Carving a Niche
Bill Potts gets along with just about everybody. Still, there was a woman at an art show in Boulder who managed to curl his lip.
A sculptor who carves vivid, exaggerated figures and tableaux out of wood--athletes, jazz musicians, street scenes, historic events, dinosaurs, you name it--Potts isn't entirely comfortable in art galleries; he'd rather swap stories with his neighbors than spout off about his aesthetic and his influences and all that art-school jazz. But Potts had several pieces in a Boulder show a few years ago, and that was how he happened to overhear this woman who was running down folk art, calling it something second-rate artists resort to "when they can't make it any other way."
"I said to myself, 'Lord, if this woman could work with me in my garage just one week,'" he recalls. "Cold in the wintertime. Hot in the summer. Hit my finger with the hammer. Knock over paint. Stand here admiring my work, and my wife comes out and says, 'I don't like it.' If that woman could put up with that for about a week, I bet she'd change her mind, buster."
Potts makes these remarks while working on a two-foot-high statuette in his Montbello garage and workshop, surrounded by heaps of tools and paint and sawdust. There's a bite in the air this early spring morning, despite the roar of a space heater in the corner, but Potts is too busy to notice. His large, well-scarred hands pick their way unerringly through the clutter around him, seizing brushes and rags.
The work in progress is a stunning rendition of a beaming, post-concert Louis Armstrong, clutching his trumpet in one hand and a sweat-drenched handkerchief in the other. It's almost finished, but there's a problem: The trumpet is painted a dull copper color rather than the glittering brass of Satchmo's horn. Ossie, Potts's wife of 37 years, got on him about it, so Potts--who often works with discarded lumber, whatever paints he has on hand and surprisingly crude tools, including hatchets and kitchen knives--is giving the trumpet a new paint job.
Such details are an important part of Potts's work. Not that he's interested in mere verisimilitude; his pieces are almost cartoonish, larger than life. Yet the key emotional details--Armstrong's trademark dazzling grin, the jauntiness of his Ray Charles, the severe brow on his gloomy Malcolm X--capture the essence of these personalities as they live in the public memory. They have been transformed, reborn but still recognizable, in the pantheon of heroes and scoundrels that resides in the imagination of one William E. Potts.
His best work has a disarming innocence to it, a kind of simplicity that belies the long hours spent on each piece. Around the neighborhood Potts is known as Mr. Bill, the Wood Butcher or Geppetto. It's in keeping with his almost-quaint image as a "self-taught folk artist," an image Potts promotes with hand-lettered signs lying around his garage. B.C. MONSTERS. MONTBELLO DINOSAURS MADE HERE, reads one. AMERICAN PRIMITIVE FOLK ART BY BILL POTTS.
Says another: ANYONE CAN TEAR DOWN BUT CAN YOU BUILD UP?? TO CREATE IS TO LIVE. "That's my motto," Potts says.
Creating gave Potts a new life at a time when the old one had been all but buried under a mountain of economic woes and family loss. Beneath the aura of simplicity is the iron will of a modern Job, a former Army medic who, after years of enduring personal and public tragedy--war, illness, the deaths of his first wife and only daughter, a son in prison--found fresh purpose by fooling around in his garage. If folks want to call him a folk artist or a "primitive" or an "outsider," that's fine with Potts; he'll just keep on doing what he's doing.
"He's astute enough to market himself as a folk artist," says state folklorist Bea Roeder, a professor at Pikes Peak Community College who's followed Potts's career for years. "He's aware of the image and has bent a little bit to fit. But he's a very sincere artist. He's also quite good at surviving as an artist."
Potts started selling his work at flea markets more than a decade ago. Since that time, his carvings have shown up in galleries and exhibits across the country--from Aspen to Houston, Seattle to Washington, D.C.--as well as in the private collections of such celebrities as singer Joe Cocker and 60 Minutes star Ed Bradley. When the Summit of the Eight gets under way next month, Satchmo and several other Potts creations will be on display at Denver International Airport to greet the visiting dignitaries, part of a special exhibition showcasing local talent. It's an honor Potts says he didn't expect to get, given the number of artists in Colorado vying for attention.
