Meet the MasterMinds

Four years ago, Westword added a very special component to Artopia: the MasterMind awards. Recognizing that the local arts scene needed a little fertilizer to really get going — and growing — we created a program that every year honors five cultural visionaries, artists and organizations alike, that are working to change the cultural landscape of Denver. And we decided not just to honor them, but to give them each $4,000 to use as they see fit.

The first three classes of MasterMinds have done amazing things with their awards, frequently using them to help other, struggling artists along and creating major multipliers for the $20,000 that Westword gives away each year. "In this case," says Tony Shawcross, 2007 MasterMind winner, "I'd like to think that the $4,000 award was leveraged into hundreds of media projects that have been completed here since. The goal and the vision that Westword chose to support through our MasterMind award was opening access to the tools and resources people need to express themselves, without any corporation, committee or individual determining who is and is not worthy of such an opportunity."

Each year, the previous MasterMinds help choose our next MasterMinds. The class of 2008 is profiled in the pages that follow. They're an extraordinary group who've brought films that might otherwise never be seen in Denver, music that might otherwise never be heard. They've used poetry to give a voice to abused teens, helped the town look at an old neighborhood in a new way and, in the case of our winner in fashion/design, just kept Denver looking good.

Art-district impresarios Jill Hadley Hooper and Tracy Weil.
Mark Manger
Art-district impresarios Jill Hadley Hooper and Tracy Weil.
Designer Mona Lucero at her store of the same name.
Mark Manger
Designer Mona Lucero at her store of the same name.

Visual Arts
Jill Hadley Hooper & Tracy Weil/RiNo

2007: Jimmy Sellars
2006: Katie Taft
2005: Lauri Lynnxe Murphy

One night in the fall of 2004, I ran into Jill Hadley Hooper at Dazzle. "Interesting I should see you," I said, or something close to that, anyway. "We have this idea for Westword to give five $4,000 grants to artists and artists' groups every year. Do you think that might make a difference to Denver's cultural scene?"

"Are you kidding?" she said (and I'm pretty sure that's exact).

Good thing that most of Denver's artists aren't in it for the money. They're in it for love — love of art, love of community.

Hadley Hooper is from Denver. She went away to school, then came back with a dream of illustrating for Westword — but her talents took her much further, and by the middle of this decade she was working as both an illustrator (she just did a campaign for Amnesty International) and a painter, and was a partner at Ironton Studios, at 3636 Chestnut Street. That's right by Weilworks, at 3611 Chestnut, the gallery opened by Tracy Weil. Weil, another Denver native, had worked at City Spirit, bartending, booking bands and managing the place when LoDo was still the heart of the hip arts activity. And when he decided to buy some property where he could build a studio, Mickey Zeppelin and Susan Wick, his former employers, directed him to the River North area, up past the Ballpark neighborhood along the Platte, "the next hot area" where they both had new enterprises. "Try explaining to your mom that you bought a junkyard instead of your first house," Weil remembers. But by 2003, he'd built a stunning home/studio/gallery on his property.

Not only did it look great, but it had great neighbors. In November 2005, Weil and Hadley Hooper started talking about what they could do to promote their part of town and get more recognition for the art coming out of it. Taking a key from River North, they decided to band together as RiNo. Weil, a website developer by day, contributed the website, and Hadley Hooper created the rhinoceros logo (the bird on the beast's back is known as "LoDo"), and voilà! "All of a sudden, we were an art district," Weil remembers.

And what a district! RiNo sprawls across major streets and a river, incorporating dusty warehouses and new lofts. "Artists have been working in the area for many years side by side with light industry," Hadley Hooper explains. "Sharon Brown coined the phrase 'Where Art Is Made' to illustrate the point that we have artists' studios, several of the best metal fabricators and sculptors, woodworkers, glass artists, video-editing companies and photographers, among many others." And you can see them all during the twice-a-year tours Hadley Hooper and Weil offer in the district. (The next one, Plant Yourself in RiNo, is May 17. "We are encouraging our forty-plus locations to green the area up with planters and gardens," says Hadley Hooper.)

You can see a lot more in RiNo these days, too. Ambitious builders are eyeing every spare parcel — and many that are occupied. "We want to make sure that artists own their own spaces — and a lot of us do. We're here for the long haul," Weil says. "But developers are knocking on our door, and they see the value in what we've created."

So do we. For their work creating — and promoting — Denver's hippest, hottest art district, Hadley Hooper and Weil are our 2008 MasterMinds in visual arts.

No kidding. — Patricia Calhoun

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