Studio of Edwin & Marcia Ward

Wednesday, November 30, 2016


Cover photography – Marcia Ward

A feisty – or should I say fiery – first generation Italian from Paterson New Jersey, Angelo di Benedetto was an artist who set the bar high in Colorado when he moved to Central City after World War II. He was temperamental, once knocking Jack Kerouac down because the at-the-time seemingly homophobic author insulted an opera singer who Kerouac believed was flirting with Angelo. During the War-to-End-All-Wars Angelo never used a weapon; an aerial photographer and cartographer in the campaign against Rommel in Africa he later served as an artist whose task it was to disguise Manhattan. “Disguise Manhattan, what does that mean?” you might ask. Well, the deceptive aspect of art can be very useful in war and the United States employed artists to trick their enemies. Cardboard tanks would be built and set on hillsides and the sound of tanks maneuvering would be broadcast loudly in the hopes of directing enemy firepower in the direction of unmanned positions. The rooftops of strategic buildings would be painted to look like something else or camouflaged so as to be unrecognizable. At one point Angelo came up with a smoke and mirrors scheme to disguise Manhattan in the event German bombers ever got as far as the skies above New York. When I asked Angelo in 1987 about the artful trickery he told me his plan was still classified, and he was not at liberty to discuss it. Too bad it wasn’t in play in September of 2001.

I met Angelo in 1979 when he sculpted a grave marker for the poet James Ryan Morris. Jimmy and Angelo and the filmmaker Stan Brakhage all lived in Gilpin County – Morris in Wondervu, Angelo in Central City, and Brakhage in Rollinsville – and they were pals, artists and intellectuals who would talk on the phone for hours at the local rate of ten cents a call. Cabin fever is real when you live in the mountains, and during the bitter cold long night-short days of winter, they would explore ideas and rage against bourgeois art and, in the case of Brakhage and Morris, government funded art. Brakhage told me that when he made a short film of Morris playing the roll of Doc Holliday, it was the most dangerous behind the camera experience he ever had as Morris carried and fired a loaded gun for the shoot and possessed an existential drug-addicted stance to match Holliday’s. Stan told me that filming Morris as Doc was “Even more dangerous than filming calving icebergs from a canoe where death would be instantaneous should the canoe overturn and dump you in the water.”

Well, Angelo’s tombstone sculpture consisted of a pair of moons, a quarter and a full, welded a top three steel rods affixed to a ground level nameplate that read POET. The large full moon was somewhat bowl shaped and the smaller quarter moon that fronted it was flat. At six feet in height the tombstone resembled a sculptural expressionist’s take on a poet’s lyre; the play of shadow and light on the sculpture itself was almost musical as the sun progressed across the sky. I was part of the volunteer beatnik crew who helped poor the concrete to set the sculpture on the southern side of the hill in Dory Hill Cemetery outside Blackhawk Colorado. At the time there was a rusty iron revolving gate that you’d pass through to enter the cemetery grounds and Morris’ tombstone to the left near the top of the hill was a visual complement to the eerie metal on metal creaking sounds of the gate as it revolved. You just knew you were entering a not so ordinary otherworldly place.

That day of the sculpture installation I also met a young woman, Kelley Simms, who assisted Angelo. A talented artist herself, Kelley was both Angelo’s assistant and muse. Almost instantly Kelley and my wife became fast friends, the result of which was that we, Marcia and I, became good friends of Angelo as well. Our friendship was further cemented when I hooked up Angelo with a regular customer of mine at The Boston Half Shell where I waited tables, whom I overheard talking art. Against my better judgment and contrary to waiter etiquette I interrupted Charlie Barnett (Charlie was a wealthy scrap metal entrepreneur and an over the top Bronco fan (he personally had coined the phrase “Orange Crush”), butting into his conversation with my assertion that I was friends with the greatest living Colorado artist and that if he was interested I would set up a meeting and tour of Angelo’s studio, which, as it turned out, happened the very next day. Before we’d been in Central City an hour Angelo had a check for thousands in his hands because my call party customer friend Charlie Barnett bought a few small paintings and a large assemblage for his office consisting of arranged polished brass gear wheels on an orange panel that resembled – in Charlie’s mind - a offensive football play diagram. A win-win for everyone, well everyone except me. When all was said and done, I must admit, I harbored a little resentment that neither Angelo nor Charlie had tipped me for making it all happen. But I got over getting stiffed and put it in my bank of petty grievances under the column marked Oversights and Slights of Others.

