Avenging Angel

A wing and a prayer: Ron Mays and "Hell's Guardian Angel."
Brett Amole

In the late 1970s, when June Turner's son, Ron Mays, first told her that he wanted to dedicate his life to art, two words flashed through this loving mother's brain: "Starving artist," she says.

If Mays's subsequent career hasn't quite lived up to Turner's darkest fears, neither has it obliterated them. Mays has earned a certain degree of infamy over the years, but as his wife, Leslie, knows all too well, that doesn't pay the bills.

"Ron's dream is to be an artist -- and you tend your dreams like you tend your kids," she says, gazing at her eight-month-old son, Matthew; he's one of four children in the Mays household, joining Brandon, seven, Ashley, ten, and Michael, eleven. Her voice quavers as she adds, "You just do it, no matter what it takes. But there are times when I wish he had another dream -- like when I can't get my carpet shampooed because his artwork is piled all over it."

Indeed, samples from Mays's oeuvre are everywhere in what he vividly describes as his "brown, 1,000-square-foot, piece-of-shit" house, which is wedged between two shabby apartment buildings in a less than affluent section of Aurora. Several of his pieces are mounted on the walls of the modest living room, but many others, in various stages of completion, are stacked against them -- most notably "Hell's Guardian Angel," a squiggly paint-on-glass abstract that's far and away his best-known piece, albeit for reasons not necessarily connected to its quality. Mays, who is 43, gave birth to the Angel, as he calls it, when he was in his early twenties, and as soon as it was completed, he knew it was a tour de force that deserved to hang side by side with other classics. Unfortunately for him, this knowledge wasn't universally shared, so he took matters into his own hands. In November 1981, he broke into the Denver Art Museum, picked a nice spot next to a Frank Stella canvas and put the Angel on display, where it remained for several glorious minutes.

Until the police arrived.

As Mays was being carted away, he asked not for a lawyer, but for an art critic -- a memorable request that didn't do him much good then and hasn't since. Despite his quasi-celebrity, most local reviewers have ignored him, as have the majority of gallery owners; neither has he been embraced by his fellow artists. "I've never really been part of the Denver art scene," he concedes. "I think most of the people in it are afraid of me." But such reactions haven't deterred him from following his chosen path, no matter how rocky or obstacle-strewn it might be. "Tragic Empire," an enormous six-foot-by-six-foot opus made up of black-painted computer pieces that resembles an anti-utopian cityscape, took considerably more than six months to complete, and the cost of assembling its 3,800 parts took quite a toll on his family. "At one point," Mays says, "I had to tell the kids, 'Looks like we won't be going to the zoo this year.'"

Of course, Mays is accustomed to making sacrifices for his art. In the '80s, he robbed banks to pay for tubes of paint (this moneymaking scheme earned him several years in assorted federal pens). A decade later he was performing in low-grade, locally produced pornographic videos whenever he ran short of brushes or frames. But now, after several years of wandering in the metaphoric wilderness (and feeding his family by working in the warehouse of a glass company), he's got another chance at recognition. For the first time in years, Mays has landed a one-man show; it debuts May 18 at Space Gallery, a relatively new art bastion located at 2026 Larimer, and runs through June 13. And while many of his newer pieces, including "Tragic Empire," are part of the program, the marquee item is "Hell's Guardian Angel," which will be put on view for the first time since its unauthorized presentation at the Denver Art Museum.

But not for long. Mays is auctioning off the Angel to benefit his sister, Laura, a Castle Rock resident; on May 7, she underwent surgery to remove a tumor on her pituitary gland that's fueled a condition known as Cushing's syndrome -- and she doesn't have medical insurance. Bidding will open at $1,200 because, says Mays, "anything less would be an insult."

However, this apparent act of altruism is accompanied by an intriguing question: Is the Angel that's up for auction the original? Mays swears it is -- but the tale he relays about its journeys over the years, marked by a baffling disappearance, private dicks and potentially ominous doings in Washington, D.C., is admittedly fantastic and utterly impossible to document. The vagaries of Mays's chronicle didn't trouble the Rocky Mountain News, which published an article about the Angel's return in 1999, but KCNC-TV decided not to air a report about the piece two years earlier, after reporter Steve Lusk stumbled upon a contradiction that raised legitimate doubts about the Angel's authenticity.  

Mays doesn't appear to take such suspicions personally. After all, he says, "the story is, like, way out in left field somewhere -- just like the rest of my life."

Born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1957, Mays says, "I don't remember ever not being interested in art" -- and his mother confirms his observation.

