Avenging Angel

One of Denver's most notorious artworks goes on the block -- or does it?

In the late 1970s, when June Turner's son, Ron Mays, first told her that he wanted to dedicate his life to art, two words flashed through this loving mother's brain: "Starving artist," she says.

If Mays's subsequent career hasn't quite lived up to Turner's darkest fears, neither has it obliterated them. Mays has earned a certain degree of infamy over the years, but as his wife, Leslie, knows all too well, that doesn't pay the bills.

"Ron's dream is to be an artist -- and you tend your dreams like you tend your kids," she says, gazing at her eight-month-old son, Matthew; he's one of four children in the Mays household, joining Brandon, seven, Ashley, ten, and Michael, eleven. Her voice quavers as she adds, "You just do it, no matter what it takes. But there are times when I wish he had another dream -- like when I can't get my carpet shampooed because his artwork is piled all over it."

A wing and a prayer: Ron Mays and "Hell's Guardian Angel."
Brett Amole
A wing and a prayer: Ron Mays and "Hell's Guardian Angel."
Mays at home in Aurora with Matthew, Brandon and Michael.
Brett Amole
Mays at home in Aurora with Matthew, Brandon and Michael.

Indeed, samples from Mays's oeuvre are everywhere in what he vividly describes as his "brown, 1,000-square-foot, piece-of-shit" house, which is wedged between two shabby apartment buildings in a less than affluent section of Aurora. Several of his pieces are mounted on the walls of the modest living room, but many others, in various stages of completion, are stacked against them -- most notably "Hell's Guardian Angel," a squiggly paint-on-glass abstract that's far and away his best-known piece, albeit for reasons not necessarily connected to its quality. Mays, who is 43, gave birth to the Angel, as he calls it, when he was in his early twenties, and as soon as it was completed, he knew it was a tour de force that deserved to hang side by side with other classics. Unfortunately for him, this knowledge wasn't universally shared, so he took matters into his own hands. In November 1981, he broke into the Denver Art Museum, picked a nice spot next to a Frank Stella canvas and put the Angel on display, where it remained for several glorious minutes.

Until the police arrived.

As Mays was being carted away, he asked not for a lawyer, but for an art critic -- a memorable request that didn't do him much good then and hasn't since. Despite his quasi-celebrity, most local reviewers have ignored him, as have the majority of gallery owners; neither has he been embraced by his fellow artists. "I've never really been part of the Denver art scene," he concedes. "I think most of the people in it are afraid of me." But such reactions haven't deterred him from following his chosen path, no matter how rocky or obstacle-strewn it might be. "Tragic Empire," an enormous six-foot-by-six-foot opus made up of black-painted computer pieces that resembles an anti-utopian cityscape, took considerably more than six months to complete, and the cost of assembling its 3,800 parts took quite a toll on his family. "At one point," Mays says, "I had to tell the kids, 'Looks like we won't be going to the zoo this year.'"

Of course, Mays is accustomed to making sacrifices for his art. In the '80s, he robbed banks to pay for tubes of paint (this moneymaking scheme earned him several years in assorted federal pens). A decade later he was performing in low-grade, locally produced pornographic videos whenever he ran short of brushes or frames. But now, after several years of wandering in the metaphoric wilderness (and feeding his family by working in the warehouse of a glass company), he's got another chance at recognition. For the first time in years, Mays has landed a one-man show; it debuts May 18 at Space Gallery, a relatively new art bastion located at 2026 Larimer, and runs through June 13. And while many of his newer pieces, including "Tragic Empire," are part of the program, the marquee item is "Hell's Guardian Angel," which will be put on view for the first time since its unauthorized presentation at the Denver Art Museum.

But not for long. Mays is auctioning off the Angel to benefit his sister, Laura, a Castle Rock resident; on May 7, she underwent surgery to remove a tumor on her pituitary gland that's fueled a condition known as Cushing's syndrome -- and she doesn't have medical insurance. Bidding will open at $1,200 because, says Mays, "anything less would be an insult."

However, this apparent act of altruism is accompanied by an intriguing question: Is the Angel that's up for auction the original? Mays swears it is -- but the tale he relays about its journeys over the years, marked by a baffling disappearance, private dicks and potentially ominous doings in Washington, D.C., is admittedly fantastic and utterly impossible to document. The vagaries of Mays's chronicle didn't trouble the Rocky Mountain News, which published an article about the Angel's return in 1999, but KCNC-TV decided not to air a report about the piece two years earlier, after reporter Steve Lusk stumbled upon a contradiction that raised legitimate doubts about the Angel's authenticity.

Mays doesn't appear to take such suspicions personally. After all, he says, "the story is, like, way out in left field somewhere -- just like the rest of my life."

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