William E. (Bill) Potts, a trailblazing Denver sculptor who used salvaged wood, house paint and sometimes crude tools to create vivid figures and tableaux prized by celebrities and schoolkids alike, died last week at the age of eighty. He leaves behind a vast array of work commemorating athletes, jazz musicians, street scenes, historic events, dinosaurs and ordinary people, carved in his garage over decades.
In a profile of Potts published in Westword in 1997, the artist attributed his impressive output to the economic woes and personal struggles he'd faced over his life, including his experiences in the Army medical corps in Vietnam, a long-running battle with diabetes and the untimely deaths of his first wife and only daughter. "If you had my bills and ills, you'd be prolific, too," he said.
Born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1936, Potts was the son of a janitor who died when Bill was fourteen. As a child, Potts began building his own toys, including model cars and airplanes. He attended Drake University but did not graduate, instead joining the Army. He was stationed in South Korea, West Germany and South Vietnam before his retirement in 1978, at which point he began taking his carvings and whirligigs to flea markets.
Over time, his exaggerated portraits of African American icons, movie stars, victims of gang shootings, and other subjects began to attract enthusiastic patrons, including Joe Cocker and 60 Minutes stalwart Ed Bradley. A likeness of Bill Clinton playing the saxophone was selected as part of a National Archives exhibit in Washington, DC.
Other works ranged from buffalo soldiers to Zulu warriors to outrageous works of social satire, including a spoof on black evangelism and one titled "Slaves on Strike." Occasionally criticized for being politically incorrect, Potts always claimed to be mystified by the objections — perhaps with good reason. His pieces could be biting but never cynical. They inevitably contained flashes of humor, insight and genuine empathy for the human condition, regardless of the race or politics of the subjects. Some trace of Potts himself, and his strong belief in the American dream even when it was most battered and betrayed, seems to surface in virtually all of his work.
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As our profile noted in 1997:
His pieces are almost cartoonish, larger than life. Yet the key emotional details — [Louis] Armstrong's trademark dazzling grin, the jauntiness of his Ray Charles, the severe brow on his gloomy Malcolm X— capture the essence of these personalities as they live in the public memory. They have been transformed, reborn but still recognizable, in the pantheon of heroes and scoundrels that resides in the imagination of one William E. Potts.
His best work has a disarming innocence to it, a kind of simplicity that belies the long hours spent on each piece. Around the neighborhood Potts is known as Mr. Bill, the Wood Butcher or Geppetto. It's in keeping with his almost-quaint image as a "self-taught folk artist," an image Potts promotes with hand-lettered signs lying around his garage. B.C. MONSTERS. MONTBELLO DINOSAURS MADE HERE, reads one. AMERICAN PRIMITIVE FOLK ART BY BILL POTTS.
Says another: ANYONE CAN TEAR DOWN BUT CAN YOU BUILD UP?? TO CREATE IS TO LIVE. "That's my motto," Potts says.
Bill Potts is survived by his wife of 56 years, Ossie, and three sons.