"Within my realm of folk art, I do okay," Potts says. "But when you start competing with these college grads--" He shakes his head. "What I try to do is create something that will keep your attention. Like when I give talks at church. People listen. I try to say things differently."
The artistry of Bill Potts has already caught the attention of at least one of the fat cats expected to address next month's summit. In 1993 Potts carved a likeness of Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on the Arsenio show and sent it to the White House. Thousands of well-wishers sent gifts to the new president, including saxophones made out of every material imaginable, but Potts's beefy caricature stood out. Last year it was selected as part of a National Archives exhibit in Washington of gifts to twelve presidents.
Photos of Potts's tribute, "President of the U.S.A. & Saxophonist Bill Clinton," ran in USA Today and other newspapers across the land, but the artist himself almost didn't make it to the exhibit opening. The Colorado Council on the Arts, a friend who won the lottery and others chipped in for plane tickets. The plane broke down, and Bill and Ossie and their guests transferred to another plane, then into a waiting limo at Dulles International Airport. Potts hurriedly changed into his suit and tie in the backseat on the way to the exhibition and, he says, "got my first experience with valet parking."
President Clinton was busy that night with affairs of state, so Potts never got to meet the subject of his piece. But presidents and prime ministers are no big deal after the troubles Potts has seen in his 61 years on earth.
"I've had some downs," he says guardedly. "I got meek and humble, because I had some very serious things happen to me. I've seen a lot of death. The neighbors, any time there's a problem, they come and talk to us, because we've been through everything."
He sets Louis Armstrong on the workbench and gives the grinning figure a grave appraisal. Abruptly, he laughs--a big, throaty guffaw--amused, perhaps, by his own seriousness.
"If you come to see me," he says, "be prepared to laugh and cry. Bring a towel."
It was at the old Mile High Flea Market at the dog track that Bill Potts first discovered that some people considered him a folk artist. Jules Wanderer told him so.
The Pottses were regulars at the flea market in the mid-1980s, selling all kinds of castoffs and collectibles for what Bill calls "sidekick money." At some point Ossie convinced her husband to bring along some of the objects he'd been making in his garage, mostly windmills and whirligigs--wooden contraptions consisting of revolving plywood cutouts mounted on tripods--that he'd hoped to sell to neighbors as lawn ornaments.
One day Potts became aware of a white man who kept drifting back to his display, "looking just like Mr. Belvedere," Potts recalls, "with glasses down his nose and his hands behind his back."
"You're quite a folk artist," the man said.
"Yeah, right," Potts said.
The man, who introduced himself as Jules Wanderer, began asking Potts a lot of questions. How long had he been doing this? Who taught him? Would he mind if Wanderer came to his house to see his other work? He bought two whirligigs and promised to be in touch.
Potts was dumbfounded. "I'd heard of folk music," he says, "and I'd seen the stuff they call folk art down South--mailboxes, that kind of thing. But some of it looked like children's stuff. So I wasn't really into it."
Wanderer, the chairman of the sociology department at the University of Colorado, had been impressed by Potts's work at first sight. The unique, brightly painted whirligigs were "absolutely sensational," he recalls, a world apart from the usual artsy-craftsy shlock peddled at flea markets. He visited Potts's garage and was amazed at the other work he saw: lovingly detailed carvings of airplanes, painted plywood scenes of cowboys. He was even more amazed at their creator's nonchalance.
"He didn't define himself as a folk artist," Wanderer says. "I encouraged him to put his name on his work. Then people who'd bought things from him brought them back and got him to sign those, too."
Before long, Potts was accepting commissions from Wanderer and other Boulder patrons. He carved classic airplanes, friendly snakes, Civil War scenes, Mississippi paddleboats--whatever popped into his head or whatever some customer requested. College professors began to haunt the flea market and show his work to students. "Kids started sending me messages, wondering what I was thinking about--my motivation," Potts says. "Some guy even tracked me down at the flea market and took pictures of my hands."
