Photographer Mark Sink helps keep Denver’s art scene in focus. He made his own mark on the city decades ago, with his early Diana toy-camera shots, and today he continues to experiment with the medium, using the analog alchemy of collodion wet-plate photography, his current method of choice. But his influence extends much further than his own work: He’s a community mover and shaker with a storied past that took him from Denver to Andy Warhol’s Factory in New York in the ’80s and brought him back in time to help found the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and put the citywide Month of Photography on the international map.
Yet even with all that experience under his belt, his eyes are still open to every new thing. An active artist featured in Westword’s ongoing 100 Colorado Creatives series, Sink still finds time to be both a cheerleader for, and a mentor to, Denver’s young up-and-coming artists and gallerists, and he’s as much at home at a swanky museum party as he is wheat-pasting enlarged photographs on city walls and alleyways. A longtime resident of Highland who has a firsthand sense of the neighborhood’s history, he’s a vocal critic of the effects of gentrification and redevelopment in an area where one-of-a-kind brick-and-stone Victorian homes are giving way to poorly constructed crackerbox condos.
You can see more of Sink’s work at Westword’s Artopia 2016, on Saturday, February 20, at City Hall; in the meantime, read what happens when we put the focus on the photographer in the following Q&A.
Westword: What makes Denver’s art scene special? And, conversely, what’s wrong with it?
Mark Sink: It has its own personality of creative forwardness and freedom. Denver is a city that supports art and has lots of opportunities. It has a great community for artists. I believe it’s the artists who make a city a smart and hip and desirable place to live. The news about the Denver art scene is spreading around the world. I am constantly giving New Yorkers and Europeans tours of our art scene. The artists are always first, then come the public and developers.
I have said before that Denver is like Prague: It’s far enough from the big cities that it’s neither East Coast nor West Coast. A unique creative growth has emerged, kind of like the music scene in Seattle in the 1980s.
An integral part of that is the constant inflow of young creatives. Great local art-school teachers like Clark Richert inspire new generations, bringing new work and ideas directly into the local community. Also, Denver had a fine-art supporter in onetime mayor John Hickenlooper. His platform was partly based on the book The Rise of the Creative Class, by Richard Florida. Way before his political life started, he reached out to artists from his brewery start-up by buying local art and donating free kegs of beer for gallery openings. He picked up on John F. Kennedy’s idea that “history always looks back at the greatness of a culture by the art it creates.”
Federico Peña also proved a powerful influence by making the unheard-of proposal to earmark a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax for arts and culture funding. That led to the formation in 1989 of the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District to distribute the funds to cultural facilities throughout the seven-county Denver area. This has had an amazing trickle-down effect on the artists of Denver, including the formation of Denver Arts & Venues, which supports amazing art projects with cash and exhibition spaces like the McNichols Building in Civic Center Park. SCFD also helps fund great artist-community projects like RedLine. The old family foundations started some of our most cherished cultural institutions in Denver, but things have changed now; the super-wealthy no longer invest in the culture and infrastructure of the city.
As a native, what’s your opinion of the current gentrification/bad buildings issues plaguing our city?
Oh, I have a long, old rant on the good, the bad and the ugly — and then there are the super-slimebag winners of the universe. I have woken up to nail guns and concrete trucks backing up for the last 25 years. I and so many others could write a big book of all they could have, should have, would have — if we had any idea what was coming to the northside ghetto. I believe in inner-city density over urban sprawl, but we’ve gotta buck up.
It’s the oversight and planning that need more attention. There is a long list of very good developers that build quality, well-designed buildings. They live in the community and support the arts. Sadly, it’s old news. There’s an out-of-control run of overpriced, cheaply built and mind-bogglingly poor-quality “slab-and-four” structures going up. These particle-board palaces of fake — or worse, poorly faked — architectural styles have stucco skins covering stapled-on Styrofoam forms. WTF is with all this weird faux fakery? Hollywood builds better-quality and more historically correct sets. And no one seems to care. It’s like The Matrix: No one seems aware of this sham until it’s too late.
In the 1990s, Denver’s art community was responding and growing. Many dozens of artists around me in Highland, like Dale Chisman, were living in cheap spaces, and many eked out a living from their work.
