Denver is full of aesthetic adventurers and artists who are changing the cultural landscape. They're one of this city's greatest assets, the reason we've attracted more of the desirable 25-to-34-year-old demographic than any other area over the past few years. They're Colorado's creative capital.
But some of their efforts are so underground, they'd have miles to go just to reach grassroots standing.
Although sports stars get all the attention, Denver's artists are the real hometown heroes. They score big wins for the metro area — but all too often, they are compensated in inverse proportion to what they contribute. Westword celebrates the local arts scene every year in the Best of Denver, explores it every week in the pages of this paper, supports it every day on the web. But we also know that artists cannot survive on attention alone.
Recognizing that artists need not just creativity, but money to help things go — and grow — Westword started the MasterMind Awards program in 2005, to honor the city's creative geniuses in the categories of literary arts, performance, multimedia, visual arts and fashion/design; we've inducted a new class every year since.
And on Monday, we contacted five local artists/entrepreneurs to let them know they'd been chosen as 2013 MasterMinds — an honor that comes not just with a title, but with a $2,000 grant. Money with no strings attached, money they can use for anything — to make art, to pay rent. Whatever will buy them some creative breathing space.
Now, with the announcement of the ninth class of MasterMinds, we will have honored 45 artists and arts organizations since 2005, giving grants that total well over $130,000.
But what's been most gratifying about the MasterMind program is that the award winners, too, share the wealth — often taking much of their unexpected cash award, if not all of it, and spreading it around the community. In fact, three MasterMinds are now banding together to create residencies at Powerhaus, and this year's winners will be given memberships to Denver Open Media as well as their cash prize, courtesy that 2007 winner. And our past MasterMinds are just as generous with their time and praise of other artists when they gather every year to help choose the next class of MasterMinds in a series of meetings as energizing as they are eye-opening. Over the past nine years, we've watched how this city's fashion scene has taken off, how seriously Denver is starting to take its DIY comedians. In fact, our 2013 MasterMinds include a self-taught milliner reviving an almost lost art form, as well as filmmakers who are capturing this town's exploding comedy scene. Other winners are using art to empower the homeless, the helpless, the hopeless.
Meet this city's true MasterMinds.
Ietef Vita/DJ Cavem
Self-proclaimed "farmer/midwife/DJ/producer/emcee/touring musician" Ietef Vita was born Michael Walker in Five Points in 1986, part of a family of artists and activists with "a lot of people in my village," he explains, including Brother Jeff and the late storyteller Opalanga Pugh. But that wasn't enough to keep him out of trouble. "I grew up gang-banging and pretty much changed my life after my first trip to Africa," he recalls. "I was about fourteen years old. I began to understand the ideas about different kinds of work for myself."
He already knew music (he'd learned how to play the congas when he was five), had already discovered graffiti art ("That's how I learned to read," he says), already knew audio engineering from hanging out at the Spot. But it all came together his senior year in high school, when he planted a garden outside his home and introduced the slogan "Going Green, Living Bling," for Brown Sugar Youth as part of the Pan-African Film Festival. "That pretty much started my mission around utilizing hip-hop to reach young people, people in my community," he says.
And his mission has grown in amazing ways since then. A landscaping job after high school taught Vita how to make a business out of gardening; his last corporate job, "selling jeans for the Gap," gave him a knowledge of consumer marketing. He's put all his knowledge to good use with organic projects that combine hip-hop and food justice as the "eco arts," a curriculum that he's currently teaching students at Manual High School. But he doesn't limit his efforts to Manual. He's worked with Russell Simmons, Amy Goodman, Jonny 5. As DJ Cavem — short for "communicating awareness, victoriously educating the masses" — he produces music, with the last four of his six albums "geared to youth education," including The Produce Section (The Harvest), with songs that are recipes. "I'm going after youth in a way that they understand," he says.
And he's not just going after youth in Denver. Vita traveled to Uganda last year, where he studied indigenous agriculture and taught in three primary schools: "I took my time not only to learn from the elders, but to work with the primary students, who get clouded by the success of the West. They think I'm driving a Beamer...and I'm not." Instead, on Monday he was at the GrowHaus, working with youth from Tanzania.
And at home, he has two even younger charges to work with: He and his wife, Neambe, have a three-year-old and a one-year-old, both born on full moons, both delivered by Vita. "I feed my children healthy food that I grow, not the processed food available in my community. They're incredibly smart, with the brain food I give them," Vita says.
"You can grow a lot of things in Denver," he adds. Including Ietef Vita's amazing, organic vision.
Watch him grow. — Patricia Calhoun
Nix Bros./Evan and Adam Nix
The Nix brothers got their start as filmmakers in high school in 1999, when Evan, the older brother, got a VHS camcorder for Christmas. They were living in Las Vegas then, but in 2006 they moved to Denver, where their father had attended the University of Denver and the family had vacationed. "It's the kind of place we were always looking at, always wanted to move back to," says Evan. "We've been making films here for the last six years."
And Denver's been lucky to have the Nix brothers. When they're not working their day jobs — Evan at a small video company, Adam at an ad agency — they've been making award-winning short movies and music videos, working with some of the town's most talented comedians and musicians. In addition to making films, they direct Denver's annual Laugh Track Comedy Festival (it will be back in summer 2013, though the date is not yet determined) and perform in their own (fake) band, Total Ghost.
They're not only doing good work, they're having fun. "The thing that we really feel we've been able to thrive off is the fact that Denver's small still, and that makes it fun," says Evan. "It's genuinely a creative, collaborative sort of thing that's not ego-driven or career-driven; people are doing it because it's a passion they have, and we're lucky to be a part of it. We're not standup comedians, but we're embraced by the community and have so many friends involved." And have become friends with so many more.