Potts decided to cultivate the image of a folk artist. He took to wearing a beret and doing a little carving right at his folding table at the flea market. People would stop to watch and strike up a conversation, and he usually ended up doing more talking than carving. (Some of the white folks, he noted, seemed a bit nervous when the hatchet was flying.) One day Ossie put a saucer on the table next to him with a little spare change in it; sure enough, people started tossing money into it for the privilege of watching the artist at work.
Within a few months Potts had another influential backer, one whom he credits, along with Wanderer, with playing a crucial role in developing his career. Antiquarian-book dealer Michael Grano had his first glimpse of Potts's work when a customer brought one of the whirligigs into his LoDo bookstore ten years ago. Grano bought the piece on the spot. The next day he was standing in Potts's driveway, chatting with the man who made it.
Grano told Potts that he could market his work to collectors for three or four hundred dollars each--several times what Potts was charging at the flea market--and would take only a modest commission for his efforts. The book dealer had seen something special in the 1930s-era airplane atop his whirligig. It was a classic prop job from the days of Terry and the Pirates and Smilin' Jack, a plane constructed not from blueprints but from the green memories of youth. It was the kind of thing a gifted poor kid might build and a rich kid might sell his own mother to possess.
"When I saw it, I thought, 'The guy who created this is a child,'" Grano says. "It's like a ten-year-old making something that he loves because he can't afford the plastic models you get at the dime store and probably doesn't think he'll ever get to ride in a real airplane."
As Grano came to know Potts better, he began to appreciate where these dreams of flight were coming from. Born in Des Moines, Iowa, the grandson of a former slave and the son of a janitor, Potts grew up schooled in an ethic of hard work and the Baptist religion. His dad, he says, had hands much like his own, wrapped in thick callouses from honest labor.
"Work, religion, and he liked a little beer," Potts says. "He did not use words like, 'I can't find nothing to do. I'm bored.' Not my father."
His father died of heart problems in 1950, when Bill was fourteen. By that time the younger Potts was already making things: clay models of cars, rocket ships and planes out of cardboard and glue. "I used to daydream a lot," Potts says, "and come up with things. That's how I kept the bullies off me. I could do things they couldn't do."
A wooden racing car Potts built came in second in the local Soap Box Derby, prompting him to think about a career as a designer or engineer. But aside from some cabinet-making classes in high school, he had no formal training whatsoever. When Duke University offered him a partial scholarship to be on its track team, he accepted, only to drop out after a few semesters.
At loose ends, in the fall of 1958 Potts joined the Army and married Sharon Brown, a woman he'd met at a fraternity party. In short order the newlyweds were on their way to western France, to a base outside the town of La Rochelle.
"It was too perfect to be true," Potts says now. "We had a little duplex, and at night we could hear the waves coming in, and we'd go down to the beach and light a fire and wrap up in a blanket and drink wine. But then my wife got sick on me unexpectedly."
Belatedly, doctors discovered that Sharon was gravely ill with an inflammation of the kidneys--then known as Bright's disease. She was rushed back to the States, to Fitzsimons Medical Center in Aurora, and died of kidney failure on Christmas morning, 1959, at the age of 21. Potts began to frequent the bars of Five Points. "Some kids grow up fast," he says. "They have to."
Potts pulled out of that catastrophe. He met his current wife, Ossie, who was also in the military, at a bowling alley a few months later. Four children followed--three sons and a daughter.
But Uncle Sam had plans for Potts, too. He'd joined the medical corps with hopes of seeing the world, and the Army was happy to oblige. The honeymoon was barely over when he got his orders to report to Korea. Then West Germany. Then an assignment with the 22nd Surgical Hospital in a godforsaken backwater called South Vietnam.
The year was 1968.
The Vietnam War doesn't receive much attention in Potts's work. It's not a subject he talks about readily, and he's carved only one piece, donated to the Colorado History Museum, that makes explicit reference to it--a scene depicting a wounded white soldier being treated by a black medic, with Hispanic and Asian litter-bearers standing by.
