A few weeks ago Stanton Stegner took over a small warehouse at the corner of 22nd and Curtis Streets, where an auto-parts supply store used to be. Using his 1969 Ford van and a flatbed trailer, he systematically began depositing sculptures made from old chrome bumpers and scrap steel around his backyard--a blacktop surface surrounded by chain-link fence.
"I figure I am beautifying the exact place where LoDo goes bad," he says, contemplating a twenty-foot-long sculpture of a skeleton astride a futuristic Harley. "Every homeless person in the world comes by here sooner or later. Sometimes I can't legibly tell what they're saying about my work, but I assume it's compliments."
As if on cue, an English-as-a-second-language carpenter who has been restoring a flophouse across the street comes over to lace his fingers through the chain link. "This? You do? Yes? Cool!"
"It's for sale," Stegner says hopefully.
"Oh? Oh, no," the carpenter says, backing off.
So far, this has been the story of Stegner's life, and it burns him. "I mean, look at this," he says, approaching a ten-foot-tall chrome head with a small trap door installed in its forehead. "It's called 'Open Up Your Mind.' And when you open it up, see, there's a little steel devil inside. Just like everyone has in their mind."
Who wouldn't want that installed in their yard, their health-club foyer, the conference room of their insurance brokerage? It beats Stegner. But after ten years as a struggling welder of cast-off car parts, he has decided to get serious about marketing. Already, in less than an hour of conversation, he's used the word "signage" twice. And last month he threw what could almost be called a gallery opening.
"It was quite a mix of people," recalls Jennifer Roberts, retail manager for Easyriders of Denver, a motorcycle shop affiliated with the national magazine of the same name. "He had some real upstanding, fancy art types there. Businessmen. When people see his work, they are just fascinated. It makes you want to help him get rich and famous."
Roberts plans to do this by talking up Stegner and his chrome art at biker rallies everywhere.
"I do okay with bikers," Stegner says, although he sold not one piece at this year's Sturgis rally in the Dakotas. "But that was okay. I just sat around and watched naked women get their pictures taken on my work."
No one got all the way naked at Stegner's party last month, but the atmosphere around the Wagnerian wet bar Stegner had welded for the occasion was loose and friendly. People loved the work. The chrome cow skull, the dancing aborigine with the pierced penis, the Star Trekkian coffee table and chairs. No one bought anything, Stegner says. No one was even willing to trade.
"Ah, no," says Ted, a consultant from New York who has come to Denver for two weeks to "slut" Stegner's work, as he puts it. "We sold two pieces, maybe three."
Stegner interrupts. "Really? Well, we had about seventy people--"
"One hundred," Ted says. "We had one hundred."
Ted is just one of the amenities--along with rent money and welding equipment--currently being supplied to Stegner by Denver investment advisor H. Corbin Day. "Usually my company does venture-capital things--start-up companies, high-tech," Day says, "but I'm helping Stan with marketing strategy. I've put some money into it. I see potential."
Day also sees a catalogue, ads in Iron Horse and Easyriders and a West Coast database in Stegner's future. Ted has been hauling around a Stegner trout--ten feet long and vicious--to various lower downtown restaurants and nightclubs, suggesting that they hang the art as a sort of Stegner Steel Works Billboard. "Stan's never marketed his stuff," Day explains. "What he's mostly done is moved around."
This is true. What follows is Stegner's itinerary from the past twelve years. He is now thirty.
Stegner grew up in Park Forest, a suburb of Chicago, with four brothers, a social-worker mom and a high-school-principal dad. "I drove them crazy," Stegner says. "I was a halfway hoodlum; I burnt my army men. I was raised on The Dukes of Hazzard and The Six Million Dollar Man. Talk about a product of TV violence." Stegner tried to get a design degree at a community college but left because the curriculum was "so bogus." At eighteen, he moved to Denver.
