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Meet the MasterMinds

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Four years ago, Westword added a very special component to Artopia: the MasterMind awards. Recognizing that the local arts scene needed a little fertilizer to really get going — and growing — we created a program that every year honors five cultural visionaries, artists and organizations alike, that are working to change the cultural landscape of Denver. And we decided not just to honor them, but to give them each $4,000 to use as they see fit.

The first three classes of MasterMinds have done amazing things with their awards, frequently using them to help other, struggling artists along and creating major multipliers for the $20,000 that Westword gives away each year. "In this case," says Tony Shawcross, 2007 MasterMind winner, "I'd like to think that the $4,000 award was leveraged into hundreds of media projects that have been completed here since. The goal and the vision that Westword chose to support through our MasterMind award was opening access to the tools and resources people need to express themselves, without any corporation, committee or individual determining who is and is not worthy of such an opportunity."

Each year, the previous MasterMinds help choose our next MasterMinds. The class of 2008 is profiled in the pages that follow. They're an extraordinary group who've brought films that might otherwise never be seen in Denver, music that might otherwise never be heard. They've used poetry to give a voice to abused teens, helped the town look at an old neighborhood in a new way and, in the case of our winner in fashion/design, just kept Denver looking good.

Visual Arts
Jill Hadley Hooper & Tracy Weil/RiNo

2007: Jimmy Sellars
2006: Katie Taft
2005: Lauri Lynnxe Murphy

One night in the fall of 2004, I ran into Jill Hadley Hooper at Dazzle. "Interesting I should see you," I said, or something close to that, anyway. "We have this idea for Westword to give five $4,000 grants to artists and artists' groups every year. Do you think that might make a difference to Denver's cultural scene?"

"Are you kidding?" she said (and I'm pretty sure that's exact).

Good thing that most of Denver's artists aren't in it for the money. They're in it for love — love of art, love of community.

Hadley Hooper is from Denver. She went away to school, then came back with a dream of illustrating for Westword — but her talents took her much further, and by the middle of this decade she was working as both an illustrator (she just did a campaign for Amnesty International) and a painter, and was a partner at Ironton Studios, at 3636 Chestnut Street. That's right by Weilworks, at 3611 Chestnut, the gallery opened by Tracy Weil. Weil, another Denver native, had worked at City Spirit, bartending, booking bands and managing the place when LoDo was still the heart of the hip arts activity. And when he decided to buy some property where he could build a studio, Mickey Zeppelin and Susan Wick, his former employers, directed him to the River North area, up past the Ballpark neighborhood along the Platte, "the next hot area" where they both had new enterprises. "Try explaining to your mom that you bought a junkyard instead of your first house," Weil remembers. But by 2003, he'd built a stunning home/studio/gallery on his property.

Not only did it look great, but it had great neighbors. In November 2005, Weil and Hadley Hooper started talking about what they could do to promote their part of town and get more recognition for the art coming out of it. Taking a key from River North, they decided to band together as RiNo. Weil, a website developer by day, contributed the website, and Hadley Hooper created the rhinoceros logo (the bird on the beast's back is known as "LoDo"), and voilà! "All of a sudden, we were an art district," Weil remembers.

And what a district! RiNo sprawls across major streets and a river, incorporating dusty warehouses and new lofts. "Artists have been working in the area for many years side by side with light industry," Hadley Hooper explains. "Sharon Brown coined the phrase 'Where Art Is Made' to illustrate the point that we have artists' studios, several of the best metal fabricators and sculptors, woodworkers, glass artists, video-editing companies and photographers, among many others." And you can see them all during the twice-a-year tours Hadley Hooper and Weil offer in the district. (The next one, Plant Yourself in RiNo, is May 17. "We are encouraging our forty-plus locations to green the area up with planters and gardens," says Hadley Hooper.)

You can see a lot more in RiNo these days, too. Ambitious builders are eyeing every spare parcel — and many that are occupied. "We want to make sure that artists own their own spaces — and a lot of us do. We're here for the long haul," Weil says. "But developers are knocking on our door, and they see the value in what we've created."

So do we. For their work creating — and promoting — Denver's hippest, hottest art district, Hadley Hooper and Weil are our 2008 MasterMinds in visual arts.

No kidding. — Patricia Calhoun

Mona Lucero

2007: The Fabric Lab/Josh and Tran Wills
2006: Deb Henriksen
2005: Brandi Shigley

The second you walk into Mona Lucero's shop at 2544 15th Street, on the edge of Highland, you know that you're not in any ordinary boutique. Paintings by local artists cover the walls, with jewelry, handbags and clothing by Lucero and other Denver designers filling the rest of the beautifully designed space.

Since she first started her line in 1993, Lucero has watched the fashion scene in Denver ebb and flow, but the recent popularity of fantasy design shows on television has led to a lot of very real support for local designers. And while there have always been local designers, Lucero points out, there haven't always been local consumers to support them.