Yet his experiences as a medic had an indelible effect on Potts. The war reshaped his views on race relations, on the cruelties governments can inflict on their own people as well as the enemy, on the undercurrent of violence in American life. One of his early tableaux presents two redneck poachers fishing for alligators; they've tied a line to a black youth and thrown him into the water as bait. A crow in a tuxedo offers a commentary about how things have gone too far.
"It's really a stunning social comment," says Wanderer, who owns the piece. "Bill has both eyes open, but bitterness doesn't come out in his stuff. If you look at the scene, it's horrible, yet it doesn't come out in a horrible way."
It's not too much of a stretch to suggest that the scene has something in common with the way Potts looks at Vietnam: The government tied a line to its soldiers--black, white, brown--and cast them into a gator-infested swamp. The war, Potts says, was a "dirty, nasty thing," an endless procession of body bags and horror.
"Imagine the worst that you can," he says. "You're picking up bodies, arms falling off, heads. This wasn't no M*A*S*H. Ain't nobody laughing and joking, Jack. It was a lot of screaming and swearing and calling on God. Bags of blood bursting on your head, patients dropped on the floor. Live guys waking up in the morgue.
"We stayed drunk for a year. Half our company was alkies, I'm sure, and I'm not going to say what the other half was. But when it was over, we got a presidential citation."
Arriving shortly after the Tet offensive, Sergeant Potts joined a unit supporting the 101st Airborne, the First Calvary and other combat troops through some of the worst fighting of the entire war. His hospital at Phu Bai was set up in the middle of a cemetery; "Hey Jude" boomed on the tape deck while beer and blood poured down like a monsoon. Potts saw soldiers come out of anesthesia and try to flee the hospital, thinking they were still under fire. In March 1969 he celebrated his 33rd birthday on the floor of his hooch, a mattress pulled over his head as protection against incoming mortar.
Potts came back to the U.S. a changed man. "I got political real quick," he says. "I never thought I'd feel that way. I was RA--Regular Army, Mr. Red, White and Blue. But the war kept dragging on, and I wondered what we were doing. A lot of people got caught up in the body count."
Even in the worst of times, Potts was still making things--furniture, leather pocketbooks, elaborately carved canes that he sold for beer money. As he neared the end of his military career, he decided to learn more about carpentry and electrical work. Buddies were surprised that he didn't apply at the Post Office, like a lot of other vets, but Potts was serious about launching his own business after he put in his twenty years.
"I believe in this dream," Potts says. "Hitch your wagon to a star, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, don't be a burden on the white man--all that stuff. I really thought I could pull it off. But it didn't work."
In 1978 Potts retired from the Army. For several years he tried to make a go of it as a self-employed carpenter and handyman in Aurora, but jobs were scarce, the income unpredictable. Temporary hires as an electrician and a welder lasted only a few months. A worsening case of diabetes made him increasingly reliant on his military pension and whatever he could pick up by selling his woodcraft at the flea market. In 1986 he and Ossie lost their house to foreclosure and were forced to move. A few months later Potts heard groaning in the middle of the night; with no warning at all, his daughter Terri had been felled by a burst aneurysm. She was only 21 when she died--the same age as Potts's first wife.
"When you've been in the medical corps, you associate sounds with certain things," Potts says. "We jumped up and went into her bedroom, and I knew that was it. I just knew. That thing was a time bomb." The death of his daughter shook Potts to his core. For years he had struggled against the afflictions
of his oldest son, Bill Jr., a hyperactive child who'd never finished school, drank to excess and had been arrested several times for bizarre behavior that his father was beginning to suspect was caused by psychiatric problems. ("At times me and him had some very loud discourse," Potts says. "When you don't understand it, you think hollerings and spankings will solve it.") But losing Terri was almost more than Potts could bear.
"Man, I thought the walls were moving," he says now. "I thought they were going to get me. But my religious beliefs got me through it."