"From the time he was old enough to hold a crayon, he was drawing on everything," Turner says. "The living-room walls, everywhere. Just use your imagination."

Ron's obsession only intensified after the Mays family moved to Aurora in the late '60s; when he was a student at North Junior High (now North Middle School), a piece he did based on the Declaration of Independence was chosen to compete in an art contest in the nation's capital. Mays and Turner say the artwork was never returned, though, and subsequent attempts to track it down were unsuccessful. This episode is the first example of a running theme in Mays's version of his saga -- bad things happening to good art so regularly that it seems as if the fates have it out for him. "I can't explain why," Mays says. "That's just the way it goes for me."

Nevertheless, Mays continued to drift toward the art world. After dropping out of Hinkley High School, where he was better at consuming alcohol, marijuana and acid than doing homework, he made ends meet via a hodgepodge of odd jobs, many of them having to do with glass, a substance that appealed to his artistic impulses. He was always on the lookout for leftover pieces he might transform into something moving and inspired -- but the best slab he found was a green-bordered remnant, once part of an old metal door, that he stumbled across when moving into a new apartment. He dribbled white and red loops and streaks on it, placed the glass over a black background and was immediately struck by the power of their juxtaposition. "It's not a picture of Satan," Mays insists. "It's a picture of God standing in front of his creation of Hell." He dubbed the result "Hell's Guardian Angel."

To Mays, the Angel wasn't just another piece of art, but "my 'Mona Lisa,' my 'Whistler's Mother.'" As such, it spoke to him both figuratively and literally. "There would be nights when I would come home late, get a bottle of wine, and sit in front of it for a few hours, having all kinds of dark thoughts" -- many of them having to do with Denver's art community. He knew his work wasn't overtly commercial, nor has it become more so. "I don't paint pretty pictures," he says. "I record history the way I see it and present it in ways that can be terrorizing, horrifying." Yet at the dawn of the '80s, he still felt that too many of the city's galleries and art spaces, were ignoring him and other native talents in favor of well-known artists from out of town -- and in his opinion, the Denver Art Museum was the worst offender. "They wouldn't even look at anything by a local artist," he claims.

Dianne Vanderlip, curator of the museum's modern and contemporary art department, who was on the staff during that period, rejects this charge; she says that back then, as now, the museum had a policy of looking over the work of any area artist who made such a request. But Mays remembers things differently. In 1980, he maintains, he wrote to the museum proposing to donate a piece to its collection, "but I got no response. So I wrote them a second letter, and when I didn't get a response to that one, either, it was the proverbial last straw.

"I was young, I was crazy, I was a little mad," he confesses, "and I thought that I'd been treated unfairly. So I decided to do something about it."

What Mays did was head to the museum at approximately 3 a.m. early one November morning, armed with a hammer, a box of nails and the Angel. He considered busting into the structure through the main entrance, "but the glass was an inch thick. That would've taken me forever." Easier access was provided by a window on the right side of the building that, once he'd scaled the wrought-iron fence protecting it, proved unexpectedly welcoming. "I just hit it once, and it was over," Mays says. After clambering inside, he located an empty spot on a wall, knocked a nail into it and set the Angel on its perch.  

His first instinct was to flee, but after dropping his hammer and walking ten steps or so, "I turned to look at it, and I couldn't go anywhere. I was amazed by this piece on this huge, white wall in this enormous fortress -- this place that was so impenetrable, so holier than thou. And I was tired, too. So I sat down, lit a cigarette and rested."

At first the security personnel and police officers who answered the museum alarm assumed that Mays had been trying to steal something -- but when they discovered the truth, Mays says, "the whole thing turned into a big joke. Everyone was laughing."

The Denver dailies and the local television stations were all over the story, as were outlets much further afield: Vanderlip saw reports about it in New York City, which she was visiting at the time. Mays, who'd been charged with felony trespassing, kept the media's attention up until he was sentenced to 65 days in jail and a fine just over twice his asking price for "Hell's Guardian Angel," which he'd set at $457. Mays was also ordered to pay for the window he broke and to donate the Angel to the city's art collection. He did the former grudgingly -- "I never saw my actions as a crime," he says -- but the latter with a bit less resentment, because his most fervent desire was to have people see and appreciate his towering achievement, his incredible triumph, his incontestable masterpiece.

It would take years for him to discover that no one ever did.

By breaking into the museum, Mays finally managed to make a name for himself among Denver art connoisseurs. A lousy name. "Everybody thought I was a heretic," he says. "I had very little going for me."

