Gonzo Museum in Aspen is going, going, gone as of April 1
The plane lands in Aspen at a quarter after four; I'm late. Outside the terminal, which doubles as a café for sharp-dressed skiers and businessmen, D.J. Watkins is waiting in his heavy-breathing '89 Subaru Legacy. The 29-year-old Kansas native moved to Aspen five years ago, determined to preserve Hunter S. Thompson's legacy by wrangling art inspired by the writer's journalistic exploits and hanging it in a building that he's dubbed the Gonzo Museum that he's now being forced out of. The museum has to close by April 1; there's not a moment to waste. So we start talking as the Suburu cruises south on highway 82.
In profile, Watkins looks much like Modern Family's Jesse Tyler Ferguson. He wears a pair of matte-black Ray-Ban sunglasses, in the fashion of Annie Hall and John Lennon, and his beard is speckled with a mélange of red, gray and white hairs. He's soft-spoken, with the twang of an intellectual Maui surfer, and as he tells his story, he chooses his words very carefully.
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When we arrive at the Gonzo Museum, housed in the former studio of much of the collection's creator, Thomas Benton, the front half of the two-story building is dark. "They cut the electricity," Watkins says. "It's kind of metaphorical." On April 1, Watkins will be ousted from the Benton Building to make way for the current owners -- a group known as Aspen Core Ventures, which also owns the adjacent restaurant, Little Annie's -- to renovate the 500 block of Hyman Avenue in downtown Aspen.
He jokes that his Gonzo gallery, opened just over a year ago and free to the public, will probably be replaced by a Gucci on the first floor and a tanning salon on the second. "The idea was to promote the work in places people will get it," he says. "And though the art was made here, and as much as the people who live in Aspen get it, a lot of Aspen might not appreciate it. Many people didn't live here then, and don't live here now."
After a quick tour of the museum -- chock full of everything from the original Aspen wall-posters that Benton made for Hunter S. Thompson's run for sheriff in 1970 to a life-sized doll of Hunter, stuffed in a small broom closet -- Watkins leads me up two flights of Escher-like stairs and onto a rooftop balcony. It's almost five, and soon the heavy belly of the sun will be sucked further west and behind Aspen Mountain, but for now we're sitting at an octagonal wooden table, drinking beer as Watkins begins to roll a joint and unroll his story.
Michael Anthony Adams: When did you first hear the name "Thomas Benton"?
D.J. Watkins: It was at Larry Lefner's Woody Creek Art Studio in Woody Creek, Colorado, next to the [Woody Creek Tavern]. I saw a print called Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and I thought it beautifully summed up the power of graphics and words working in tandem. I wanted to know more, and I met Marcy Benton when I was there, and then George Stranahan. George and I shared a love of Benton's work, particularly his political work from the '60s and '70s. The main idea was that history doesn't repeat itself, it rhymes. And when Thomas Benton died, George put me on a mission to find his works and work on cataloging them, which led to the wall-posters, Benton's work with Hunter, and then more of his abstract work.
Were people just handing the work over? No, I was looking in barns, basements, attics to try and find the old posters. Then George gave me a list of people to talk to. A lot of them were shady characters, drug dealers, from the '60s and '70s. But a lot of them had beautiful collections on their walls. So we'd take them off the wall, photograph them, and put them back on the wall. And we created a database of 600 works of Benton's stuff.
What brought you to Aspen initially? You're not from here. It was just a vacation. I was living in San Francisco in 2008 and working for a small, private-equity fund. I met George that weekend, and then I went back to my job in San Francisco. George sent me an e-mail soon after that said that I should come back to Aspen and that strange things could be found.
So the current exhibit is a collection of William S. Burroughs's work. And you're from Lawrence, Kansas, Burroughs' final resting place. What kind of influence did that have on you bringing his work to the Gonzo Museum?
One of the things with the museum was not only to show our collection, but also to show other people's collections that would be on loan. You know, part of it was that I grew up there, but also I think the real driving force was that Burroughs is considered the father of the Beats and he's an iconic figure to the counterculture. At the Gonzo Museum, we always try to champion Gonzo artists, and he's a progenitor of Gonzo art, in some way, along with Ralph Steadman. Hunter did a number of shotgun works of art, and so did Burroughs.
Did they ever collaborate? Not really. They traded guns, and both had a mutual respect for each other. They had a lot in common. The idea of the museum was to bring together these different artists --Steadman, Burroughs, Hunter, Benton -- as well as an array of young radical artists in one building.
How many artists do you currently have in residence at the museum? We've got Tony Prikyrl, he's a local photographer. Jonathan Gold, he's an illustrator. Austin Kuck, he's a big-pen illustrator. We've championed about a dozen local artists, and have shown them in different parts of the building and shows. We've also got a publishing company that we're working with to publish books about art.
What about your book? It's the only book, I believe, that covers Benton's life and work, and it was published by George Stranahan's People's Press. George and I worked together on the book over a period of time. He was very generous and provided a camera, computer, connections, legitimacy. He also continued to encourage me to work on it. We wrote a lot of it together, but at the very end he said he just wanted to write and be credited for the forward "because I don't want to go to all those fucking book signings." A lot of people helped write the book. I helped write it, but I also helped take all the images, organize it, design it.