While Potts was in Vietnam, Ossie had joined the Seventh-Day Adventists; the couple have since become Jehovah's Witnesses. Potts had his faith to keep the walls in place, and he had work waiting for him in the garage--the carvings that were beginning to draw crowds at the flea market and bring professors and art dealers to his house. He wasn't about to stop.
In a carving called "Welcome to America, Land of Opportunity," Potts has placed a smug Uncle Sam hovering over a family in a cozy kitchen--the American dream, as it were. But outside in the alley, a man is bent over a trash can, foraging for food. The scene is not an indictment but a warning, Potts says.
"America is the land of opportunity, but you still have to hump it," he explains. "If you don't get up off your butt and work hard, you'll go down."
Shortly after their first conversation in Potts's garage ten years ago, the works of Bill Potts began showing up in Michael Grano's bookstore in lower downtown. Grano encouraged Potts to move beyond whirligigs and commissions, to carve his own versions of historical figures he considered personal heroes.
"I asked him who he really admired," Grano recalls. "He said, 'Charlie Parker and all those guys.' So he did a fabulous Parker and a lot of other jazz musicians. Then he started doing sports figures. He showed up one day with 'Dr. K'--Dwight Gooden. A customer saw it and asked if he could do some Negro League players, and he did them very well, too."
A significant body of Potts's work celebrates African-American history, from Harriet Tubman to Malcolm X and beyond. He's crafted six-foot-high Zulu warriors; tableaux charting the history of slavery, from the auction block to liberation; tributes to black cowboys and buffalo soldiers, Dixieland bands and Jimi Hendrix; a piece titled "The Dream" that shows Martin Luther King Jr. proudly leading a procession of black and white children; even an intricate rendition of the Ku Klax Klan rally and counter-protest on the steps of the State Capitol building a few years ago, with images of King, Christ and Governor Roy Romer hovering in the background.
It would be a mistake to pigeonhole Potts as a "black" artist. He's tackled plenty of other subjects, too: John Wayne, Chief Joseph, the Marx Brothers, Lindbergh, Elvis, rustic scenes of moonshiners, a menagerie of fantastic beasts. Still, his explorations of racial themes are a key component in his reputation as a folk artist. ("Most of his work is within his community, even though he reaches outside his community to find buyers," notes folklorist Bea Roeder.) They have also generated a surprising degree of controversy.
Potts has done dozens of sociological "statements," including a few first suggested by patrons. Some could best be described as outrageous social satire, such as the rednecks trolling for gators with human bait or a slave ship in which the rapacious crew is black and the slaves are white. Others constitute uncomfortable history lessons, such as a blunt lecture "on how blacks got to be different colors," which dramatizes the brutal fate of a female slave in the Old South: "Under the whip by day, under the boss by night."
At the same time, Potts hasn't shied away from tweaking the "community" he supposedly represents. He's produced a spoof on black evangelism that depicts a congregation in fervent prayer and song while a trustee in the church office is stuffing money from the collection into his pants. A bizarre piece called "Slaves on Strike" presents a contingent of almost-comical slaves protesting their heavy load while a white taskmaster readies the whip. And what is one to make of his grinning, politically incorrect, kerchief-headed mammy, or his figure of an elderly black woman walking her dog--and toting an open bottle of wine?
Grano remembers a black couple who'd purchased other works by Potts but became quite upset when they saw the old woman with her wine bottle in his store. They accused him of encouraging Potts to traffic in racist stereotypes. "It was nuts," Grano says. "Bill did that piece because he wanted to do it. He likes this woman. There's no negativity to it at all."
Potts says he's heard complaints that his slaves are too black, that the faces of his buffalo soldiers are too African. The criticism perplexes him. "I don't ridicule people or put them down," he says. "That's not what this is about."
Over the years Potts has eked out a modest living from his work. He's been a visiting artist at several schools in the area, has received a few grants from the Colorado Council on the Arts and was involved in a show at the Arvada Center for the Arts that also featured the outsized creations of Red Grooms. Joe Cocker bought one of his tributes to Ray Charles, which prompted Cocker's wife, Pam, to commission a carving of her husband. The statue of Clinton produced a flurry of attention and orders for similar pieces, but that honeymoon was short-lived.
