Dana Cain creates her own fun -- and makes Denver fun for creators
Dana Cain is an Enneagram Social 7: The Enthusiast. And then some. Social 7s, according to the nine-pointed Enneagram personality system, run away from pain and have a passion for gluttony. And while too much is never enough in Dana Cain's universe, the beauty of it is that she's more than happy to share with the rest of the world.
Dana promotes events. She plans parties. She's an avid collector, a lover of the arcane and the metaphysical, and has published several books and guides for others of a like mind. In the '90s she co-owned Atomic Antiques and Collectibles on South Broadway. She's worked eBay. She even took a job in the corporate world for a while. Fascinated by geology and science (her brother is a geologist), she's served as editor of the World Geophysical News for decades.
More recently, she's become a rare aficionado in the local art community, growing an impressive Colorado-centric art collection that fills her Littleton home; when she's not planning shows, she sits on the board of the Art District on Santa Fe and hosts that district's annual Best of the Art District exhibition and awards. It's an ever-upward route she's picking out as the years go by, and 2011 is shaping up to be her biggest year ever, with the addition to her roster of the inaugural Denver Style Expo in April and the crowning achievement of her career, the Denver County Fair, in July.
But on this day, Dana is running behind. She's working from a home office, keeping track of too many irons in the fire: planning hourly fashion shows and high-profile special guests for the two-day Style Expo; filling themed pavilions for the Denver County Fair; registering vendors for the Vintage Voltage Expo, chocolatiers for the Colorado Chocolate Festival and authors for the Rocky Mountain Book & Paper Fair. Down the road a little further is the Denver Modernism Show, which she's grown from a basement affair to a national event. For the first time she can remember, with a looming schedule of major events that — boom, boom, boom — almost piggyback one another on the planning table, the work's almost gotten the better of her. But she'll pull through; it's what she does. Remember, she's a Social 7.
"I have promotion in my blood," Dana says. One of her favorite stories is about the time a handwriting analyst pegged her script as a ringer for P.T. Barnum's. She owes this grandiosity, she notes, in part to her mother, Dorothy Adams, also a party planner of extraordinary talent, as well as a collector of Raggedy Ann dolls, Christmas villages and more. Ditto, then, for the so-called collector gene. It started when her grandma gave her a Breyer horse for her ninth birthday, the beginning of an eventual collection of more than 500 steeds. In the years since, she's racked up collections of everything from unicorns and sock monkeys to Godzilla and vintage science-fiction movie posters.
And Dana's always been on the move. "I was born a young hillbilly in the foothills of the Ozarks in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and I grew up in the South: New Orleans; Pensacola, Florida; Brewton, Alabama; Oklahoma. My father worked for Exxon, so I was an oil brat. We never lived in the same place for more then a few years." But schooling brought Dana to Denver, where she completed a degree in mass communications at the University of Denver. Her love affair with the city began immediately. "I moved to Denver in 1980, and I've been here ever since and have no plans to ever leave it," she explains. "I'm just too in love with this city."
What makes Denver so cool? Surprisingly, Dana thinks it's the town's geographic isolation. "I used to hate it," she says. "But now, I see that its isolation is what makes Denver appreciate all of the events that go on in town. It's up to us to create our own fun. We can't drive an hour and be in another big city like Chicago, and the effect is like a vortex. There's a tornado going on here."
Her ascent through that vortex always seemed star-crossed. "I spent my first decade immersed in the sci-fi community here. My first event experience was MileHiCon. I chaired two in the early 1980s. It was all volunteer stuff, because they were my peeps. I'm a nerd at heart, a total Trekkie. Gene Roddenberry is my absolute total mentor. Then I had this crazy-ass idea: What if I ran an event on my own that was all mine?"
That first event was the Twilight Zone Festival in the late '80s, which coincided with the new Twilight Zone show that came out at that time. "I was so naive. I called the L.A. guys from the show, and they ended up coming out and showing the first episode before it even aired on on TV." That stirred up a lot of press, from the cover of the Rocky Mountain News entertainment section to an interview in USA Today. "After that," she says, "I was hooked."
Next up was the Baby Boomerama, what Cain calls "the primordial seed for the Denver Modernism Show," followed by a series of shows for toy and doll collectors that continue to this day. Over the years, Dana has lured a who's-who of special guests from the mid-century pop-culture pantheon to Denver for these growing expos: Big Daddy Roth, Tiny Tim, Lost in Space child star Billy Mumy, Maureen McCormick, Adam West, Julie Newmar and others.
"Then, in this century, I realized that I wanted to do something that meant more. I realized that I had the ability to gather like-minded people together." That's when she started doing the Athena Festival, a new-agey gathering for Tarot readers and fortune tellers and other purveyors of metaphysical disciplines. "And then I wanted even bigger things," she adds, and the Colorado Chocolate Festival and Denver Modernism shows evolved. Of the latter she says, "I was finally doing something I'd been wanting to do forever. Everyone said it wouldn't work, but sure enough, it did work, and that was a turning point. The rest is history."
As for the upcoming Denver Style Expo, Dana went into it a little bit blind. She'd spoken many times with local designer Mona Lucero about working together in some capacity; the Denver Style Expo grew out of those talks. Lucero says she wasn't sure Denver was quite ready for something the caliber of a Fashion Week, but was interested in helping out. So in her inimitable manner, Dana chose to plow forward with something big and tailored to the Denver style set. "She was really humble about it," Lucero recalls. She said to me, 'I don't know much about fashion.'" Lucero and fellow fashion maven Brandi Shigley came on board as consultants.
