Denver artist's artist Steven Gordon transcended genre and medium, oozing creativity out of every pore. Whether he was painting, making music on instruments he invented, or writing a haiku, he brought his full self to his work and created like it came as naturally as breathing — almost up to the last breath he took.
Brainstorming with him was exhilarating. Ideas would bounce around faster than we could even understand them. Though completely self-taught, he seemed to know everything, and delivered opinions with dry snark and stinging wit, often followed with a melodic laugh. As one of the many people who had the fortune of sharing a studio with him, I can honestly say he constantly taught me things.
Gorden broke the trope of the starving artist; he was a working artist, a king of the side hustle who managed to consistently make money from his talents.
The last day job he held showed his tender side: looking after for people who were sick and needed help. He was inspired by caring for his mother in her final days and his younger sister, who has needed constant assistance throughout her life. All of that was returned to him tenfold by a community who took care of him in his waning days after his too-quick and dramatic struggle with pancreatic cancer.
Gordon passed away on Monday, April 30, at age 57, with signatures from his friends scrawled over his weakened body, knowing that he was loved and appreciated by an entire community. He leaves behind an art and music community who revered him, a beloved sister and a younger brother from whom he was estranged for much of his life. He treated his final stages as a great artist would, faithfully documenting and recording his thoughts in journals and interviews, communicating his fears, faith and wisdom.
Throughout his life, he worked in both commercial and fine art. He created custom interiors for high-end homes with artist Sarah Ashford for more than twenty years.
“He had extraordinary design capabilities and patience," Ashford recalls. "We worked in metro Denver up to the mountains — wall finishes, gold leafing and faux finishing. He was meticulous in his art. We were able to combine our experiences and set forth the challenges that came our way. He was always exacting, and comedically, I was the one always looking for a quick fix.”
The highlight of their collaboration came in 1998, when a client flew them to Paris to paint Marlene Deitrich’s apartment. The experiences this job brought both of them were often surprising. “Being invited by the owners of a house to stay in the mountains and drink their $2,000 bottles of wine. ... I feel lucky that I met Steve, and I think he felt the same thing about me. His contribution in the business I created was enormous. He was the one you could rely on for a consistent, excellent body of work — but he was also crazily inventive. If there was a challenge, he would always have a solution to it.”
In his early years, Gordon honed his artistic skills as the art director for Ocean Pacific, the popular beachwear company, leading a team in crafting colorful designs. There he learned screen-printing and stenciling, a technique he used in his fine art.
“Art is problem-solving. It’s interesting to see how other people solve problems," says K Contemporary owner and artist Doug Kacena. "His ability was to see solutions and find the problems to be solved. I think he honed that part of his visual language back in his OP days. ... I really thought Steve had such a versatile approach. He was a DIY type of guy before DIY was in the vernacular. He did everything.”
To share a studio with Gordon was to always have someone you could bounce ideas off of, ask for critique, problem-solve with, and find help titling works. He was a genius when it came to naming things, and came up with monikers for almost everything he was involved with.
“Steve was always somebody whose visual language I completely trusted, someone who brought my own personal work to a new level," Kacena recalls. "If I felt stuck, I could bring Steve into the studio and have that conversation about pure aesthetics, and he’d offer suggestions. I always explicitly trusted his eye.”
Gordon crisscrossed a lot of communities, but had deep roots in one: his home base, in the Quonset hut in Sun Valley that Kacena now owns. It was a place where dozens of artists, myself included, passed through, worked and partied at. The space held many Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Halloween celebrations for years, and Gordon was the calm heart of the place — both the longest resident at 23 years, and the one person who never had any beef with anyone and kept the peace in an often melodramatic and charged environment.
The fluid exchange of ideas and techniques in a studio building is a given. In Gordon’s case, his spirit of learning everything there was to learn had him branching from the illustration and gold leafing he honed in his professional life to the ceramics techniques that many of his studio-mates engaged in. The motherlode came when Mile High Ceramics offloaded a ton of kitschy ceramic slip-molds, including a collection of cherubs and teapots, inspiring a cut-together aesthetic of towering, lustre-glazed “trophies” that were a brilliantly twisted mashup of a suburban grandmother’s china cabinet. Later, he would use flowered decals and humorous phrases to create vintage-inspired plates that could pass in a vintage shop, until you looked closer.
The Quonset hut, which Gordon dubbed Artuvus Studios, was once the home of the co-op he co-founded, Flux Gallery. Several years later, he was also a founding member of BOOM, a mobile art gallery in the back of a truck that made appearances for the grand opening of the Hamilton wing of the Denver Art Museum and the Democratic National Convention in 2008.
Studio-mate Dave Seiler remembers the fun they shared. “Steve showed me a thing on the Internet about power-tool racing, with circular saws and belt sanders and vacuum cleaners. Drive down any alley, and there’s a vacuum cleaner — they were so readily available. We’d drive around in Capitol Hill, look for vacuum cleaners, and turn them into race cars. We just ran an extra-long extension cord and would race them up and down. Later we made a track and did it in front of the Quonset hut for the big Fourth of July party. ... It was a hit when we did it. We had six to eight racers, and it was crazy, drunken debauchery.
