Meet the MasterMinds

Six 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 — working to change the cultural landscape of Denver. And we decided to not just honor them, but to give them each substantial cash awards to use as they see fit.

The first five 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 close to $100,000 that Westword has given away so far. "I'd like to think that the award was leveraged into hundreds of media projects that have been completed here since," says Tony Shawcross, whose Deproduction/Denver Open Media was a 2007 MasterMind winner.

Each year, the previous winners help choose our next class of MasterMinds. And like our earlier honorees, the 2010 MasterMinds are an extraordinary group. Through their work, they've helped to revive classical music through coffeehouse culture, taught artists how to feed themselves by feeding each other, shown imprisoned kids how to escape through art, and put on shows — lots of shows — involving fashion, the visual arts, movies and more.

The 2010 MasterMind awards will be presented at Artopia on Saturday, February 20, at 8 p.m. at the Living Room. Bios of this year's winners begin below.

Fallene Wells

"Does this mean I have to make more outfits?" Fallene Wells asks, laughing, when she hears she's a 2010 MasterMind. The 28-year-old is the brains behind Forever Darling, an annual fashion show and market that raises money for various charitable causes. "I felt that in order for my garments to be in a fashion show in Denver, I had to have my own fashion show," she explains. "So I started my own."

The inaugural show, in 2007, featured local designers James Silvrants, Catherine Rogers, Crystal Sharp and Joey Delore, as well as Wells's own Let 'Em Have It line of garments. After that, the show "just got bigger and bigger," Wells says.

She first became interested in fashion at the age of eleven, when she visited Long Beach's Brooks College with her sister, who was into interior design. "All of the dress forms had really cool outfits on them," she remembers, "and the sketches and everything — it just somehow sparked something in me, and I felt like that's what I wanted to do." When Wells was fifteen years old, she thought about going to Brooks herself, but her boyfriend at the time "kind of influenced me not to do it," she says, "so I ended up not going. But I felt that I still really had a passion for it, and I feel if you're meant to do something in life, it'll happen to you anyway. It's just kind of weird how it blew up out here."

It's especially weird considering that Wells's second attempt at a formal fashion education backfired, too: The fashion program she wanted to take at the Art Institute of Colorado had been discontinued by the time the seventeen-year-old moved to Denver from Vegas. "I decided that I was going to either enroll at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York or enroll in a cosmetology program out here," she says. "So it was kind of, 'Which path should I take?' And I ended up going to cosmetology school. I've been a hairstylist for six years. I think being a hairdresser and a designer is awesome, because I have an understanding of color and texture, and hair to me is just another fabric. So it makes me a stronger designer."

She designs mostly women's dresses, but hopes to break into separates soon. "I just feel that people should dress how they want to be perceived, and they should express their personality through their clothing," she says. "And when people wear my clothes, they're able to just be more confident and feminine."

What else is up for Wells? She'd like to try out for Project Runway this year, and "I hope in five years that I'm in a few more boutiques," she says. "I want to eventually have enough money where I have my own fashion house here and manufacture my own clothes — and then sell it nationally. I want to be a national brand."

That's a wrap! — Amber Taufen

Telling Stories/ Jennie Dorris

"You have to know the rules to break the rules," says Jennie Dorris.

She learned the rules while doing undergraduate work at Drake University in both writing and music. "I kind of keep a foot in both disciplines," she explains. "Folks are always asking which I'm going to choose, but they complement each other so well. I get the best of both worlds."

Particularly in Denver, where she moved in 2002 to get her master's degree in music. "When you move to Colorado from Des Moines — oh, my God, it's the promised land," she says. "In the wild West, you can try these things."

You can break the rules.

You can try to introduce an entirely new audience to classical music. "When you get your master's, the dialogue is all about the audience for classical music dying," Dorris says. "I'm so sick of hearing about it. I wanted to try to get young people to come. So I thought about combining my disciplines."

About combining life-inspired, David Sedaris-style essays with classically trained musicians — in a coffee shop. "To see if you can take the whole experience and make it a little less stuffy," she explains. "We don't kick you out if you cough. The mission just reaches people who want an easier in with classical music, and with literature, too."

Telling Stories got its start in Boulder, then moved to Denver, where Dorris has booked events at the Mercury Cafe, 910 Gallery, and now at the D Note. "We have to breathe life into our field," she explains. "We're charged with being entrepreneurs, too." Entrepreneurs who found beer sponsors early on. "I'd show up with drums in my car, and some ice and the keg," she remembers. "The joy of being a director."