Galleries were always struggling, but they were also alive and active and growing. An amazing groundswell of support came to build MCA Denver and a new wing at the Denver Art Museum. A new generation of developers like Mark Falcone realized that offering support to struggling art institutions makes developments much cooler and far more profitable.
But buildings built in the last ten years are all popping apart now. Everyone is suing everyone. Law firms are laughing all the way to the bank. I know of some law firms that are turning down clients. The biggest fake of them all is the Beauvallon: Knock on the walls sometime when you’re walking by — they’re hollow.
The city is now under great pressure by big money and lobbyists to protect the developers from the avalanche of lawsuits. Ever wonder why there are so many rentals these days? Money and greed are winning. Buyer beware, is all I have to say.
Of course, it’s an old story now that greed, gentrification and pot growers are forcing the artists out of central Denver. Who would have guessed pot! It’s heartbreaking to see the growing list of galleries and small businesses being pushed out now with nowhere to go: Rule Gallery and Hinterland and Rhinoceropolis and Glob. In LoHi, the old Dickinson Plaza is going down, throwing out a half-dozen creatives and small businesses. In its place, a 120-unit building complex will go up. It’s a new chapter now, with several super-sized monsters on the drawing board and approved for the northside. I wish that somehow it was good news for the artists and art scene in Denver, but sadly, I don’t think that’s the case.
Denver — love it or leave it? What keeps you here/makes you want to leave?
Denver is a mile high — no worries here about the ocean levels rising. I moved back to Denver from New York City because the quality of life here was, in comparison, much better. In Denver, you can be of limited means and start things like museums and galleries and make, work and teach. In Denver, you can make things happen. This city is hungry for high art and culture, things that are all still in full bloom here. But I believe that’s changing. I have a sad vision for the future of Denver’s cool art scene. About ten years out, we are going to wonder where all the local artists and galleries are. Where the cool went. It’s going to be a different town. We are already romancing the past of the golden art years on Larimer Street and in LoDo. It’s an age-old story: Artists move in and make an area cool, then the developers follow the artists, and then the artists and galleries are pushed out. Now it’s not just happening to neighborhoods; it’s happening to whole cities. It’s gentrification on steroids! Denver is not alone in this; it’s happening in cities across the U.S. and around the world.
In the mid-’70s, I started riding my bicycle into town from Englewood with a fake ID to listen to music at the Mercury Cafe and punk at clubs like Malfunction Junction and Walabi’s. It was the Rock Tots, the Young Weasels, the Jonny Three, the Aviators. Tom Waits was writing songs in the Terminal Bar on Wazee Street and Sid King’s strip club was busy on Colfax. Lower downtown was empty and deserted. The word “loft” did not exist yet in Denver. The Auraria campus was being built. The giant, 100-year-old bridges crossing the Platte into LoDo belonged to the hobos and the bums and the railroad tracks. It was a toxic emptiness filled with abandoned buildings. The Platte River was a sewage dump — city dump trucks would back up and dump right on the river’s edge, and the EPA had not yet reached Denver’s waterways.
There were no bikeways, no parks, no cafes — only My Brother’s Bar at 15th and Platte. I lived in an abandoned building — Jack’s Carpet Cleaning Service — on all-but-deserted Platte Street. Dozens of artists got their start there. Phil Bender and his Pirate Gallery hosted my first show around 1980, when it was located at 16th and Market streets.
I lived in the original Samsonite factory, at 1553 Platte Street, from 1979 until I moved to New York. I paid $150 a month for over 10,000 square feet. My photo studio was in the suitcase-covering sample room. I knocked out a big hole for a giant window so I could view the mountains. Little did I know that it was a load-bearing wall. We got an I-beam in. You can still see the window from the 15th Street bridge and I-25.
We had some wild-ass parties there for Interview magazine. Warhol came to one. Punk-rockers and debutantes. People to this day stop me, knowing nothing about my life, and tell me how much fun they were. People really remember a great party!
I do have a little suitcase collection, by the way. I store my toy camera collection in ’em.
Architect and Jack Kerouac crony Ed White is your stepdad. Talk about your interest in and connections to the Beats and Neal Cassady.