What value do you think Benton's work has to Aspen's history, as well as 1960s counterculture and politics? The power of graphics, and words, and symbols, and the powerful message of activism that Benton championed were, in a lot of ways, lacking for a while. Now there's a little more contemporary work -- Arab Spring, part of Occupy -- and there's beginning to be a resurgence of activist art. The fact that they made all these works for the Vietnam War and then we found ourselves in the same thing in Iraq; I put the book together to mainly remind people that you can make a statement, too. Another part of the gallery was to allow people to create a discussion about some things we care about.
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And now that the museum is closing, where will you go?
Currently we're looking at spaces in Aspen, but we're also looking at spaces in Venice Beach, Austin and New York City to do sort of a pop-up Gonzo Museum and Gonzo Gallery exhibit to promote the collection and to promote the idea of the museum. Aspen is nothing like it was when the work was created here, and the places that we're looking at are more weird, funky, fun locations where we think this sort of counterculture-activist ideology and artwork will resonate.
Do you want another beer?
I don't think so. I think, if anything, it's going the other way. I think people are beginning to realize how spot-on Hunter was about a lot of things. I'd be interested to see what he'd have to say about what's going on today, and he's such an iconic figure and a symbol for so many things people care about. Not only his writing, but his activism. His legend will continue to grow. And with this place, I've gotten a great reception from people that there should be a place like this. A place where people can go and pay homage to him, see his writing, his work and his art.
But to really solidify this preservation you need a larger following... Starting something from scratch, it's tough to get traction. I hope that when we re-open that we'll continue to get more press, more traction, and that people will find out about it, and that's kind of the goal of moving the museum around a little bit. Getting it out of this second-floor building into some higher-density markets. My goal is to make a permanent place, hopefully in Aspen.
Yeah. Okay, do you think the Gonzo clout has lost its gravitational pull in a generation that's marinating in shallow media?
Tell me about the friendship between Thompson and Benton... They were best friends for forty years. There's a quote in my book from Benton that says, "In 1965, I had a little gallery in Aspen, and I rented out part of the gallery to a girl that ran a frame shop. One day, she came to see me and said, 'Tom, you gotta see these damn pictures from this crazy guy who came in and wants me to frame them.' And so I looked at them. They were pictures of Hell's Angels, and some of them were kissing and touching tongues. When the guy came in to pick up the stuff, she introduced me to him. Right then, Hunter and I became friends. He seemed crazy enough."
Which is strange, because Hunter always said it never got weird enough for him, yet it seems Hunter was both crazy and weird enough for Benton... Right. Bob Braudis, the former sheriff, used to say that Tom Benton was the only one Hunter would listen to because they were friends for so long. When Hunter was really in outer orbit, or inner orbit, and running amok, they would call in Benton to calm him down and find some common ground.
What was Benton's life like here? His status in the community? Well, after he sold this building in 1975, he fell into sort of a life of financial problems and addiction problems. He lost pretty much everything. He went to work for Bob Braudis as a nighttime jailor and he rarely made art.
Continue reading for more from the interview.
You've dubbed the museum the Gonzo Museum, but most of the work in here is Benton's. How the Gonzo Museum started was with Benton's work and his work with Hunter. Then we expanded it to include Ralph Steadman's work. We tried to get all the Steadmans that are collaborative projects between Steadman and Hunter. And then we started collecting Hunter's own work, his first editions, really anything signed.
Has Steadman said anything about the collection? Not yet, but I've been buying a shit-ton of art. I should talk to him about it all.
Did the book help give the museum legitimacy and establish credibility with the locals when you first opened up? Well, we opened in March-April 2012, and then in June the book won the Colorado Book Award. And we sold out of all the books. So that did give us a lot more credibility. Then I decided to reprint the book, which was a big risk, but the book has allowed us to have a steady stream of income to support the place.
Has anyone in either Hunter's or Benton's life reached out to you to help with the progress of the collection, and to keep it alive after April 1? Bob Braudis is a big supporter and a real champion of what we're doing. He's sort of our spiritual guru. He knew Benton really well and knew Hunter really well and he really likes what we're doing. We've had a lot of fun talking about and creating the place, and plotting its future. And George has been great because he loved Benton and he loved Hunter and he instilled some of that in me.
Let's talk about some of the art. You have the only portrait of Hunter that he actually shot through with his own gun? Yeah. It's a piece he produced with David Floria in the early '90s when Hunter was making his Hollywood Art Series. There's a number of portraits that he shot through -- Nixon, Ronald Reagan, J. Edgar Hoover -- and then he did a self-portrait, which he traded to the owners of the Woody Creek Tavern to satisfy his running five-figure bar tab.
Speaking of heavy drinking, what are after-hours like at the museum? We've brought a lot of the old community back into downtown Aspen. Had a lot of parties. A lot of good times. I'm lucky to be alive.
Would you do anything differently the next time around? I think I was lucky because I made a shit-ton of mistakes. I did everything wrong you could possibly do, but I learned from most of them. I'm pretty lucky, all things considered. I don't really have any regrets. I mean, we went hard, pedal to the metal, and did a great job and brought a lot of art to Aspen, and preserved a lot of history. You know, we built a permanent collection that will hopefully live on forever.
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