But there are other joys, including creating new fans. "Our audience is young, and that's amazing," she says. "They don't know Bartók from Beethoven. I host the shows, so I'm kind of the Ira Glass of the operation; I give them the context." Each concert is arranged around a theme (the last was "culture shock"). At the start of the season — this is the fourth — Dorris e-mails the themes to "a huge rotating cast" of writers and classical musicians, "and it all just comes together," she says.

She makes it sound easy, but it isn't — and the music isn't easy, either. "We do really hard-ass repertoire," Dorris admits. "Doctorate-level work we did in our recitals. We strip away everything that makes you uncomfortable but challenge your ears." That's the opposite of the approach that many professional symphonies take, dumbing down the music: "If you give people Star Wars, they're not as invested."

And Dorris and her colleagues are definitely invested. Telling Stories is a "work in progress," Dorris explains, with much of the work moving to the web via podcast so that people can enjoy art at home. "The recession sucks, but it demands certain moves," she says. "As musicians and authors, we have to change our tune."

You have to break the rules.

Patricia Calhoun

Guerilla Garden/Jolt

"I was at the bar drinking with this old lady," Silas Ulibarri recalls. "She said she knew Andy Warhol; she was really cool. She started telling me about these guerilla gardens she used to plant in New York in the '70s. It sounded like the approach I take when doing my graffiti."

And it inspired him to name his studio at 3826 Steele Street, with all its spin-off projects, Guerilla Garden.

Working as Jolt, Ulibarri has been doing graffiti for thirteen years, since before he was at North High School. "I just got into art," he recalls. "It's kind of weird how things worked out. After high school, I started traveling to different cities, doing graffiti."

But his heart belongs to community work in his home town — with CHAC, Sisters of Color, the I Have a Dream Foundation. "I really want to just be a part of the communities of Denver," he says. "I've been doing a lot of stuff with kids for the last five or six years now. The Boys and Girls Club in north Denver; I grew up in the housing project across the street. The Bridge project in the South Lincoln projects."

And more often than not, what he's working on are murals. "I've done tons of murals with kids," he continues. "The one I'm most proud of right now is at the Rude Rec Center. It's so different to work with kids who were incarcerated, like the healthiest thing I've been a part of. It was so good for them."

Ulibarri recognizes that "illegal street graffiti is not for everybody, that people don't like it — that's not going to change." But he can use graffiti to change the community. "I'm just trying to work with the environment, to add to the deteriorating landscape," he explains. So when he heard about the guerilla gardens, he recognized that he was gardening, too — adding color to a gray world. "I took the concept, and that's what I've applied to everything we do. I've created a kind of tagline: 'Naturalizing the urban environment.' It has lots of different meanings. My past works have been guided by an underlying aesthetic philosophy that attempts to 'naturalize the urban landscape.' Softening the hard steel and institutional walls of industry is a social imperative. For the health of social consciousness, artists must inject an element of abstracted ecology into industrial structures. I put it on everything: clothing, murals. It's really just the lifestyle that I live. And when I go back into the neighborhoods where I work with kids, they see that I can do that naturally."

And not just kids. "I have artists who rent studio space from me," he says. "Maybe I'll pay the rent for them with the MasterMind money and let them do things to help the Guerilla Garden."

In the meantime, he has an art opening at the studio on February 19.

"I like the underground, out of the newspapers," Ulibarri says.

Too late!

— Patricia Calhoun

Eric Matelski

The first time I remember talking to Eric Matelski, he was walking around the heart of Denver, leaving canvas-wrapped wooden blocks in random places: in front of businesses, on street corners, under trees. It was part of an art project he called "Flux," and attached to each work was a questionnaire and a web address to which the anonymous block-finders could post a reply. It was a delightful act of guerrilla art, the sort of thing that you didn't encounter often in Denver, and Matelski seemed totally sweet and ingenuous about the whole project.

But there was no denying its impact: With "Flux," Matelski was reaching out to people, involving them in art, and it wasn't just the artsy folks he was targeting. He was reaching the Average Joe walking down the street, who'd suddenly stumble onto something goofy and unexpected. That was — and is — the Eric Matelski I've come to know through the years: a gregarious arts mover with an underground perspective and a little bit of the huckster, albeit a charming huckster who loves to promote art and its people. Little and big names, they're all the same to him: He just loves to bring them all together in one big room and see what happens.

