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Little Big Man

Inside Ed Dwight's hangar-like studio, the 63-year-old sculptor rushes between welding sparks and tables laden with his work, talking angrily about the troubles he's having with some of his ex-employees. He almost yells in order to be heard above the din of heavy equipment used to make his art. "These motherfuckers are stealing from me!" he exclaims. "I've been all over the world and I've brought back art books from London and Paris that you can't get here, and people are taking them from me.

"I'm just a little guy trying to do my art," the five-foot-three-inch Dwight adds, "and people won't leave me alone."

But the truth is that Dwight's much more than just a little guy: Over the past twenty years he's become one of the most successful and prolific sculptors in the West.

His shop in Park Hill overflows with bronze busts and statues, most of them of famous African-Americans: Dizzy Gillespie, Hank Aaron, Ella Fitzgerald. Some of his jazz sculptures are in the Smithsonian Institution, while others have been sold for several hundred thousand dollars apiece to private collectors. He's been commissioned by the State of Colorado to construct monuments honoring black contributions to America's Western settlement, and his work is featured in the Governor's Invitational Art Show currently on display in Loveland.

Last month a collector flew in from Nigeria with $6,000 and the sole intent of buying an Ed Dwight sculpture, says Ernest Bonner, owner of Mosadi's Collections in Denver. "The first thing people in the art world ask when you tell them you're from Denver is, 'Do you know Ed Dwight?'" adds Bonner. "He's put Denver on the map as far as African-American art is concerned."

Fellow sculptor George Lundeen goes further. "Ed has brought more culture to Denver than the National Endowment for the Arts," the Loveland artist says. "He's brought a lot of pride to the sculpture community."

Dwight's lawyer calls him the "Martin Luther King of the Denver art community."

But not everyone talks about Dwight in such lofty terms. Several former employees paint him as a domineering and callous boss.

"Ed's got two totally different faces," says Kathy Discoe, who was fired by Dwight after working in his studio for two months. "He tends to treat people well who benefit him. Gallery owners, people who provide funding for him, all get to see his charming side. It's much different with the people who work for him. He'll walk right over you to get what he wants." (Another former employee describes this as Dwight's "charm/asshole duality.") To Discoe, the environment in Dwight's shop is like that of "a very big, dysfunctional family."

And these days, there's no less-favorite son than Matt Thompson.
A welder who learned his trade building high-rises in Dallas, Thompson started working for Dwight in 1989, when he was 23. From the start, their working relationship set off sparks.

During his off-and-on seven-year stint with Dwight, Thompson says, the artist fired him three times. But Thompson was back with Dwight in the spring of 1996 when he hurt his back--on the job, he says. Dwight's workers' compensation insurance had lapsed, though, and he refused to pay Thompson's medical bills.

Dwight claims Thompson quit on his own and lied about the time frame of his injury in an attempt to garner a favorable settlement. "Not only is Thompson flat-out lying," says Dwight, "but he's calling up people who worked for me six, seven years ago and never complained to start talking now. He's calling employees who are working for me now and turning them against each other. Everyone down here is looking at each other sideways because of what he's telling them. And he's calling up my clients trying to ruin my reputation, which is all I've got."

Thompson filed a claim against Dwight with the state Division of Workers' Compensation, seeking medical benefits and lost wages. A third hearing on the case was held May 21, and arguments were so rancorous that an administrative law judge continued the hearing over until early June. (Dwight had subpoenaed Westword to appear at the hearing; the judge threw out that request.)

Thompson's attorney, Neil O'Toole, says this case "could set the record as the longest compensation hearing I am aware of."

But Dwight's been in fights before, and he's not about to back down now.

In addition to his fame as an artist, Dwight is known in some circles as "America's first black astronaut"--a notion trumpeted by his own promotional materials. But in fact, Ed Dwight never made it into space.

In 1961, when John F. Kennedy was president, the U.S. began screening applicants for the first class of astronauts. Dwight, who'd flown with the Air Force since 1952, was the only black in the astronaut training program. Distinguished pilot Chuck Yeager, who was in charge of the space program's application and training process, writes in his autobiography that Dwight finished dead last out of 26 applicants. But because of intense pressure from the Kennedy administration to include a black pilot in the space program, Yeager says, he was compelled to bump Dwight up to the list of fifteen finalists sent for additional training.