"People are buying more local work," she says. TV could be responsible for some of that, but also "globally, there are more and more chain stores," she notes. "Everything is starting to look alike, so when people come across something that's different, they get really, really excited."

While participating in last year's Tamarac Square Fashion Project, Lucero got the opportunity to push her limits as a designer, and she was pleasantly surprised to see that "some of those pieces that I thought were too forward or too wild were the pieces people really wanted. The more specialized my pieces are, the more people want them."

Newly emboldened by the progressive tastes of Denver fashion lovers, Lucero is now trying high-art pieces that take risks. At the same time, she's creating wearable art that's influenced by her surroundings. She says she always tries to remember "that I'm in Denver and I have to design for the lifestyle here."

Trained at the University of Colorado as a painter and sculptor, Lucero got interested in fashion design in her senior year, when she began making wearable art pieces that melded painting, sculpture and fashion. After graduating, she studied fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, then returned to Denver and polished her technique while working in the garment industry before branching out on her own.

She opened her shop five years ago, and from the start has featured other local designers and artists.

These days, Lucero continues to stretch in new directions. She designed costumes for North High School's production of The House on Mango Street, and earlier this month a kimono dress she designed was auctioned off at the Hearts of Children benefit for Children's Hospital.

What's next? Lucero started designing a menswear line and carrying it in her shop last fall, and she hopes to have her online store going by this summer. She also has a website — www.adviceonfashion.com — in the works, and plans to use it as a way to encourage women to take fashion risks. "A lot of women don't love their bodies, or they think they can't wear certain things," she says. "I'm trying to explain to them that they can."

As Brandi Shigley, Westword's first fashion MasterMind, sums up Lucero's influence: "She continues to inspire up-and-coming designers. She basically just rocks the socks off of Denver fashion!" — Aubrey Shoe

Literary Arts
Art From Ashes
2007: Vox Feminista
2006: Cafe Nuba, Ashara Ekundayo
2005: Denver Zine Library/Kristy Fenton

Catherine O'Neill Thorn believes in the power of language. She discovered poetry at the age of five, and her love of words led to both a career and a cause.

In the early '90s, while working with twenty teenaged boys in a residential-treatment facility — all of whom had challenges preventing them from becoming functioning adults — Thorn discovered that poetry could be used to heal old wounds. "Most of them had horrible childhoods, so I was already reading them children's books," she explains. And after she introduced them to poetry, "Every single one of the boys was writing beautiful poems, and I started bringing in local poets to inspire them, and I published their poetry and watched them transform. And they were all talking about how they were now using words instead of their fists, and how it changed their lives."

So Thorn started going to treatment centers (both residential and day-program), probation departments, youth groups and day camps, hoping to spread the power of poetry. To help change even more lives, in 2003 she formed Art From Ashes — right after then-governor Bill Owens cut funding for the Colorado Council on the Arts. "I was incensed," Thorn remembers. "It wasn't the best environment to start a therapeutic arts organization, but I was like, 'Screw this, I'm going to do it, anyway.'"

Five years later, Art From Ashes continues offering therapeutic help for some of the people who most need it. Last year, the organization worked with 850 kids, helping them find healthy ways to overcome past trauma and express their feelings through words. "We're so proud of our kids," Thorn enthuses. "The final process of healing for us is getting these kids re-engaged in our communities, and we get the community to recognize the value of young people.

"Our population is the young people who have really fallen through the cracks," she continues. "They don't have dreams, they don't have ambition. They don't believe they're ever going to be successful. And we go in and say, 'You're a creative genius. You were born that way, and you're believing lies about yourself.' And then we prove it to them."

Art From Ashes has even expanded to include some programs for adults. "It was a demand issue," Thorn explains. At first, she was resistant to the idea, since adults can have a more difficult time with the vulnerability that's inherent to the healing process. But then she discovered that many adults were in the same boat as the teenagers that Art From Ashes has been helping. "They're trying to get over an identity based in past circumstances or current circumstances," she says.

And for helping lead the way to those life changes, Art From Ashes has shown itself deserving of a MasterMind award. But Thorn insists that the real brains are the people her organization serves. "We know that arts are intrinsically healing, but Art From Ashes goes one step beyond that," she says. "There is a cathartic process, where kids use poetry to talk about their pain and their rage. They listen to each other's poems and find out that they're not as isolated as they thought. We facilitate their own healing. We believe in the power of words, because words create and because these kids are creative geniuses. We lead them to a place where they start to create a different reality for themselves."

Word up. — Amber Taufen

Performing Arts
Creative Music Works
2007: Jessica Robblee
2006: Dragon Daud
2005: Buntport Theater

Fred Frith. John Zorn. Mike Patton. Nels Cline. The Cuong Vu Trio. Elliot Sharp. Those are just a handful of the hundreds of groundbreaking artists that Creative Music Works has brought to Denver over the years. Founded by Alex Lemski in 1989, the nonprofit has worked tirelessly to broaden the cultural landscape of the Mile High City for nearly two decades. That's quite a feat, especially for an organization that deals primarily with fringe artists, caters to a mostly niche audience and does it all on a shoestring budget.