That's especially evident in Matelski's three-year-old-and-counting First Monday Art Talk series at Dazzle, for which he chooses a local cultural figure — maybe an artist or a fashion designer or an author or a poet — and throws that person's life and influences out there for a shake-and-bake with an audience. It is, as I once wrote, "a party and a lecture and a concert and schmoozer all at once, where faces old and new mingle with ease and friendly curiosity."

And as if FMAT weren't enough to keep him busy, Matelski also curates shows for numerous eateries, and last year inaugurated the Art Farm, a seasonal series of outdoor art shows in community gardens; he's also organized shows addressing baseball, the end of analog television and hip prayer candles. He once sent four ceremonial groups dribbling four different colors of paint through the streets of the Golden Triangle, and in the future hopes to offer shows with voodoo and steampunk themes.

"There's always gotta be a gimmick," Matelski says. "I was in a band for years, and you always had to find some way to get people to come to a show. There are two things you can do: You can make it serious, or you can make it corny, but the best way to approach it is to follow through. If it's going to be corny, make it as corny as possible. Otherwise, it'll just seem flaky." And that's the thing about Eric Matelski: He may be corny, but he's never flaky.

Here's hoping he never changes.

Susan Froyd

Laura Goldhamer

I spent several days last March chasing after Laura Goldhamer, the local musician and animator who'd just lost her post at Brooks Center Arts, a church-based venue that she'd turned into a cultural hot spot — but she didn't want to dish. "I was really fortunate to have had the opportunity to help foster a young arts community there, and I feel super-appreciative of that time," Goldhamer says today. "For me, in Denver, it was a beginning of a group movement that thrives beyond a particular space."

At the time, Goldhamer was also doing animation for a new song of hers called "Humpty Dumpty," which expounds on singer-songwriter Ian Cooke's made-up vasoon, which describes "an injury that is beneficial." So "when news came of the closure of the venue I had created," she remembers, "the message of the song, and the act of painstakingly animating the accompanying video, was a good and constant reminder that change is good, although it maybe painful at the moment."

And in Goldhamer's case, change has been very, very good. She's kept busy doing more animation — for her own music, and for San Francisco artist Sean Hayes — as well as playing in a handful of bands (including Dovekins), recording and engineering albums for friends and teaching banjo lessons. "I've been able to continue with the cooperative, collaborative musical work with people I was glad to connect with over the last several years around the Brooks Center," she notes. "That community definitely continues."

A Denver native, Goldhamer attended high school at Colorado Academy, then headed off to Wesleyan (the alma mater of John Hickenlooper) before doing veggie-oil fuel work and some kinetic sculpture, along with a promotional video for affordable housing in the San Juan Islands. After nine months of frequent moving, though, she decided to "move back to Denver and find a good community, a good project, and make something of quality," she says. "I couldn't really do that bouncing around like I had been."

Goldhamer now lives in R&R House, an active community house full of musicians and permaculture practitioners. Denver "is an empowering place," she says, "where, with gumption and persistence, people can make what's in their mind a reality."

One thing on her mind these days: Long Spoon, a collective working toward ideals of "community health" through positive group dynamics and social change, especially within the arts. "It's potluck style," Goldhamer explains. "A group of individuals can together bring many things to the table, creating a diversity of diet. That diversity is going to be a stronger force, more healthy for the life of a community, and more nourishing as a whole. Seems way better than one person eating a massive amount of mac 'n' cheese by themselves."

The name Long Spoon was inspired by a couple of things. The line "If you're going to dine with the devil, you'd better dine with a long spoon" is useful advice if you're serious about being a successful musician yet want to maintain a healthy distance from the corrupt behavior within the industry, Goldhamer says. And then there's the proverb about a guy who wants to see what hell is like. There's a table loaded with food, and people sitting around it — one hand tied behind their back, the other hand with a long spoon tied to it so that they cannot lift the spoons to their own mouths. The guy then asks to see heaven — and the setup is the same, but now everyone is feeding each other. "By helping one another, we're able to make it work," Goldhamer says.

Long Spoon will serve up its second compilation release this spring. Take a heaping helping. — Patricia Calhoun

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