That included employment. Shortly after his arrest, Mays was fired from his gig as a check processor -- probably not a great loss for the company, because he was spending much of his time trying, unsuccessfully, to figure out how to funnel some of the funds he handled daily into his own pocket. His prospects didn't improve following his stint in jail, and an attempt to get a loan from Aurora National Bank to finance his art went nowhere. Frustrated, he decided to engage in another type of transaction with the institution.

"I just walked into the bank," Mays says, "and told the teller -- she was really gorgeous -- 'I have a gun, give me all your money.' And she did." He subsequently tucked the wad of cash (just short of $10,000) under his arm and walked two blocks to the apartment where he was living at the time. Upon reaching his bedroom, he says, "I threw the money in a corner and got sick for two weeks straight. I only went out a couple of times at night to get myself something to eat or a six-pack. I was afraid to go out during the day." But then, on a morning that dawned bright and clear, his inner storm broke. He smiled, looked out the window and said to himself, "Damn, dude! You got away with it!"

After getting dressed, he went straight to the nearest art-supply store.

Thus began the easiest job of Mays's life. "I stopped worrying about it," he says. "It just became this weird thing I did every once in a while. And you couldn't beat the hours. I only had to work a couple minutes every six or seven months." Between heists, he devoted himself to making more artworks -- so many of them that before long, he could barely squeeze into his apartment. "I should have invested in lower downtown real estate," he acknowledges. "But I invested in paint."

Of course, all good things must come to an end -- particularly in Mays's case. His final chapter as a bank robber began at the United Bank of Skyline; he arrived at lunch hour, stood in line waiting for service like any good customer and, when his turn came, asked the cashier to surrender some greenbacks. But the woman added a little something extra to the bag of loot -- a dye pack that exploded as Mays was heading out the door. Mays figured out what had occurred right away ("I know the smell of paint"), took off like a shot and managed to evade capture. "I was lucky," he says.

But a criminal genius he wasn't. Rather than toss the bag, he took it to his apartment, opened it up, and tried to salvage what he could. He saved the bills that were too saturated with red dye to use as material for a portrait of artist Marcel Duchamp, the guiding light of the Dada movement. But he carted the rest of them to the apartment complex's washing machine and put them through the heavy-duty cycle. Mays wound up with currency that was awfully hygienic and notably pink, but he began spending it anyway, informing anyone curious about the hue that he was an artist, and that he'd accidentally spilled some ink on his last roll. This strategy soon attracted the attention of federal agents, who busted him within months. In some ways, Mays says, the arrest was a relief, but his subsequent conviction on one count of bank larceny wasn't, because "you can't paint pictures in jail."  

Prison records confirm that upon being sentenced in September 1984, Mays did time in a variety of federal corrections institutions, including El Reno, Oklahoma ("They took Timothy McVeigh there after the bombing"), and Texarkana, Texas, where he earned an associate's degree in drafting and engineering from Texarkana Community College. He was released in 1987, but a bar fight won him a return engagement, with extended stays behind bars in Oxford, Wisconsin, and Lakewood, back in Colorado.

The next year, after being allowed to rejoin society again, Mays rededicated himself to art, selling his works on street corners or in public parks when galleries snubbed him. But making ends meet was difficult -- and his early-'90s union with Leslie, who already had two children (Michael and Ashley) from a prior relationship, only added to the strain. Mays needed another way to pick up income, and he came up with one, courtesy of Milton Photographics, a Denver-based firm specializing in sexually explicit videos. He had no background in acting, but company representatives were supportive anyway. They allowed him to learn by doing.

Milton Photographics concentrated on thematically linked productions; its products included the multi-part "Teenage Masturbation Series" and "Female Fucking Series." Appropriately, then, Mays's prize souvenir from this period is a sequel of sorts, 1993's Backdoor Pleasures Vol. 2. The tape begins with proof that Supreme Court rulings touch all our lives in unexpected ways -- a visual crawl that respectfully paraphrases a judgment on obscenity. "Pursuant to the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment," it reads, "this film is intended to express the filmmakers' artistic concepts. It is intended that the average person, when applying contemporary community standards, will not find this film, as a whole, appeals to his or her prurient interest. Furthermore, this film is not intended to depict sexual conduct in a patently offensive way. This film, when considered as a whole, is intended to have serious artistic and political value."

Shortly thereafter, a naked woman in the woods takes an extremely long time applying suntan lotion before engaging in various gymnastic techniques with a pudgy guy wearing a rubber monster mask. Mays is more fortunate: His scene is indoors, and it doesn't require him to put anything on his face -- anything rubber, that is.