And despite two shifts in leadership since Lemski handed over the reins in 2001, Creative Music Works continues to thrive. The current volunteer leadership — president Andrew Starr, vice president Matthew Garrington and program director/treasurer Paul Riola — is doing its best to preserve the original vision but also expand it, assembling intriguing bills featuring unlikely collaborators: say, inviting a world-renowned DJ to improv with lauded jazz and indie-rock players, as CMA did this past summer at the Oriental. The idea behind the unique, unexpected pairings is to create entry points for casual music fans, who may then develop an awareness and appreciation for the jazz and improv scene, both here and abroad. That's how Starr and company were first drawn in.

"I saw Hamster Theatre play, and it completely changed my entire world," Starr recalled in a recent interview. "I just had no idea why I didn't know this existed. I said, 'If this is here, there's gotta be a ton more buried under the surface — not only in Denver, but around the world.' From that very first show, I got a sense from Creative Music Works that I've never sensed anywhere else. I began to go to the shows not because I wanted to see this band or that band. I went because I had faith that it was going to be great. I could go without any knowledge of who was playing, what style of music it might be, but I knew if Creative Music Works was part of it, then it was worth my time."

"I think that's why it's so important that we pay a lot of attention and administer to our generation — to bring them into the fray," Riola added. "Our aesthetic is so broad, and we all know people who really, really dig music of all sorts of different types. I think that CMW largely extends in a field of awareness of an older set of people, and it's time for our generation to be like, 'What are these people doing?'"

With that in mind, Creative Music Works is about to launch its own label, CMW Records. The imprint's first release — from Riola's Bottesini Project, the aforementioned set recorded this past August at the Oriental, featuring DJ Olive with Jeff Parker from Tortoise, Ron Miles, Glenn Taylor, Scott Amendola and Doug Anderson — should be issued at the end of March.

"The vision is to extend exactly what CMW already does for the community to the world of releasing records," Starr explains. "We're doing performance and education work already and trying to provide a stage for musicians to perform with no limitations on their art form, and the record label's going to do the exact same thing. We want to be able to provide Colorado musicians, as well as people around the world, with a place to bring projects that may not have a home anywhere else."

Spoken like a true MasterMind. — Dave Herrera

Jason Bosch

2007: Tony Shawcross, Deproduction/Denver Open Media
2006: Johnny Morehouse
2005: Emerging Filmmakers Project at the Bug Theatre

Argus, the giant, hundred-eyed guardian of Greek mythology, could only close a few eyes at a time, and his name's become synonymous with the idea of vigilant watchfulness. For Jason Bosch, founder and sole moving force behind ArgusFest, the local human-rights awareness organization, that's a metaphor to live by.

"I wanted to be the eyes that could help others know what's going on in the world," Bosch says. Almost a decade ago, after the onetime film student attended the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in New York, he decided to organize a similarly themed fest right here in his own back yard, with no money in his pocket and no sure way of getting any. But the lack of funds didn't matter. Driven by a compassionate nature, an intellectual curiosity about the workings of the world, and the realization that a lot of great human-rights-oriented films never hit even one screen in Colorado, Bosch started out small in 2001, renting a theater and showing a modest series of eight or nine documentaries.

Since then, Bosch has sponsored more than 700 events of all sizes — mostly film screenings, but also lectures (a who's who of grassroots politicos, activists and journalists), concerts and exhibits — that share one blazing, binding theme: human rights. Through all this, he's relied on just donations and modest admission fees to keep ArgusFest rolling. And remarkably, it does continue to roll.

At Bosch's weekly screenings at places like the Mercury Cafe and Hooked on Colfax, the audience sometimes numbers three and sometimes thirty. "There are some films I really want to show, though I know no one will come out for them," he admits. "But I still show them, because I think they're important films and people need to see them." The problems these films address can't be resolved without some modicum of knowledge, he points out: "I don't know the solution to human-rights issues, but I do believe that part of that solution is to have a more informed public." And if knowledge converts even one person to work for a cause, that's a net gain. "Imagine if all people who worked for human rights for the past year decided to do something else instead," he notes. "It would be markedly worse. And then again, what if that number doubled? It would be better!"

So Bosch will continue to screen films about modern slavery, genocide, backhanded politics, environmental misdeeds and labor disputes — as long as he has his helpful sense of humor, a projector (one was stolen recently, then returned) and a place to show the movie. "My dream is to find a warehouse and turn it into a community micro-cinema," he admits, though he's never come close to finding the funding for such a venture. One reason, he says, is apathy; Denver is a sports town, after all. But another is the lack of a safe place to turn for financial support: "Most nonprofits maintain the status quo," he points out. "If they get funding, they must cater to the wants of the funders." And that's clearly not his style.

"I just want to make a difference," Bosch says resolutely. "And when I leave this world, I want to have made an impact on it in a positive way."

We've no doubt that this MasterMind will have done that — and more. — Susan Froyd

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