 

"Ed Dwight was an average pilot with an average academic background," Yeager writes. "He wasn't a bad pilot, but he wasn't exceptionally talented, either. He worked hard...but he just couldn't hack it."

In The Right Stuff, which chronicles the early days of the U.S. space program, Tom Wolfe writes that Dwight never really had a chance of getting into space. "He was being set up for a fall," says Wolfe, "because the chances of NASA accepting him as an astronaut appeared remote in any event."

Still, Dwight stuck with the training program and graduated. Although graduation qualified him to become the nation's first black astronaut, NASA did not select him. Dwight later said this was "100 percent due to the death of Kennedy."

Dwight accused those in charge of the astronaut program of racism--and sent a fifteen-page, single-spaced letter to officials in Washington, D.C., describing racial pressure directed at him during training. When his letter failed to elicit a response, Dwight, then 31, took his case to the media. He held a press conference at the Naval Ordnance Test Station in China Lake, California, where he blamed the fact that he had been turned down for astronaut training on racism. The Pentagon responded by noting that Dwight was one of many military pilots recommended, but he simply wasn't among the final few selected by NASA.

As a result of his fight, Dwight now says, he "was in the White House all the time" and "on the cover of every magazine in the U.S." Although that's an obvious exaggeration, he did rate a 1965 Ebony profile. In that piece, a source in the Defense Department said Dwight's unwillingness to accept NASA's decision hurt any future chances. "Dwight bucked the system by complaining about discrimination," said the source. "The military takes a lot of pride in its policy of 'no racial bias in the armed services.' When a guy bucks 'the system,' he's not going to find many people willing to carry the ball for him."

A close friend of Dwight's interviewed by Ebony said that "Ed had this terrific obsession about going to the moon." When he failed to achieve his goal, the friend added, Dwight's obsession turned to bitterness.

After the furor died down, Dwight was sent to a bomber test group in Ohio--an assignment considered by one aerospace graduate as "the worst possible one a guy can get." Dwight resigned from the Air Force in 1966 after fourteen years of service.

NASA records show that Guion Bluford Jr., who went into space in 1983, was the nation's first black astronaut.

Dwight's career eventually took off in other directions.
After quitting the Air Force, he worked for IBM and then moved to Denver, where he opened a chain of barbecue restaurants. When that business venture proved less than profitable, he got into real estate development. According to Ebony magazine, Dwight made a fortune building condominiums and was a millionaire by the early Seventies. But he lost virtually all of his property during a recession that hit the housing market in the mid-Seventies. It was at that point that Dwight enrolled at the University of Denver, graduating with a master's degree in fine arts in 1977, at the age of 44.

It was his career as a sculptor that would bring Dwight widespread fame and another sizable fortune. But it also led to his reputation as a tough and unrelenting taskmaster.

In his studio, dressed in dirty white coveralls, Ed Dwight is a whirl of emotions. His temperament changes almost as often as the images on the three TVs scattered around his shop--each tuned in to different daytime talk shows with the sound turned up. One moment Dwight is laughing about the ridiculous allegations leveled at him by some of his former employees. The next he flies into a rage about stolen sketchbooks that could be "worth millions when I die."

Former employees say Dwight's mood swings are partly responsible for the quick turnover in his workforce. Thompson claims he saw between thirty and forty people come and go during the time he worked for Dwight. Some, like Kathy Discoe, worked for Dwight for a few months; some lasted only a few weeks before they were fired or left. But others have weathered Dwight's stormy personality for years.

 

Dwight says he fires people because they screw up. The only reason he's accused of being a bad boss, he complains, is because he's black. "Denver is a pissant little town, where if somebody farts on one side of town, the press comes running," he says.

Dwight attributes his volatility to the demanding nature of his work. "I've got to keep up my creative energy while at the same time running the largest production facility in the West," he says. "To do this, I need to split myself into two people."

And he has to hire still more to fabricate his sculptures, which is where the problems arise.

Once Dwight has sculpted the initial mold, his workers make a ceramic shell, pour molten bronze into the shell, then weld the separate pieces together. The finishing process requires the use of sandblasting and sanding equipment.