Most of the time Potts is still fighting what he calls the "battle of the bills." He has a standing invitation to visit the Cockers at their Mad Dog Ranch outside of Crawford, Colorado, but he doubts his beat-up van could make it over the mountains. While some of his work now commands respectable prices in galleries, he still makes regular visits to the flea market, hoping to pick up a little sidekick money.
A photographer once expressed his astonishment at how prolific Potts has been. Potts told him there was no secret to it.
"If you had my bills and ills," he said, "you'd be prolific, too."
If you ever have occasion to ride the elevator in Steve Schweitzberger's Littleton home--a homemade lift built to accommodate an elderly parent and a disabled poker buddy--don't miss the view of the crawl space between floors. The concrete cavern has been transformed into a miniature version of Jurassic Park, courtesy of Bill Potts.
A massive Tyrannosaurus rex, with finger-length teeth made of railroad spikes and a blood-red tongue, is about to make a meal of a lumbering triceratops. Above the carnage flies a garishly painted pterodactyl, its six-foot wingspan flapping, powered by a windshield wiper motor. Plastic foliage and a wall-length mural of a prehistoric landscape round out the scene. Schweitzberger, a maverick candidate in Denver's 1991 mayoral race, has labeled the diorama "Jurassic Tolerance": Those with the biggest teeth make the rules.
Schweitzberger's basement den is populated with other Potts creations. Hanging from the wall is the rumbling stagecoach from John Ford's Stagecoach, about to pick up a towering John Wayne. A spotted jungle cat, a jaguar, prowls the bar, its wire whiskers stiff with menace.
In a place of honor behind the bar is another kind of Jaguar--a 1950 apple-red XK120, built roughly to scale out of wood, with a cowboy-hatted Schweitzberger behind the wheel. Potts made sketches of the model's full-sized counterpart in minutes, worked from snapshots to capture special features such as the chrome tips on the fenders, and used tuna-can lids for the wheel covers.
As a rule, Schweitzberger collects classic cars, not art, but he knows what he likes. "I've got models of plastic and tin of my cars that are worth several hundred dollars each, but none of them are worth as much to me as the one Bill carved with me in it," he says. "How do you put a price on something like that?"
Like a lot of Potts patrons, Schweitzberger first met the artist at the flea market years ago. The two soon struck up a fast friendship as well as a barter arrangement in which Potts swaps carvings for secondhand vans, tools and mechanical work. It's an unusual pairing--a white, well-heeled Republican and a struggling black folk artist--but it's endured for almost a decade.
"We get together, and in a half-hour we find something to laugh or cry about," Schweitzberger says. "We're fishing buddies, but we don't go fishing."
Potts calls Schweitzberger "the guy who saved my ass." A few months ago Potts's landlord put up for sale the house that Potts had rented for eleven years. His credit still in disarray from earlier financial woes, Potts wasn't in a position to make an offer himself. So Schweitzberger bought it, despite fears on both sides that the arrangement might jeopardize their friendship.
Schweitzberger, who owns several rental properties in the metro area, says several people tried to talk him out of the deal. One realtor sneered that there was "a lot of lavender trim out there in Montbello." Another told him he'd probably have to rent to a black family.
"My response was, 'The good news is that the family is already living there and the man is my best friend,'" Schweitzberger says. "I wasn't afraid of it as an investment. Bill is a good tenant; his payment is the first in the mail every month. I'm not worried about what anyone else thinks."
What does worry him and several other patrons are the growing pressures Potts faces in the marketplace, the temptations to do the kind of work that can be produced cheaply and quickly. At one point he was whittling dozens of carved fish for a California buyer who was reselling them abroad. The pieces were undeniably "artistry by Potts," and they helped pay some bills, but they had little of the personality of his other work.
