hand-lettered signs lying around his garage. B.C. MONSTERS. MONTBELLO DINOSAURS MADE HERE, reads one. AMERICAN PRIMITIVE FOLK ART BY BILL POTTS.

Says another: ANYONE CAN TEAR DOWN BUT CAN YOU BUILD UP?? TO CREATE IS TO LIVE. "That's my motto," Potts says.

Creating gave Potts a new life at a time when the old one had been all but buried under a mountain of economic woes and family loss. Beneath the aura of simplicity is the iron will of a modern Job, a former Army medic who, after years of enduring personal and public tragedy--war, illness, the deaths of his first wife and only daughter, a son in prison--found fresh purpose by fooling around in his garage. If folks want to call him a folk artist or a "primitive" or an "outsider," that's fine with Potts; he'll just keep on doing what he's doing.

"He's astute enough to market himself as a folk artist," says state folklorist Bea Roeder, a professor at Pikes Peak Community College who's followed Potts's career for years. "He's aware of the image and has bent a little bit to fit. But he's a very sincere artist. He's also quite good at surviving as an artist."

Potts started selling his work at flea markets more than a decade ago. Since that time, his carvings have shown up in galleries and exhibits across the country--from Aspen to Houston, Seattle to Washington, D.C.--as well as in the private collections of such celebrities as singer Joe Cocker and 60 Minutes star Ed Bradley. When the Summit of the Eight gets under way next month, Satchmo and several other Potts creations will be on display at Denver International Airport to greet the visiting dignitaries, part of a special exhibition showcasing local talent. It's an honor Potts says he didn't expect to get, given the number of artists in Colorado vying for attention.

"Within my realm of folk art, I do okay," Potts says. "But when you start competing with these college grads--" He shakes his head. "What I try to do is create something that will keep your attention. Like when I give talks at church. People listen. I try to say things differently."

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