The work has "technically been pro bono," Evan notes, "but I would call it collaborative." And recently, certain more lucrative opportunities have come up, including a pilot with the Grawlix (featuring this week's cover boy, among others).
Says one MasterMind who's pushed hard for Nix Bros. to win this award, "They're doing so much that the only argument against them is that in a year or two, they'll be too big for us. Giving them this award now may help keep them here." And help keep Denver looking good. — Patricia Calhoun
2013 MasterMind/Literary Arts
Counterpath Press and Bookstore/Julie Carr and Tim Roberts
Long ago, poet Julie Carr and her partner, Tim Roberts, decided what they wanted to do, and it all fell together in Denver after that. "Way back when we first met and we were dreaming up our future lives, we decided we wanted to start a small press, which we did, and we also thought we'd like to start a bookstore," Carr recalls. "But there's a practical story behind it. Tim has a book-production company, and he needed some office space, so he sneakily, without telling me, found an office space that was also a storefront." Located near the Mercury Cafe, at 613 22nd Street, that storefront is now home to both their imprint, Counterpath Press, and Counterpath Books, with its few shelves of select titles from fellow independent literary presses. And a whole lot more.
Carr and Roberts expected that they'd host readings at their place, but "almost immediately, that wasn't enough," she says. "We just wanted to do more than have readings, and we expanded our repertoire from the get-go." To that end, they began hosting film and digital-media screenings, performances and, more recently, scholarly talks. Since Roberts's business already pays for the space, they're able to offer those presentations free of charge. Their employees, Mike Flatt and Ariela Ruth Goldberg, help keep things running smoothly, though it remains a challenge to find the right audience for each type of event, Carr notes. But she's sure that they're out there, because Denver is culturally very rich for its size. "It's small enough that anything you do matters," she says. "There's a real sense of closeness here between people doing things that are similar."
And Carr and Roberts are already dreaming again, this time of a bigger space. "We'd love to do dance performances...or even theater," says Carr, a former dancer herself, looking to the future. Again. — Susan Froyd
2013 MasterMind/Visual Arts
GroundSwell Gallery/Danette Montoya and Rebecca Peebles
Rebecca Peebles and Danette Montoya were two baristas with art degrees, living the artist's life, both seeking places to show their work and disappointed by the prospect of coffeehouse shows. But that was before they jumped together into a gallery of their own, just like that. MMJ dispenser GroundSwell was preparing to open a storefront at 3121 East Colfax Avenue, and Peebles and Montoya took a chance by asking if they could use a small space in the front of the shop as a gallery. "They literally just put it in our laps," Montoya remembers. "We didn't even know what was going to unfold, and it turned out to be something much bigger than what we were thinking of originally."
In the year and a half since their first show at GroundSwell, Montoya and Peebles have grown it into one of the city's most interesting spaces, with a reputation for anything-goes shows. "Our biggest goal is to provide artists with the opportunity to have an exhibition with no strings attached," Peebles says. Many galleries, she notes, don't want to see experimental or unsalable works from their artists — what she calls their "real work." And, as she herself has found, the alternatives to such traditional venues often aren't any better: "When you do need a place to exhibit, you often end up with the least-appealing space," she says.
Not so at GroundSwell. "I don't think many other galleries or curators see us as the incubator place, where you can see what the real art is before you have to make a commitment," Peebles notes. "But the artists get it, and they want to use the opportunity in that way."
Montoya and Peebles still sling java when they're not hanging shows, the artist's life being what it is. But they can feel good about giving their compatriots a fair place to try out their heart's work in public, and there's always room to grow. "We can be more supportive through a stronger framework," Peebles says. "We could look into a non-profit status; we're thinking about applying for grants. Now that we have a better understanding of how it functions, we can work toward making it more of an institution." — Susan Froyd
2013 MasterMind, Fashion/Design
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Kitty Mae Millinery/Susan Dillon
I'm not a hat person, but the first time I saw Susan Dillon's handmade toppers, I had to throw my hat into the ring. Under the moniker of Kitty Mae Millinery, she makes hats that aren't just something to cover your head: Each piece is a sculptural work of art, and in the process of creating them, Dillon has revived a fine-craft tradition that's nearly disappeared — swept in the dumper by modern times. Amazingly, she is self-taught as a milliner, and her passion for keeping the art alive is deep. She recently even entered a one-of-a-kind hat in an international contest to design a special chapeau for Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee. The results are so stunning that few browsers can walk into her Kitty Mae storefront at 3559 Larimer Street without wanting to start trying things on; her fanciful creations are pretty much irresistible that way.
Dillon's latest project, a Kentucky Derby line for spring funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign, marks a step in a new direction. The campaign allowed her to buy hat forms in new shapes that will continue working for her into the fall and winter seasons ahead. Also on Dillon's agenda for the coming year: classes. Encouraged by the turnout for a free crafting party she hosted on Super Bowl Sunday, she plans to start those up regularly in March with a basic fascinator workshop, then branch out to more intensive hat workshops in the fall. "Right now I'm going full steam ahead, about 900 miles an hour with no sleep," Dillon says with a smile. "I'm really expanding what I can create: I'm making my own silk flowers now, and my bridals are more elaborate and successful than before. And I'll have a dozen new styles for the Kentucky Derby season. I'm just hoping to continue coming up with the most original hats that I can make."
That'll come in handy leading up to the derby: Along with creating her official derby line, she'll be working with a group of fifty Cherry Hills couples on custom designs to wear to Churchill Downs in May. Yes, things are looking good for Kitty Mae. Keep it under your lid. — Susan Froyd