Stegner likes mountains, so he picked the Mile High City as headquarters for his own construction company. Denver picked this era to undergo a building slump. Stegner spent the next six years selling off his heavy equipment and living on the proceeds. And Jet-Skiing, which is how he met Sean Guerrero, arguably the best-known chrome sculptor in the world. (You can see his bumper horse on the roof of Denver Bumper Works, just east of the Eighth Avenue exit on I-25.) Guerrero was struggling at the time, but Stegner was intrigued enough to begin welding his own giant pieces. "I had to build things their way in construction," Stegner explains. "Now I build things my way, and if you don't like it, goodbye."
Next stop: Santa Fe. Stegner had heard it was a "world art center." So he moved there in 1990. "I was very unaccepted there," he recalls. "I went broke. I went to Albuquerque."
His brother, who redesigns houses for wheelchair-bound people, allowed him to build a thousand-square-foot concrete patio, on which he welded for a year, rain or shine. He also gave Stegner some cool chrome wheelchair parts. Stegner built a lot of dragons, angels, motorcycles and lizards and took them to California. Specifically, Beverly Hills.
The proprietors of Off the Wall, a vintage jukebox store in L.A., instantly gave him $4,000 in cash for a welded motorcycle. The next day, he went to their store to see his work displayed and found it had already been resold to a mysterious "prominent client." Off the Wall would not dispense more information than that, but the store commissioned Stegner to build another bike. When Stegner returned with it six months later, Off the Wall was no longer interested. Furious, Stegner parked his trailer in front of the store and fumed. Then Nicolas Cage showed up and told Stegner he'd bought the first chrome bike--for $12,000. "I gave Nick Cage my number," Stegner recalls, "and we agreed to do business with each other in the future." Less than a month later the number was disconnected, because Stegner had moved back to New Mexico.
Back in Albuquerque, he welded in the home of a "crazy-ass chiropractor." From there he rented and was kicked out of warehouses all over the Southwest, including Houston, "where the bugs are this frikkin' big and I welded when it was 110 degrees."
Then he wound up in Steamboat Springs, which he recalls as "the most beautiful solitary hell I've ever lived in. It was fine until I went crazy." Before that, a gallery began selling his work alongside "fine furs and accents for the home." For the ski-tourist trade, Stegner built snowboarders, lizards, skulls and dinosaurs--"and I gave them names like 'Rent' and 'Gas Bill,' because I didn't believe in them," he says. "I'm no trendy fucker." No, he's an artist. To prove it, he moved to Boulder.
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He welded outdoors on private land on the banks of Boulder Creek, ran afoul of the city's code-enforcement department and was about to move somewhere far away when he met H. Corbin Day, received an infusion of cash and opened his Denver headquarters in mid-November 1996.
So there is a lot to do.
Having moved in several tons of sculpture and its corresponding raw material, Stegner is adding a few homey touches to the place. His kitchen consists of a gas grill and a refrigerator full of beer, bratwurst and pre-formed beef patties. With a garden hose, he has fashioned a reasonably workable shower inside the bathroom labeled "Ladies" by a previous owner. By sawing off the necks of several dozen Bud bottles, he has made attractive amber-colored candleholders. Add a few snapshots of bare-butted girls in G-strings, and the decorating is done. Now, work. First he has to get that trout out of Ted's car. Ted cannot offer that trout to some trendy restaurant. Stegner needs to use it as a model for another trout. A smaller trout. For the big trout to chase. But perhaps he will make an enormous bumper bench for Wahoo's Fish Taco to use. If they want it. Well, maybe he'll make it. But not just this second.
Stegner pulls on an assortment of split-cowhide leather garments, adjusts his welding helmet and grabs his torch. He has a wonderful idea. It has to do with the pool table that is sitting over there by the wet bar to which he has recently welded huge, curved horns. The Pagan Wet Bar, he calls it. Compared to the Pagan Wet Bar, the pool table is unremarkable, but not for long.
"I'm going to chrome it out," Stegner says, as the sparks begin to fly. "I'm going to chrome it till it looks like a suit of armor.