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Inside Ed Dwight's hangar-like studio, the 63-year-old sculptor rushes between welding sparks and tables laden with his work, talking angrily about the troubles he's having with some of his ex-employees. He almost yells in order to be heard above the din of heavy equipment used to make his art. "These motherfuckers are stealing from me!" he exclaims. "I've been all over the world and I've brought back art books from London and Paris that you can't get here, and people are taking them from me.
"I'm just a little guy trying to do my art," the five-foot-three-inch Dwight adds, "and people won't leave me alone."
But the truth is that Dwight's much more than just a little guy: Over the past twenty years he's become one of the most successful and prolific sculptors in the West.
His shop in Park Hill overflows with bronze busts and statues, most of them of famous African-Americans: Dizzy Gillespie, Hank Aaron, Ella Fitzgerald. Some of his jazz sculptures are in the Smithsonian Institution, while others have been sold for several hundred thousand dollars apiece to private collectors. He's been commissioned by the State of Colorado to construct monuments honoring black contributions to America's Western settlement, and his work is featured in the Governor's Invitational Art Show currently on display in Loveland.
Last month a collector flew in from Nigeria with $6,000 and the sole intent of buying an Ed Dwight sculpture, says Ernest Bonner, owner of Mosadi's Collections in Denver. "The first thing people in the art world ask when you tell them you're from Denver is, 'Do you know Ed Dwight?'" adds Bonner. "He's put Denver on the map as far as African-American art is concerned."
Fellow sculptor George Lundeen goes further. "Ed has brought more culture to Denver than the National Endowment for the Arts," the Loveland artist says. "He's brought a lot of pride to the sculpture community."
Dwight's lawyer calls him the "Martin Luther King of the Denver art community."
But not everyone talks about Dwight in such lofty terms. Several former employees paint him as a domineering and callous boss.
"Ed's got two totally different faces," says Kathy Discoe, who was fired by Dwight after working in his studio for two months. "He tends to treat people well who benefit him. Gallery owners, people who provide funding for him, all get to see his charming side. It's much different with the people who work for him. He'll walk right over you to get what he wants." (Another former employee describes this as Dwight's "charm/asshole duality.") To Discoe, the environment in Dwight's shop is like that of "a very big, dysfunctional family."
And these days, there's no less-favorite son than Matt Thompson.
A welder who learned his trade building high-rises in Dallas, Thompson started working for Dwight in 1989, when he was 23. From the start, their working relationship set off sparks.
During his off-and-on seven-year stint with Dwight, Thompson says, the artist fired him three times. But Thompson was back with Dwight in the spring of 1996 when he hurt his back--on the job, he says. Dwight's workers' compensation insurance had lapsed, though, and he refused to pay Thompson's medical bills.
Dwight claims Thompson quit on his own and lied about the time frame of his injury in an attempt to garner a favorable settlement. "Not only is Thompson flat-out lying," says Dwight, "but he's calling up people who worked for me six, seven years ago and never complained to start talking now. He's calling employees who are working for me now and turning them against each other. Everyone down here is looking at each other sideways because of what he's telling them. And he's calling up my clients trying to ruin my reputation, which is all I've got."
Thompson filed a claim against Dwight with the state Division of Workers' Compensation, seeking medical benefits and lost wages. A third hearing on the case was held May 21, and arguments were so rancorous that an administrative law judge continued the hearing over until early June. (Dwight had subpoenaed Westword to appear at the hearing; the judge threw out that request.)
Thompson's attorney, Neil O'Toole, says this case "could set the record as the longest compensation hearing I am aware of."
But Dwight's been in fights before, and he's not about to back down now.
In addition to his fame as an artist, Dwight is known in some circles as "America's first black astronaut"--a notion trumpeted by his own promotional materials. But in fact, Ed Dwight never made it into space.
In 1961, when John F. Kennedy was president, the U.S. began screening applicants for the first class of astronauts. Dwight, who'd flown with the Air Force since 1952, was the only black in the astronaut training program. Distinguished pilot Chuck Yeager, who was in charge of the space program's application and training process, writes in his autobiography that Dwight finished dead last out of 26 applicants. But because of intense pressure from the Kennedy administration to include a black pilot in the space program, Yeager says, he was compelled to bump Dwight up to the list of fifteen finalists sent for additional training.