"Five of us can make a basket, and four will be crap and one will be wonderful," says Jules Wanderer. "That has to do with design and proportion. A lot of Bill's pieces have it for me, but other things don't. He has that quality when he's not pressed for commercial stuff. When he's just doing what comes out of his heart, the pieces come out just wonderful."
Potts says he got tired of cranking out fish months ago. "I started feeling like a machine," Potts says. "They want to get you on that old production line. Finally, the guy said, 'Make up your mind--do you want to work for me or do you want to be an artist?' I told him I couldn't do it anymore."
Recently, though, the same buyer "has been threatening to come here and do further business with me," Potts adds. He's now considering a proposal to make molds of fish that would be mass-produced elsewhere, with Potts guaranteed a share of the royalties.
Schweitzberger notes that the constant need to pay the bills leaves Potts little time for, say, a month-long project. "He's at a crossroads every day of his life," he says. "I'd hate to see him waste his time carving fish. Somebody else can do that. But when he's gone, who's going to make his statements?"
Michael Grano closed his bookstore several years ago and no longer represents Potts, but the two have remained close friends. "It's frustrating to see him go out to the flea market and sell stuff to support himself and not give himself a chance to be really significant," he says. "His best stuff comes straight out of him."
Grano believes Potts's greatest work consists of his heroic versions of leaders, trailblazers, musicians and athletes and his tabletop-sized tableaux--pieces like "Here Lies Joe Cool," in which a drug addict stands before an open casket, pleading with Christ ("Not just yet"), while black-robed Death grips the world in a bony embrace; guns, pills, a reefer and a syringe litter the foreground. Such scenes, with their intricate details and sprinkling of poignant commentary, pack a surprising wallop. "Emotionally, they're the most complex pieces he's ever done," Grano says.
Perhaps the most wrenching of all Potts's works is his memorial to Donnell White, a thirteen-year-old Smiley Middle School student who was shot and killed in an altercation with other youths in the parking lot of an Aurora theater in 1993. Grano remembers Potts talking about the shooting even before school officials approached him about a memorial for White. "He was powerfully moved by it," Grano says. "It just tore him up."
Potts had visited Smiley and given carving lessons in classrooms. He says students came to him with their own sketches and ideas. What resulted was a contemporary Pieta: Dressed all in white, the dying youth lies cradled in the arms of his grieving stepmother, Deborah White. A shattered pistol rests on a tombstone; a simple plaque proclaims: "Stop the Violence."
The piece was unveiled at an assembly at Smiley three years ago. Schweitzberger brought a camera to capture the event. "It was a tough crowd," he recalls. "To get these kids' attention is difficult. But here were 300 kids in total silence, damn near every one of them in tears. Bill found a way to say to them, 'Here lies the gun that caused this.' It was all I could do to take pictures."
"It was good the kids got emotional," Potts says. "They need it."
The memorial now stands in a glass case in the lobby at Smiley, a reminder of the legacy of youth violence for generations to come. It's a powerful expression of loss by a man who's had loved ones abruptly snatched from him: a wife, a daughter--even, to some extent, his eldest son. (Convicted of an assault that occurred while his family was seeking psychiatric help for him, Bill Jr. is now serving a four-year sentence in the San Carlos Correctional Facility in Pueblo, the state's special prison for the chronically mentally ill; his father says he's "encouraged" by his progress and expects him to be paroled soon.)
Working in his garage won't bring them back, but it has made him able to bear it.
Potts has few regrets about the life he's chosen. "I like this," he says. "If I didn't like it, I couldn't do it. It would be too much drudgery. But what turned me toward it is failure. Sometimes I sit out here and I get an overwhelming sense of depression. I think, 'Jesus, man, you could have a home of your own and a big fine car. You could be making fourteen dollars an hour. And you're in here working for pennies.'
"But then something inside of me will say, 'Wait a minute. You were out there. You tried it. And what did you find? People coughing and clearing their throat, [offering] a temporary hire--or nothing at all.'"
He pauses, one hand resting gently on Satchmo's shoulder. "I think about that for a minute, and then that voice says, 'Get back here and start working!'
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.