"After we did the first one, we spent the rest of the summer trying to outdo each other, with who could make the fastest vacuum cleaner, trying every model to see which one would do what," adds Seiler. "We did some crazy decorations... One had a stuffed animal tied to it. Another had spikes and a mohawk. Mine was just a mid-1970s Hoover vacuum cleaner that was orange and white, and I made a little surfboard for the top, because it looked so California. I have a funny feeling they’re still stuffed in the rafters of Steve’s studio somewhere.”
Gordon's electric brainstorming style aided his collaborations when it came to music, another area where he was self-taught. Whether in music or in art, from drawing chalk paintings on the sidewalk to improvising on homemade instruments or building out a space, his excitement was infectious and his ideas were great. He was one of the longest-running participants in the Denver Chalk Art Festival at Larimer Square, winning the grand prize directing members of Boom with a rendition of Picasso’s "Guernica" in 2008.
His pull toward collaboration was given a boost when he attended a contact-mic workshop at Titwrench in 2010, and he began building instruments. From putting a contact mic on the bottom of a giant bowl of water to building acoustic laptops in cigar boxes, his vast hoard of found objects and his love of experimentation brought new sounds into the world, and along with them the attention of local musicians.
“Steve’s first band was Itchy-O, and he started with them from the very beginning, when they were just a small marching band," recalls musician and founder of Bangsnap Records Kurt Bauer. "He was the bass drum person in the band. ANIMAL / object was actually the third band he was in. Every time Supersecret Messengers would get together — Gordon Pryor, Pin Rose, Arnie Swenson, Mark McCoin and myself — we would always invite Steve. He would bring over his homemade instruments, which were just fabulous, cool rigs — his one-string bass, his water drum, the acoustic laptops. ANIMAL / object — that’s the name that Steve came up with. Steve was good at naming — he named almost everything. His sense of humor was astonishing.”
David Mead, a founding member of ANIMAL / object, says that because Gordon had no formal training, he "wasn’t relying on music theory for anything that he was doing. He would just come up with a sound and repeat it." That approach worked both with other musicians and on his solo project Helloprobie.
"I don’t know if there was ever an artist that Steve met that he didn’t inspire," notes Mead.
Perhaps the pinnacle of Gordon's musical experience came when the Violent Femmes played at Riot Fest in 2014. Their frontman, Gordon Gano, had moved to Denver and began hanging out at meetings of the Denver Avant Garde Music Society, where he met the members of ANIMAL / object and soon joined the band. Gano invited the members of the act to join the Femmes on stage at Red Rocks and later at the Fillmore as part of their horn section, the Horns of Dilemma.
“Steve was just in heaven," remembers musician Arnie Swenson. "He’s never been a giddy guy who wants to rub shoulders with anybody. He just does his thing — but he was such a great balance to that group of musicians.”
Gordon also worked with local Soundpainting outfit the Playground Ensemble, led by Conrad Kehn. Soundpainting, in which a conductor uses improvisational hand gestures rather than written music to direct an orchestra, was a perfect fit for Gordon's experimental nature. Through this project, Kehn started to bring him to visit schools, and he was able to share his ideas with kids. The two developed a deep friendship.
“One of the things that was greatest about him was that there was never a time that I was tired of talking to him — always mellow, nice to hang out with," Kehn says. "There was never anything else. He was just a super-genuine, nice guy. He would tell me about his sister and his mom. ... For as quiet as he was, he was juggling a lot. Over time we became really close. I was really interested in the instruments he was building. The amplified bowl of water was fantastic.”
Few people knew of Gordon’s deep devotion to his family. Single throughout his life, he devoted himself to caring and advocating for his developmentally disabled younger sister, even leaving his Subaru to her full-time caretaker. He dropped everything to care for his mother in her final days, which were not long before his own.
Bauer remembers him receiving a text from his mother in the middle of a KGNU live-radio broadcast. "He put his bass down and went to take care of his mother. That’s old-school."
“We underestimated this guy’s heart," says Kehn.
Through Gordon's fight with cancer and final days, a fire burned inside him to create and complete his ideas. Former girlfriend Katie Taft, who organized much of his palliative care, marvels, “He was so positive through chemo. He just assumed everything was going to be fine. Initially, they wanted to operate, but there was a major vein to close to the tumor. They used chemo to shrink it so that they could operate, but it didn't work. He got the initial rounds, and then some more, but it didn't work. So he went on hospice. He would get no life-saving measures. We would just try to manage the pain, which was significant. Pancreatic Cancer is a bad one for pain.
"He went home, but he was always working," Taft continues. "He created an amazing journal of this time, writing about what he was thinking and feeling. Drawing. He and Conrad have plans on making them into visual scores. ... It is honest and raw and really, really brave.”
That bravery is encompassed in a slew of final projects that are still being edited and released. From final interviews with him to readings of his journal, his own musical projects and collaborations, Bauer and Bangsnap got as far as they could through Gordon's “bucket list” of collaborators. Throughout the last months of his life, people flew in from around the globe to record with him one last time, in a series called End/Stage.
His vulnerability was astonishing and provides a rare look at someone who is in turn frightened and fearless, faithful and funny, and always an artist through and through.
One of his last posts of Facebook offered a poetic look into his reality:
“Explains a lot lately
It's all happening within my brain
Not good complete
Mental breakdown coming soon
More bird bath
Steven Gordon’s life will be celebrated from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, May 27, at the Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street. All are welcome.
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