Thompson estimates it takes two to three days, on average, to complete a twenty-inch sculpture. Some of Dwight's larger works, however, weigh over a ton, and workers have to use sledgehammers to knock the panels into shape and forklifts to move them around. "But the forklifts were pretty difficult to maneuver," says Thompson, "so we'd end up moving these huge panels by hand."

Discoe claims Dwight fired her when she refused to work on a fiberglass mold without wearing a respirator, which she says Dwight didn't have at the time. "The fumes were so bad that this other girl who was doing it literally went blind," says Discoe. "She was walking into walls. So Ed pulled her off it and tried to get me to do it. When I said no, he took me into his office and fired me on the spot."

But Maria Navaretta, who has worked for Dwight for almost fifteen years, says there are always masks in Dwight's shop and that Discoe is lying. "People always talk badly about the boss," she adds, "especially when they get fired."

Rob Olsen was one of many fabricators at Dwight's studio. "I don't even recall why he fired me," says Olsen, who adds that he'd never been fired before--or since. "I know a lot of people who worked for Ed and got fired. If you work for Ed, you'd better know what you're getting into. He'll walk over your ass all day long. But it's one of those things where if you can't take the heat, you'd better get out of the kitchen."

Jim Dickson, who left Dwight's shop voluntarily to start his own company, Artist Service Center Inc., says people should realize what they're getting into when they work for Dwight. "A lot of whiners have passed through Ed's gates over the years who should have known better," says Dickson. "If you go to work for him, you'd better have your eyes open."

But Dwight's turbulent nature shouldn't be surprising, Dickson says: "Hey, nobody ever said artists were an easy bunch to do business with, or live with, or work for.

"The pure amount of bronze he produces is amazing," adds Dickson. "He may be a control freak with a Napoleon complex, but after all, it's his studio, and he pays good money. As far as I know, he's the highest-paying employer around. I don't know if that justifies the abuse he hands out, but it's true."

Even Thompson admits that the $15 an hour Dwight paid him was good money for foundry work.

"Ed works his ass off," Olsen says, "and he demands the same from his workers. As a result, the tension would rise every time Ed walked in the door. I think it's goddamn amazing that Matt Thompson worked there more than five years."

"It was a real love-hate thing with Ed and Matt," adds Dickson.

Outwardly, Matt Thompson and Ed Dwight are about as different as two people can be. Dwight is short, black and very aggressive. Thompson is tall (6'5"), white and low-key, if long-winded. But they do agree on one thing: The other guy is a habitual liar.

"Matt Thompson is a convicted criminal!" Dwight exclaims. "How the hell can you believe anything he says?" Thompson admits he was arrested when he was eighteen for breaking windows and got caught when he forged his cousin's signature on a $100 check. But Thompson points out that Dwight has a rap sheet of his own, which includes charges of shoplifting and assault.

Those who witnessed the two at work say their differences might have been what kept them together. "Matt is a big, nice guy," explains Olsen, "and I think that's what kept him down there so long. People who weren't willing to put up with Ed's shit didn't last long. They either got fired or quit...But Matt was Ed's premier welder. I'd say he did 90 percent of the welding down there."

 

"I know that Ed fired Matt a couple times as well as made lots of accusations about Matt stealing from him," adds Dickson, "but he'd bring Matt back because he's a hell of a welder and fabricator."

The first time Thompson left was in 1991, two years after he started working with Dwight. There was a disputed injury involved then, too, but Dwight still wrote a letter of recommendation for Thompson describing him as "one of the best welders I have ever met."

After Thompson returned to Dwight's studio and suffered a second injury in 1993, Dwight changed his tune. In an April 19, 1993, letter to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, Dwight accused Thompson of lying about his injury and stealing from his shop. "Mr. Thompson has quit and is not welcome to return to work here," Dwight wrote. "Mr. Thompson removed (stole) from my operation nearly $8,000 in tools and equipment...he was stealing me blind, was totally undependable and irresponsible."

That time, Thompson returned to his native Iowa with his then-pregnant wife and young child. But a year later, Thompson says, Navaretta contacted him on Dwight's behalf and asked him to return. "I called him up, and Ed was like, 'What's up, buddy?'" remembers Thompson. "He was really friendly and said that he needed a welder for a monument of B.B. King he was working on. He also told me about some other projects he had in the works, projects that would keep me busy for the next four years or so. I guess he milked me pretty good. Even though my wife was totally against going back, I fell for it hook, line and sinker.

