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Little Big Man

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"I know that Ed fired Matt a couple times as well as made lots of accusations about Matt stealing from him," adds Dickson, "but he'd bring Matt back because he's a hell of a welder and fabricator."

The first time Thompson left was in 1991, two years after he started working with Dwight. There was a disputed injury involved then, too, but Dwight still wrote a letter of recommendation for Thompson describing him as "one of the best welders I have ever met."

After Thompson returned to Dwight's studio and suffered a second injury in 1993, Dwight changed his tune. In an April 19, 1993, letter to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, Dwight accused Thompson of lying about his injury and stealing from his shop. "Mr. Thompson has quit and is not welcome to return to work here," Dwight wrote. "Mr. Thompson removed (stole) from my operation nearly $8,000 in tools and equipment...he was stealing me blind, was totally undependable and irresponsible."

That time, Thompson returned to his native Iowa with his then-pregnant wife and young child. But a year later, Thompson says, Navaretta contacted him on Dwight's behalf and asked him to return. "I called him up, and Ed was like, 'What's up, buddy?'" remembers Thompson. "He was really friendly and said that he needed a welder for a monument of B.B. King he was working on. He also told me about some other projects he had in the works, projects that would keep me busy for the next four years or so. I guess he milked me pretty good. Even though my wife was totally against going back, I fell for it hook, line and sinker.

"Ed has a way of glossing things over when things get shitty," Thompson continues. "He kept promising me that at the end of all the B.S. there would be a golden opportunity for me in the art world."

Dickson says he can see how Dwight could have wooed Thompson back. "Ed is the devil in plainclothes," he says, "and he can be charming as hell."

But Dwight's attorney, Barbara Furutani, says her client never asked Thompson to return. "It was always little Matty who was begging to come back to work for Ed," she says, "not the other way around."

Why would Dwight rehire someone he'd accused of stealing? Dwight says it's his nature to be forgiving. "Matt Thompson is one of the best welders I've ever seen in my life," he says. "He's done a lot of crazy, off-the-wall things, but I've got five kids, and I didn't abandon them when they did crazy things. I decided to help this guy, but that's not a character flaw. I did it for the same reason that I buy art from every weak artist in this town when they can't make their rent."

(Gallery owner Bonner agrees that Dwight does his share to support the local art market. "Ed will trade with other artists even though their stuff isn't worth as much," he says.)

But Dwight points out that his relationship with Thompson was not one between equals. "Matt is not an artist, he's a technician. I am a very gifted man and very confident in what I do every day," he says. "He'd like to be like me in the worst way, but he doesn't understand me. He's a good-looking, tall white guy. The world is built for him. I'm a short black guy, and he doesn't understand what I go through. And if you don't understand something, you try to dismantle it."

Whatever Dwight's reasons for hiring Thompson a third time--and Thompson's for returning--it didn't take long before the two were back at each other's throats.

On April 20, 1996, Thompson was working on the B.B. King monument when King's guitar, "Lucille," fell. He caught the heavy bronze replica, he says, throwing his back out in the process. But Thompson didn't tell Dwight about the injury right away. "Hell, I just moved back from Iowa," he explains. "I didn't want to get fired again."

Besides, Thompson claims, Dwight had already instructed him to tell everyone around the shop to be "especially careful" because he'd forgotten to pay his workers' comp insurance. (Dwight had let his insurance lapse before, in 1991, shortly before another worker was hurt on the job. Dwight fired that worker, who took him to court, where the worker won a settlement that included damages and back pay.)

But Thompson's pain didn't go away, and he says he finally reported it to Dwight on June 4. The artist fired him the next day, he says, writing a check for $1,000 and telling him, "I don't have time to fuck with you on this."

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Tony Perez-Giese