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Travels With Sweeney

What do visitors remember most about a trek through Denver International Airport? The terminal's tented peaks and monumental marble expanses? Well, maybe. But for many, it's Gary Sweeney's "America--Why I Love Her," a wall-sized, puzzle-like map of the United States studded with flags that mark vanishing tourist traps, such as the Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas, and the Toilet Seat Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas. The unabashedly nostalgic installation has a way of setting childhood memories in motion, taking people back to a time when road trips across America in the family station wagon were a necessary rite of passage.

Of course, much of the work's personality emanates directly from its personable creator. Sweeney, a Continental Airlines baggage handler who grew up in Southern California and spent a good part of the 1980s and '90s as a fixture on Denver's alternative art scene before moving on to Texas, has a wide smile, a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor and a deep appreciation for people who collect things or build weird monuments in the hinterlands. With that in mind, local art and video entrepreneur Joshua Hassel is taking a gamble on Sweeney by producing the pilot installment of Sweeney's America, a proposed travelogue/art series that combines visits to strange, out-of-the-way places with a folksy dose of art appreciation. The program airs in the Denver area on June 10 on KBDI-TV/Channel 12.

"When I was young," Sweeney says, "my parents would pile us into the family van and drive around the country. It was a ridiculously common experience. People took road trips then because nobody could afford airline travel. Everyone seems to relate to it--everyone has the same stories that I do. But when you're a kid, you don't always appreciate the irony of it. I wasn't that enthusiastic about the trips back then, but looking back, I realize they were a huge part of my youth."

Sweeney's first road memories are of Burma Shave and Wall Drug signs and billboards in the middle of nowhere advertising those ubiquitous Stuckey's pecan rolls. Those die-cast delicacies, he recalls tenderly, "had a shelf life of about 25 years." The first roadside attraction that sparked Sweeney's interest was the Mitchell Corn Palace in South Dakota. But it was only as an adult that he developed a true appreciation for such oddities.

The first episode of Sweeney's America sticks to Colorado sights, covering such landmarks as the World's Wonder Tower in Genoa, reputed to offer a view of six states from its pinnacle and featuring 22 rooms filled to the rafters with Indian artifacts, two-headed cows and a heap of unidentifiable doodads. Also on the itinerary are Davies Chuck Wagon Diner, the dilapidated (and soon to be relocated) Forney Museum and local folk artist Jerry Simpson's studio and junk collection.

Hassel is fishing for corporate funding with this pilot and hopes the show will get people interested in art by tapping into their own memories. "It's hard to get art to the public without making it seem elite," he says. But he thinks Sweeney's excursions will fit the bill. "Gary is really genuine in his love for this stuff," Hassel says. "And after all, it's just a thin line between Red Grooms and the guy who makes something out of a cut-out can in Kansas."


Sweeney's America: An Artful Travelogue, 9 p.m. June 10, KBDI-TV/Channel 12.


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