At the time, such porno excursions were a snap for Mays to justify. "It was good money," he says, "and you didn't have to work that long." But in due course, he determined that they weren't for him, much to Leslie's relief, and he focused on financing his art by cutting glass. Still, his mind kept returning to the Angel. Where was it? he wondered.

Lost, he soon discovered. Lost, but not forgotten.

Every so often during the early '90s, Mays says, he would call the Mayor's Commission on Art, Culture and Film and ask about "Hell's Guardian Angel." But it couldn't be located, and there was no record of it ever having been part of the city's inventory. At last, in 1995, Mays persuaded Paula Woodward, veteran investigative reporter at Channel 9, to report about its absence. As Woodward recalls, she ended her story by asking viewers with any clues about the Angel's whereabouts to call the station.

Woodward doesn't remember anyone actually phoning, but Mays does. He remembers a lot of things.

This, according to Mays, is how it all went down: Over a year after the Woodward broadcast aired, he says, he received a phone call from a man who wouldn't identify himself and whose voice Mays didn't recognize. The man had seen the Woodward piece, and afterward had begun an investigation into the Angel's whereabouts. With the help of some private detectives and the expenditure of $15,000, the man told Mays, he located the artwork in Washington, D.C. How did it get there? Mays quotes the man as replying, "You'll eventually know the story, but I can't tell it to you now, because there are important people involved."  

The man went on to say that he'd purchased the Angel and put it on a wall at his place, where it stayed for quite a stretch. But in the end, he believed that it should go back to Mays and wanted him to have it as a late Christmas present. In a second call, the man promised its delivery "in a couple of days." This rang false to Mays: "I thought it was one of my friends, joking with me." But the next day, he says, "I went to my studio, and there it was, leaning against the door."

To an outsider, this account sounds like a conspiracy theory concocted by director Oliver Stone, and unlike many other high points of Mays's life, it's utterly impossible to document. Furthermore, it's strangely similar to other incidents reported by Mays, going back to the Declaration of Independence piece he made in junior high, in which his work mysteriously vanished. For instance, Mays says that a few years ago, a batch of art he'd just sold was stolen from a local frame shop; sources requesting anonymity confirm that a theft took place, but find the circumstances surrounding it awfully fishy. And Mays also spins a yarn about the destruction of some of his paintings and the swiping of others, at a former studio back in 1999. Denver police sergeant Dave Watts confirms being called to the scene and seeing broken artwork, but although Mays says he knows who did the damage, he never pressed charges.

The recovered Angel fits into this context perfectly, yet it's also an enigma all its own. Woodward never followed up on the story, but in February 1997, Channel 4 correspondent Steve Lusk, who'd done some Mays-related stories in the wake of the museum caper, agreed to visit Mays's studio and assemble a piece about the Angel's reappearance. The news crew shot a great deal of footage, and Lusk was clipping it together when, he says, "something told me to go back and look at the original tape we shot, back in '81." Digging through the archives, he located the first tape, and during his initial screening, Lusk could see no differences between the Angel on the editing-room monitor and the one he'd just seen. But by happenstance, the earlier report featured a full-screen closeup of Mays's signature on the artwork's lower right-hand corner that was identical to a shot by Lusk's cameraman, thereby allowing Lusk to compare the images side by side.

After doing so, Lusk showed the key portions of the tapes to several others at the station, including the news director at the time, and everyone who saw them reached the same conclusion: The signatures were different.

Seen today, it's easy to understand why those Lusk consulted were in agreement. The signatures seem to be done by the same hand, but the 1981 model is in neat and tidy cursive accented by elaborate curls, whereas the one videotaped in 1997 is much more slapdash; several letters are shaped or slanted in divergent ways, and a loop that's on the "s" in the older tape is missing from Lusk's counterpart. "They just didn't match," Lusk says, "so we decided to kill it."

When Lusk called Mays to say that the report wouldn't be included in any upcoming newscasts, he expected that the artist would be quite upset, but he was wrong. "I just told him that we weren't going to run it and why, and there weren't any harsh words at all. He just said, 'Okay.' I thought he might call in a day or two and go, 'Come on, Steve, this is the real thing,' but he didn't. It really ended right there."

Mays says he didn't try to swing Lusk around to his way of thinking because the reporter made the decision seem final, but he suggests that the disparities in the signatures could have resulted from wear and tear; he points out that when it came back, the Angel was out of its frame and had a scratch on it that wasn't there originally. Since chipped paint or environmental factors can't explain away all the differences, though, Mays pushes another theory. Maybe, he says, the signature came off during cleaning ("Now I sign everything backwards on the inside of the glass to make sure that doesn't happen," he says), and someone -- his baffling caller, perhaps? -- painted it back on. "But I know this is the Angel, the only Angel," he says. "The process I used to make it can't be repeated. It's impossible."