Yes, I have such a crazy family history, and then along comes Ed White. He married my mom in the mid-’70s. They both had broken hearts to mend. I was a wild, drug-fueled, messed-up kid in trouble with the law, lost in suburbia. Ed spent a lot of time with me, helping me believe in myself. It saved me, really. His stories and humor and love changed my life’s direction. Ed at 91 is still spry, with a great sense of dark humor that to this day busts my gut. Many times, the jokes are so quick and witty that everyone at the table misses them. What a beautiful man.
Ed’s got some crazy, amazing history. He was best friends with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and many more of the Beat crew. They exchanged dozens of letters about love, struggles and the search for truth, beginning at Columbia in the 1940s and continuing up until most of them passed. Few know that he is a major character in several of Jack’s books. In On the Road, he’s Tim Gray, whom they drove to visit in Denver. An amazing new find for me was learning that Ed was in the center of the Denver circle of connections that led to Neal Cassady’s crazy, wild, run-on letters to Jack Kerouac, which are said to have influenced Kerouac’s whole stream-of-consciousness writing style. I find it so great that Ed is credited with suggesting that Kerouac try “sketching with words rather than writing conventionally” in 1951. From that point, Jack started keeping a small, thin spiral notebook in his top pocket.
Ed generally kept Neal at arm’s length. Neal was a real troublemaker, and he was in and out of jail in the early Denver years, and Ed was from the other side of Colfax. They were friendly, and there was no bad blood, but Ed stayed away from the constant drama Neal created. Neal did visit Ed often in later years, when he was raising a family in California. He did have that family working-man side that few people know about, and he was proud of it because it was something he never had himself, growing up in Denver.
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What are you working on right now (besides having a baby!)?
I love curating. I do it without trying — Festival of Light, a photography-festival group I helped form in 1995, is on my desk today. It’s one of the many festivals I set up a protocol for so that members are able to learn about and share each other’s exhibitions. My dream is for exhibitions showcasing Denver artists during Month of Photography to have a chance to travel to other cities around the world. And Denver will make contacts and receive shows from those cities. And speaking of the Month of Photography 2017, some exciting things are brewing now. I look forward to starting our idea-and-planning meetings out in my garden this year. And, yes, a baby is a big current art project.
Name five essential local artists. What do you admire about them?
They’ve both passed, but Dale Chisman and Wes Kennedy. So many roads of inspiration lead back to them in the painting and photo community. They were fresh, honest and pure. Among the living, I’d include Margaret Neumann and Jeff Starr. A current favorite of mine, brilliant Laura Shill, has a show opening at MCA Denver. Photographer Joel Dallenbach is a contemporary local Beat with a pure and unique Denver style. Ouch, that’s more than five, and there so many more — young, emerging artists like Zach Reini or Colin Ward and Stephan Herrera, who are making art, music and animations that are ready to go big. They’ve created a cultural hub with Rhinoceropolis and Glob that inspires the young to just do it.
What makes an artist exceptional?
To me, it’s the synonyms: unusual, uncommon, abnormal, rare, unprecedented, unexpected, surprising. Also, unique artists who let chance happen and search and try not to follow or re-create someone else’s accomplishments. Le Corbusier said, “Creation is a patient search.”
What’s one life experience you’ve had that you’d never trade for anything?
For several years between Christmas and New Year’s, from 1976 to 1982, we would cross-country ski to winter-camp in tents and snow caves in East Maroon Creek behind the Maroon Bells. It was a time of being so healthy and alive in the wilderness, exploring and skiing deep powder. Then, on New Year’s Eve, smelling like a burnt log and wet wool, we would ski down into Aspen. Wild and half-mad, we’d crash fancy parties, in from the alley and through the kitchens, and dance and hug pretty girls in expensive fur coats — we called it “fur-hunting” — and often causing a chase by their angry boyfriends. One year, we skied down with heavy packs up to Andy Warhol’s cabin and knocked on the door, and he came out very pleased and took pictures and thanked us for dressing up just for him. We said, “No, we’ve been camping out all week!” He laughed and, fully amused, did not even slightly believe us. “Impossible,” he said. Later that year, I jumped in my Honda Civic and drove straight to New York City to hang out at the Factory.