I’m a Denver native who snuck away for seven years to live in San Francisco until circumstances called me back. A lot of people thought I was plain out of my mind to come back here, where the culture just doesn’t engulf the city like that famous San Franciscan fog. But I found myself explaining again and again that you have to hit Denver’s cultural communities like you hit a vein of gold ore: They exist, richly, in wildly creative pockets -- but you have to find them. Some of them remain anonymous, like the guy I prefer to call the "Reading Dude," who sits on my morning bus, always in the reticulated bend, looking totally street in his do-rag, hoodie and baggy pants, sucker in his mouth, reading library books, avidly enjoying the written word as he rides through the real world. But most of them have names.
In Denver, then, it’s all about who you know, and here’s a few folks – everyday people who’ve carved out their thriving niches – whom I’ve been lucky enough to find along the way.
Denver Chicano Arts Community
I thought I could name just one person, Carlos Fresquez (a personal favorite as an artist). But I soon realized that Carlos is a community member who shares with his artist compadres and comadres a certain number of traits: a 500-year-old regional history, a recognition for the bedrock importance of la familia, a politicized sensibility rooted in the populist rise of La Raza in the ´60s and ´70s, and a kind of identifiable humbleness (and the easy sense of humor that goes along with it), to name a few. And they are many, both living and departed. Along with Carlos, there are Daniel and Maruca Salazar, Tony Ortega and Sylvia Montero, santeros Carlos Santistevan and Jerry Vigil, Su Teatro director Tony Garcia, muralist Emanuel Martinez, the poets Lalo Delgado and Corky Gonzales, author Manuel Ramos and broadcaster Flo Hernandez Ramos, actor and filmmaker Gwylym Cano, literally everyone at the Chicano Humanities and Arts Council and so many more -- some elder statesmen and others on the rise. The word "rich" doesn’t even begin to describe this league.
Again, there is no way to pare the list down to one woman in a town where the fiber-arts community is strong. But first on my list is my friend Charlotte Elich, who once created a meeting ground for weavers, knitters and beaders at Skyloom Fibers, her defunct yarn-and-wool citadel on South Pearl Street. Charlotte has a mind like a dictionary, where she kept catalogued an immense inventory and the useful qualities of each item on the shelf. She could sell you something and tell you what to do with it, too – and her support for her customers, some of them talented crafters in their own right, was unswerving. She gave them jobs as teachers and clerks, kept their work in the store and ran a word-of-mouth networking center like no other. Charlotte’s gone on to repurpose her creative vision in her two 5 Green Boxes retail stores, also on Pearl, but her support for artists continues there, where she carries lots of locally made merchandise.
In the present, Dianne D’Lea Denholm, another longtime Denver retailer made a totally opposite shift: Once the owner of D’Lea’s, a fabric store in Cherry Creek North, Dianne’s now the director of the nonprofit TACtile Arts Center in Tamarac Square, which provides meeting and gallery space for various fiber-arts guilds, as well as classes and other events for the public. And her beautiful shop/gallery space shows off a fabulous cross-section of handmade wearable art from across the region.
Now, there’s a whole younger group of FFs coming up in the do-it-yourself revivalist spirit, including Tran Wills at the Fabric Lab and Jaime Jennings at Fancy Tiger and Chris Loffelmacher, honorary dude and the magical mentor of the Denver Public Library’s Fresh City Life series. They work hard to provide DIYers a place to connect. Fiber arts have an old, old history; these folks are keeping them going in the 21st century.
Dea Webb, Plastic Chapel
I grew up on a steady stream of pop culture that began in a miasmic murk of Mad magazine and Superman comics and continues to express itself in increasingly outré bursts. Graphic novels. Heroes. Hello Kitty. Shepard Fairey. Kidrobot. Lucky for me, there’s Dea Webb, co-owner of Plastic Chapel on East Colfax Avenue, and my favorite toy hawker in town. What Dea’s really got going for herself is her effusive enthusiasm for the vinyl designer toys and graffiti art she peddles: It’s catching, and it actually brings out their beauty as objets d’art.
