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Simoni had grown up in Connecticut, the youngest of four children. His father was a self-employed social worker and '60s-era peacenik. He was an endurance runner, too, back when such races often involved running around a track and switching directions every six hours or so. One of Justin's sisters also set records at track meets, but Justin, considerably younger than his siblings, wasn't similarly inclined.

"I was the weird kid," he says. "I had big glasses and I was kind of runty, and I didn't understand how to interact with people all that well."

He liked skateboarding by himself more than school with other kids. Homework gave him anxiety attacks. His favorite class was art. The community near Hartford where he grew up was like a movie set of suburban placidity, complete with white-picket fence, but as he grew older, he began to feel its constraints. "It was like some strange young-adult novel from the 1950s," he recalls. "It felt safe, but there wasn't much going on. All the excitement was somewhere else, in Boston or New York."

Justin Simoni and the single-speed bicycle he rode on the Tour Divide, now on display at Salvagetti Bicycle Workshop.
Justin Simoni and the single-speed bicycle he rode on the Tour Divide, now on display at Salvagetti Bicycle Workshop.
Spanning 2,745 miles of backcountry mountain biking, the Tour Divide is the longest off-pavement cycling route on earth.
Spanning 2,745 miles of backcountry mountain biking, the Tour Divide is the longest off-pavement cycling route on earth.

He began to drift. His brother had a heart-to-heart with him about going to college — "or I'll kick your ass," he warned. He applied himself, made the honor roll his senior year and enrolled at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

After a few semesters, disappointed by the resources devoted to the art department and under some emotional strain — his parents had passed away within six months of each other — Simoni left CU. He soon found a more congenial program at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, where he established himself as a rabble-rousing prankster who also happened to be serious, if somewhat unorthodox, about his work.

"You have good students sometimes who are okay artists," says Rebecca Vaughan, the chair of RMCAD's fine-arts department. "Justin is a lovable example of a poor student who's a great artist. He was always late to class and often absent. But he would ultimately show up, and he'd have amazing work."

Vaughan assigned one class the task of making or obtaining a hundred similar objects and installing them somewhere on campus. "Justin purchased a hundred one-cent postage stamps and stuck them all over," she remembers. "On signs. In the president's office. On my car! Then he took snapshots of all of them and showed us a PowerPoint of what he'd done. There were other students who spent hours making objects by hand, and he just spent a buck."

At one point Simoni disappeared from Vaughan's class for weeks. He returned with snapshots of "installations" he'd done on a road trip to the Northwest, pinning letters from a chopped-up copy of War and Peace along byways, on fences and near landmarks as tiny, fleeting sculptures. That led to conversations about how Simoni's proposed site for his art was the entire country — a portent, perhaps, of journeys to come. Another project involved a portrait of Jack Kerouac, assembled from text found on the first page of On the Road, accompanied by a time-lapse video documenting the creation process.

"When I was in school, my goal was to become an art star," Simoni says now. "I wanted to be a big fish in a small pond. But I didn't get a lot of support from galleries. They didn't seem interested, and I still had this do-it-yourself thing going. My first major solo show was all about exploring the most egocentric character I could create, as a total farce. And everybody liked it. They actually thought I was that guy."

Simoni graduated from RMCAD in 2004. During his CU days he'd picked up sufficient expertise as a programmer to now develop a far-flung stable of computer clients while living in a series of downtown studios, odd spaces and unfinished basements. But for months he poured much of his energy into The Next Big Thing, an art project that evolved into a satiric meditation on Warholian fame. He plastered the town with fliers featuring his face, constructed a costume made of such fliers, crashed art openings and staged other media spectacles.

Fine-arts photographer and gallery owner Mark Sink remembers attending one of Simoni's events, a party that paid homage to Warhol's Factory — complete with a band playing Velvet Underground songs and a Valerie Solanas look-alike wandering around with a gun. Sink, who interned for Warhol in the 1970s, was impressed with the detail and sophistication of Simoni's interpretation. "There's a whole community of interesting artists who have come out of RMCAD," Sink notes. "I was impressed by these semi-performance, art-and-commerce pieces Justin was putting on. I thought they were fantastic."

Another artist paid homage to Simoni's concept by billing himself as The Next Next Big Thing, prompting Simoni to respond with The Next Next Next Big Thing — until he couldn't stand the layers of irony anymore. "It got to the point where I started believing my own lie, and I had to stop the project," he says now.

Others followed, including a 2010 collaboration with sculptress Nicole Banowetz, titled A Woman Needs a Man Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle, that involved riding a bike in a custom-made fish costume across the metro area as a protest of the BP oil spill and a repudiation of dependence on fossil fuels. By that point, Simoni had become immersed in bicycle culture. His passion had begun innocently enough years earlier, when the Geo Metro he relied on for transportation broke down.

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6 comments
Juan_Leg
Juan_Leg

Any chance of this guy catching passes over the middle ???

Betsy Holmes
Betsy Holmes

i LOVED this cover story. Thank you Westword for bringing Justin's story forward. Justin, you rock!

Juan_Leg
Juan_Leg

Alan, thanks again for taking us along w/ a TRUE athlete.

No millions, major enforcements, and of course no jerseys

adorning every thug in the region.

I'm crippled and people are always trying to pat me on the back,

but there's no way to realistically compare feats. Most major sports

figures couldn't hang w/ this guy.

Nothing short of amazing and a story well written.

willy
willy

I wish Justin would run for president - maybe he could channel some of that creativity and determination toward fixing the economy.

Juan_Leg
Juan_Leg

endorsements / not enforcements ......

 
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