"Ed has a way of glossing things over when things get shitty," Thompson continues. "He kept promising me that at the end of all the B.S. there would be a golden opportunity for me in the art world."

Dickson says he can see how Dwight could have wooed Thompson back. "Ed is the devil in plainclothes," he says, "and he can be charming as hell."

But Dwight's attorney, Barbara Furutani, says her client never asked Thompson to return. "It was always little Matty who was begging to come back to work for Ed," she says, "not the other way around."

Why would Dwight rehire someone he'd accused of stealing? Dwight says it's his nature to be forgiving. "Matt Thompson is one of the best welders I've ever seen in my life," he says. "He's done a lot of crazy, off-the-wall things, but I've got five kids, and I didn't abandon them when they did crazy things. I decided to help this guy, but that's not a character flaw. I did it for the same reason that I buy art from every weak artist in this town when they can't make their rent."

(Gallery owner Bonner agrees that Dwight does his share to support the local art market. "Ed will trade with other artists even though their stuff isn't worth as much," he says.)

But Dwight points out that his relationship with Thompson was not one between equals. "Matt is not an artist, he's a technician. I am a very gifted man and very confident in what I do every day," he says. "He'd like to be like me in the worst way, but he doesn't understand me. He's a good-looking, tall white guy. The world is built for him. I'm a short black guy, and he doesn't understand what I go through. And if you don't understand something, you try to dismantle it."

Whatever Dwight's reasons for hiring Thompson a third time--and Thompson's for returning--it didn't take long before the two were back at each other's throats.

On April 20, 1996, Thompson was working on the B.B. King monument when King's guitar, "Lucille," fell. He caught the heavy bronze replica, he says, throwing his back out in the process. But Thompson didn't tell Dwight about the injury right away. "Hell, I just moved back from Iowa," he explains. "I didn't want to get fired again."

Besides, Thompson claims, Dwight had already instructed him to tell everyone around the shop to be "especially careful" because he'd forgotten to pay his workers' comp insurance. (Dwight had let his insurance lapse before, in 1991, shortly before another worker was hurt on the job. Dwight fired that worker, who took him to court, where the worker won a settlement that included damages and back pay.)

But Thompson's pain didn't go away, and he says he finally reported it to Dwight on June 4. The artist fired him the next day, he says, writing a check for $1,000 and telling him, "I don't have time to fuck with you on this."

 

Two weeks later, though, Dwight agreed to send Thompson to his personal physician for an evaluation. When the doctor's report came back July 30 indicating that Thompson did indeed have a herniated disk, Dwight terminated the relationship permanently, Thompson says.

Thompson filed a workers' comp claim. In a response sent last summer to state employment officials, Dwight said that Thompson didn't report his injury until almost four months after it was suffered--a clear case of Thompson trying to take advantage of Dwight falling behind in his workers' compensation insurance.

According to O'Toole, Thompson's attorney, his client is eligible for back pay (one year's worth at $600 a week) and medical costs, including $20,000 for an operation. Because Dwight's insurance had lapsed, Thompson could also be eligible for a higher percentage of long-term workers' comp, O'Toole says.

At the May 21 hearing, according to O'Toole, Dwight used the "artist defense" for forgetting to renew his insurance.

Furutani, Dwight's attorney, says her client won't pay up without a fight. "If Ed believed that Matt Thompson was legitimately hurt, he would definitely pay for his injuries," Furutani says. "I'm not saying Ed is perfect, but I know that he's gone out of his way to help people. All Ed wants to be is a sculptor, and Matt Thompson is making that hard for him to do."

Having now been unemployed for several months, Matt Thompson is finding it hard to make ends meet. He's trying to sell his truck, because he can't make payments on it. He's enrolled in vocational rehabilitation in hopes of finding a new line of work; his doctor says his injury means welding is out of the question.

"The thing that bothers me the most about all this is that I sacrificed my welding career for this man," Thompson says. "And instead of accepting his responsibility, Ed has spent more on lawyers than if he had just paid for my injury.

"I busted my balls working for Ed, and I ended up busting my back as well.


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