Lauri Lynnxe Murphy
In the jungle of the underground and independent art world, Lauri is bedrock. A prototypical Westword Mastermind Award-winner, she’s done it both ways: as an artist and as a support system for other artists. Over the years, she’s risen through the cooperatives; helmed Pod (the wackiest-ever artist-made retail store in town) and Capsule Gallery (a regular hive of support for undiscovered artists); collaborated on comic strips; and made coats out of stuffed animals and mutant sculptural creatures from slick, shiny fiberglass. Just the tip of the iceberg for Lauri, who’s now going full-steam in artist mode, leaving the headaches of gallery ownership behind. I can hardly wait to see what she does next.
Marie has a neat little studio by the Oriental Theater, where she makes her amazing molded ceramic creations. Sometimes they are organic forms from natures and at other times, they're creepy (a lot of her recent work involves clay baby heads and doll parts). But they’re always fascinating, as is Gibbons, who teaches workshops and classes when she’s not making babies (sorry, Marie, bad joke). But she also leads a wonderful series of First Friday mini-shops, with themed drop-in clay projects for anyone strolling the street with ten bucks and a creative streak. You go, mold a little artwork and come back to pick it up after it’s been fired. Drawing in the community is an important job and one not taken on by every artist in town. Marie just has a nice way of letting the public come away with a piece of the pie.
The Other Side Arts
The Other Side Arts, an organization based in Highland that goes a long step beyond being a just a cooperative, also stands on a reputation for community service: From TOSA voice Jeff Ball to such high profile studio mates as puppet-maker Cory Gilstrap, its members are always finding ways to reach out to the community, by offering affordable studio space to artists, gallery shows and collaborations, free art workshops for kids, public screen printing and darkroom facilities and even a home for the Denver Zine Library. In 2005, TOSA brought its collective ethic to a second location in downtown Aurora, where things couldn’t get more grassroots, giving a boost to a depressed area where a strong arts community is working together to find a way to thrive and bring a creative vitality back to East Colfax.
Ron Miles and Fred Hess
You just can’t say enough about world-class musicians who are happy to stay put in a town that now belongs on the jazz-world map purely because they’re right here, playing, educating, recording and spreading the love of their artform while garnering respect for the quality of their craft. These guys simply blow ´em all away.
Kirk Johnson, Denver Museum of Nature and Science
Kirk’s a scientist, but he has an artistic soul. A paleobotanist/geologist/bone hunter extraordinaire, he doesn’t just see the black-and-white remains of the fossils he studies; he also imagines the prehistoric lives they evidence with a three-dimensional understanding that’s rare. He also likes to stretch his funny bone once in awhile, and best of all, he enjoys working with artists, from DMNS diorama builders and paleoartists to the Alaskan graphic artist Ray Troll, who’s not just a colleague but a road-trip companion with whom Johnson built a museum exhibit and wrote a book. Kirk Johnson bridges the gap between the arts and the sciences with a nonchalant grace one rarely sees.
Chris Loffelmacher, Fresh City Life, Denver Public Library
This is Chris’s second mention in this blog, but he deserves it. First, he’s a really nice, clever and articulate guy, and second, he whips up the most wonderful – and absolutely free – concoctions from scratch for each series of Fresh City Life programs. Give him a theme and he’ll run with it all the way, finding ways to explore it through film, craft workshops, lectures, performances and fashion shows. Talk about your urban funplex: Loffelmacher’s perfected the concept.
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Adam Lerner, the Lab at Belmar
Adam’s an intellectual who seems to know something about everything, but like Chris, he’s brilliant at making anything interesting in ways that are both artsy and, well, anti-artsy. The programs he invents as a way to draw people, especially younger ones, to the Lab are unique, challenging and fun, even absurdly so, from the ragtag Mixed Taste lecture series combining unrelated topics to the everyman’s Art Fitness Training. And though he’s done all that, I still haven’t gotten around to mentioning the shows he curates, which are, one and all, current, fascinating, thought-provoking, easy and difficult. Who ever thought a contemporary art museum in Lakewood could ever take you down such a long, winding, global road?
That’s it -- and okay, this is just a list. My list. On another day, it might even have included a whole set of different names. So, how about you? Who would you add to the list? Let us know. Turn us on. -- Susan Froyd