None of these issues arose in the Rocky Mountain News's article about the Angel's homecoming, written by staff writer Lisa Levitt Ryckman and published on April 11, 1999. Her charming and funny piece culls some of the best anecdotes from prior News reports about Mays's trip to the museum, including a statement by artist and professor William Joseph, whose critique of the Angel, which Mays had requested, was: "You never know what will sell." She also coaxed an amusing comment from Fabby Hillyard, Denver's director of theaters and arenas, speaking then as a representative of the Mayor's Commission on Art, Culture and Film. "I hope this piece -- which has caused so much consternation -- provides him with some happiness," Hillyard said after swearing that the city wouldn't ask Mays to give back the Angel. "I think he can sleep nights knowing that the art police will not come knocking at his door."  

Ryckman hadn't heard anything about either Lusk's aborted report two years earlier or the discrepancies between the signatures when she wrote her article, but she's not all that troubled by the improbable nature of the Angel's alleged flight. "To my mind, it doesn't really matter if that's true or not," she says. "Especially since a lot of his story is just as unlikely but it is true. All of that about his life of crime? It's true. So who knows what else is."

No one denies that Mays is good at getting attention. Take the time, during the first week of January 1997, that he was featured by Channel 9, thanks to "Searching for Mr. Gumbel," a piece made out of broken television sets that he lugged to the station during the dead of night to commemorate Bryant Gumbel's departure from the Today show.

But despite this skill, Mays hasn't gained access to Denver's finest galleries, in part because of the perception that all he has to offer is notoriety. Jim Robischon, the namesake of the highly respected Robischon Gallery, says, "It just goes to show that crime pays, because even if he's a marginal artist, he's going to get coverage. But if he wants to be taken seriously as an artist, he's got to be more engaged with what's going on in art and not just isolate himself."

He hasn't had many opportunities. In 1993, Mays had a one-man show at a now-defunct gallery and was one of four artists featured in a presentation at the Abend Gallery two years later -- but there's been quite a drought since then. For this reason, he gets jazzed at the thought of his upcoming bow at Space Gallery, whose co-owner, Mike Burnett, respects much of Mays's work. He speaks with relative enthusiasm about "Tragic Empire," which he calls "fairly sculptural, with a lot of depth. It's something a lot of people can identify with, I think." But he's blunt when asked if he's impressed by the Angel or other glass pieces: "Not all that much," he says. Then why is he relegating his own work and that of fellow artists Christopher Fuller and Jerry Albanese to the rear of the gallery in favor of Mays's efforts? Burnett is blunt about that, too: "We need some publicity at the moment, and so does Ron. I think he can help us out as much as we can help him out."

That's a relief to Mays, at home in Aurora, who sees his art as part of a vast continuum stretching back to the dawn of time. "I believe in reincarnation," he says. "You know those cave paintings in Spain? I did them. I can feel myself lying on my back, bugs crawling all over me..."

"I'm a Christian," Leslie interjects. "I don't believe in all that reincarnation stuff."

"I have dreams, too," Mays says, getting worked up. "I've dreamed I'm in this burned-out church, and I'm playing poker with Picasso and Renoir and so many others. I've talked to Picasso and he talks back; all these guys do. He tells me, 'Calm down and just paint. Just paint.'"

And paint he does, every spare minute -- and he says his exertions have finally purged "Hell's Guardian Angel" from his consciousness. For several years, the Angel haunted him because he was unable to top it, and for more years afterward, it unnerved him. "I was afraid of it, afraid of what it'd done to me." But now he's ready to let it go. "That's why it's not hanging up, or even framed or protected -- why it's just gathering dust. It's no longer what I do. I don't feel that way anymore."

Even if the Angel brings in a big price, Mays won't benefit; the money's earmarked for his sister, a decision that fills his mother with pride. But he hopes its presence will bring notice to his other work and help lift his family above the subsistence level.  

Leslie looks through the open front door at her yard, a patch of grass and dirt the size of a miniature-golf hole, and says, "This is not what we planned to have at this age -- nothing but a plastic swimming pool. That's why I get so frustrated with Ron sometimes -- frustrated because I had to work at an IHOP because he wants to be an artist. And on top of that, some of the kids are getting old enough to start picking up hints about -- well, about Dad's past. But then I think, art means everything to him. I can't take that away from him."

Mays smiles at her. "We're doing fine," he says. "I mean, we're all eating."

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