"Fashion is a whole mysterious world to me," Dana notes. "To me, it's not like the art community, where everybody knows each other. My strategy has been to partner myself up with some big local names in fashion, and Mona's got those fashion chops." On the business end of the expo, Dana recently announced the participation of three Denver reality-show stars: designer Mondo Guerra, hair stylist Charlie Price and drag queen Nina Flowers. And to that roster, she's added the Denver Style Awards, a contest in several categories. "I always start new shows by saying, 'Okay, where's the contest?" she says. "People love competing; they like contests. They have this innate need to know who's best in anything."
So, too, with the quirky Denver County Fair, which will revolve around new-urban competitions of every kind, from classic pie contests to citified skateboard rodeos. "The Denver County Fair will be the mecca of contests," Dana effuses. "There will be hundreds of them." In addition, there will be a DIY craft tent sponsored by Fancy Tiger and a tent focused on urban animals, from dogs, cats and hamsters to backyard chickens and rabbits. There will be a glorious food tent and a produce market. There will be a fashion tent with tattoo contests and more. There will be green, holistic and buy-local components, not to mention a carnival and an honest-to-God sideshow. There will be deep-fried everything, 4-H rocketry and a huge juried art exhibition. How does she do it?
"I live alone now, with no guy or kids or even pets, so I have a lot of time to really focus," she explains. "Left to my own devices, I tend to come up with really big ideas. The County Fair was not my idea, but I'm not sure it would be happening if I hadn't jumped in and said I'd do it." As it turns out, artists Tracy Weil and Chandler Romeo casually brought up the concept at a party within earshot of Dana. It turned into a conversation. She turned it around in her mind afterward and was on the horn to them the next day, saying, "Let's do this thing."
"First we had the visions of grandeur, and then the work set in," says Weil, who now handles graphics, branding and sponsorships as a partner in building the fair. "It's shaping up even better than I thought it would," he adds. "It's good to create a thing from the ground up and make it a little bit different." Different, yes...but for a reason.
In her usual community-driven fever, Dana says, "I want people to leave being inspired to go home and start making crafts or grow a garden or start raising rabbits. Each pavilion will have so many touchstones, something that will inspire people. I want them to leave thinking, 'Holy crap! Denver is the coolest place on earth!' The fair will help to solidify and expand on Denver's whole brand as a new creative capital."
She really believes that, and when the shows are done and over, she puts her money on it. Dana remains "on" throughout her rare off periods, trolling the galleries, meeting artists and, more important, buying their work. This she does on a totally volunteer basis and out of love for the local artist community. "I'd pit Denver's art scene against any other in the country, and it's because we've got so much artistic chutzpah," Dana says. "The gallery scene has so many really viable art districts, each one cool in its own right, and our co-op scene is absolutely the best in the country. In any other art city, co-ops are looked upon like dirt. But that's how you grow new talent, and we have an amazing band of emerging artists." Her home has been redecorated and converted to accommodate her extensive collection with contrasting walls, installation environments, even a room with a bright-green AstroTurf carpet. But her involvement as a promoter and patron of the arts goes so much further than that.
"For me, it's the way Dana works her magic," artist Tracy Tomko gushes unapologetically. "Dana has been a great source of inspiration and support to delve deeper and put my thoughts into paint. Sometimes it's just the way she makes this positive gasp in front of the wet paint that's unfolding on the easel, when she drops by the studio, breathing confidence and vitality into future brushstrokes. It wouldn't be a stretch to call her a mentor. If there's a 'Home Town Hero' of the art community in Denver, Dana Cain is my nomination."
And for rising painter Mark Penner Howell, it's Dana's fearlessness that makes her stand out: "When I first met her, she had this surprising presence; she was unlike anyone I'd known before. She was so straightforward, and she had no barriers to picking up the phone cold and saying, in my case, 'I love your art. I saw your show. You don't know me, but I was blown away by your art. Can I buy a painting?' That was wonderful, as an artist, to get that kind of reception. I ended up selling her a painting right away. After getting to know her as a friend over time, I find her a remarkable resource. She's introduced me to people who've ended up being very important to me in my career."
Kym Bloom, another artist, who's known Dana since the Atomic days, says, "She is practically a force of nature in the art community. She supports artists like no one I've ever seen, and it's not just about buying and hanging a piece of art on the wall. She's going to every show, talking to artists, supporting artists she loves, and she's very vocal about it."
"She's a catalyst," agrees Penner Howell. "She puts people together all the time. That's a function that she clearly plays in the local art community, but now she's scaling it up with this whole county fair thing. She's plugging communities into each other at a much higher level. Not everybody can take on that kind of role, yet we all benefit from it. Dana is just a really unique person, and I don't know what Denver would be without her."
Indeed, Dana — the collector, the one-woman artist-support group, the event planner, the cultural civic booster, the Enneagram Social 7 — likes to quote Barack Obama's recent State of the Union speech by saying of herself, "We do big things."
"I love that my heroes are all people like Walt Disney and Gene Roddenberry," she says. "The thing I love about planning events is giving big groups who think like me something fun to do, joining people to gather around a common cause and building community — that's what I love.
"It lets me feel like the event isn't just for me," she adds, "but that I'm also helping all these other entrepreneurs get the message out and make money, and give the public something cool to do."
For updates on all of Dana Cain's events, go to showandtelldenver.com, where you'll also find that Cain is the first of our 100 Colorado Creatives. We'll count down the rest on the blog. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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