Meet the 2013 Westword MasterMinds

Denver is full of aesthetic adventurers and artists who are changing the cultural landscape. They're one of this city's greatest assets, the reason we've attracted more of the desirable 25-to-34-year-old demographic than any other area over the past few years. They're Colorado's creative capital.

But some of their efforts are so underground, they'd have miles to go just to reach grassroots standing.

Although sports stars get all the attention, Denver's artists are the real hometown heroes. They score big wins for the metro area — but all too often, they are compensated in inverse proportion to what they contribute. Westword celebrates the local arts scene every year in the Best of Denver, explores it every week in the pages of this paper, supports it every day on the web. But we also know that artists cannot survive on attention alone.

Recognizing that artists need not just creativity, but money to help things go — and grow — Westword started the MasterMind Awards program in 2005, to honor the city's creative geniuses in the categories of literary arts, performance, multimedia, visual arts and fashion/design; we've inducted a new class every year since.

And on Monday, we contacted five local artists/entrepreneurs to let them know they'd been chosen as 2013 MasterMinds — an honor that comes not just with a title, but with a $2,000 grant. Money with no strings attached, money they can use for anything — to make art, to pay rent. Whatever will buy them some creative breathing space.

Now, with the announcement of the ninth class of MasterMinds, we will have honored 45 artists and arts organizations since 2005, giving grants that total well over $130,000.

But what's been most gratifying about the MasterMind program is that the award winners, too, share the wealth — often taking much of their unexpected cash award, if not all of it, and spreading it around the community. In fact, three MasterMinds are now banding together to create residencies at Powerhaus, and this year's winners will be given memberships to Denver Open Media as well as their cash prize, courtesy that 2007 winner. And our past MasterMinds are just as generous with their time and praise of other artists when they gather every year to help choose the next class of MasterMinds in a series of meetings as energizing as they are eye-opening. Over the past nine years, we've watched how this city's fashion scene has taken off, how seriously Denver is starting to take its DIY comedians. In fact, our 2013 MasterMinds include a self-taught milliner reviving an almost lost art form, as well as filmmakers who are capturing this town's exploding comedy scene. Other winners are using art to empower the homeless, the helpless, the hopeless.

Meet this city's true MasterMinds.

2013 MasterMind/Performance

Ietef Vita/DJ Cavem

Self-proclaimed "farmer/midwife/DJ/producer/emcee/touring musician" Ietef Vita was born Michael Walker in Five Points in 1986, part of a family of artists and activists with "a lot of people in my village," he explains, including Brother Jeff and the late storyteller Opalanga Pugh. But that wasn't enough to keep him out of trouble. "I grew up gang-banging and pretty much changed my life after my first trip to Africa," he recalls. "I was about fourteen years old. I began to understand the ideas about different kinds of work for myself."

He already knew music (he'd learned how to play the congas when he was five), had already discovered graffiti art ("That's how I learned to read," he says), already knew audio engineering from hanging out at the Spot. But it all came together his senior year in high school, when he planted a garden outside his home and introduced the slogan "Going Green, Living Bling," for Brown Sugar Youth as part of the Pan-African Film Festival. "That pretty much started my mission around utilizing hip-hop to reach young people, people in my community," he says.

And his mission has grown in amazing ways since then. A landscaping job after high school taught Vita how to make a business out of gardening; his last corporate job, "selling jeans for the Gap," gave him a knowledge of consumer marketing. He's put all his knowledge to good use with organic projects that combine hip-hop and food justice as the "eco arts," a curriculum that he's currently teaching students at Manual High School. But he doesn't limit his efforts to Manual. He's worked with Russell Simmons, Amy Goodman, Jonny 5. As DJ Cavem — short for "communicating awareness, victoriously educating the masses" — he produces music, with the last four of his six albums "geared to youth education," including The Produce Section (The Harvest), with songs that are recipes. "I'm going after youth in a way that they understand," he says.

And he's not just going after youth in Denver. Vita traveled to Uganda last year, where he studied indigenous agriculture and taught in three primary schools: "I took my time not only to learn from the elders, but to work with the primary students, who get clouded by the success of the West. They think I'm driving a Beamer...and I'm not." Instead, on Monday he was at the GrowHaus, working with youth from Tanzania.

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Laura Bond
Laura Bond

Great choices, Westword! Ietef Cavem Vita is a genius; glad more people will get to find out.


i wish i knew how to enter for this before hand :(


Great article and congrats to all of the winners! (Although I do disagree with "the desirable 25-to-34-year-old demographic " reference at the start of the article, simply because there are soooo many outside of that age range that are also 'Colorado's Creative Capital'.) :-)