Well, over the next decade I visited with Angelo many times and we talked art and the politics of art in his studio atop the Mermaid Café. I learned of his friendship with scientists like Einstein and artists like Diego Rivera and of coming to grips with fame when, in 1940, paintings Angelo had created in Haiti were centered folded in Life Magazine. Together we co-produced multi-media art events in both Denver and Central City. The same year we met we were simultaneously awarded Colorado Arts Awards from the James Ryan Morris Society – Angelo for art and me for poetry.

The building where Angelo lived and worked, which he had purchased when he originally arrived in Colorado, was the largest building in Central City, having been built to house a mining-supplies warehouse during the boom times of the Colorado gold and silver mining industry. To this day, it is still the largest building in Central City. Outside of major museums I had never seen so much art in one place. Sculptures, paintings, drawings and assemblages, monumental and small, filled the cavernous building. Of special note were some sixty large conte crayon studies of the figures used in, at the time of its making, the largest mural in the United States; Angelo and his assistant Phyllis Montrose painted legal giants from history on asbestos concrete panels for the ceiling of the breezeway of the Colorado Judicial Building at Thirteenth and Broadway in Denver. The mural was 3000 square feet of art weighing 7400 pounds! Everything outside the studio – outside being a steep slope with a cruel pitch - was artfully divine as well: I’m talking birdbaths and bird feeders and fountains and fences and furniture. Stonework was reminiscent of Ireland and no item’s placement was haphazard. Within his personal space, his kitchen table was utterly like no other because over the years dozens of visitors had carved their names or initials into its surface and his visitors were some-bodies, both local and international. Summers when American high society visited Central City to attend the opera at The Teller House, invitations to supper at Angelo’s studio were sought after. Eating garlic pasta at Angelo’s with Kelley and Angelo and Marcia and looking at the names carved into the oak table I came to realize that the very seat that supported my humble Irish ass once supported the asses of America’s greatest cultural stars. Marcia sat where the burlesque entertainer famous for her striptease act, Gypsy Rose Lee, liked to sit.

Well, the last years of Angelo’s life were hard as are most everyone’s. He had always been a prominent figure both in Colorado and in Central City and against the prevailing and naive opinion that gambling is good he fought the arrival of state sponsored gambling and lost. He sold then refused to sell his building, a bad faith renege that cost him dearly. He had been dealing with cancer but a stroke took him away in 1992. When his sister arrived from the East Coast to sort out his affairs she contacted me and asked if I would conduct a memorial for Angelo. Because Angelo had been one of the prime movers in the creation of the sculpture park in Burns Park at Colorado and Alameda Boulevards – his is the large yellow double arched sculpture - we held his memorial there on a Sunday afternoon. Hundreds attended and I was witness to one of the most unplanned cinematic events of my life. It rained off and on all day. Setting up the gear for the event – we’re talking gasoline generators for power and a PA for the musicians and speakers was difficult. The event was scheduled for 4 PM and it was still raining on and off when that time rolled around. Every available space near the park where a car could be parked was occupied and the small parking lot on the south end held five times the amount of cars it was built for. And when I turned on some music to announce that the stage was set, hundreds of people who had taken shelter from the intermittent rains got out of the cars and advanced en masse down the small slope at the south end of the park, all carrying umbrellas. A moving quilt of a myriad of colors approached, an unplanned Cristo like happening if you get my drift. And then at 4:15 when everyone was ready, the sun came out!

A week or so after the memorial Angelo’s sister contacted me and told me that because Angelo’s remaining art had been catalogued and already appraised for tax purposes I, along with any of Angelo’s friends who might like to purchase something from the collection, could come to Angelo’s studio. Angelo’s art had always sold for high dollars, well beyond the financial reach of me and my friends; but because the family was trying to escape paying a huge inheritance tax bill, everything, she said, had rock-bottom prices. Sculptures and paintings that had sold for thousands were priced in the hundreds. Drawings were even less. So along with a number of di Benedetto aficionados I went and indulged myself and came to owning a number of paintings and drawings and sculptures, two of which need further explanation.

When my friends and I were about to leave the studio, Angelo’s nephew remembered that there were a number of paintings not on display that he had found just that morning, paintings which had escaped the scrutiny of the IRS and the purview of the art dealer who was handling the art of the estate. The nephew had been walking across the floor of the top studio where Angelo did most of his sculpting and he heard a strange squeak emanating from the floorboards. He recalled that Angelo had told him once that “a poor artist was one who sold everything,” and so the thought of a secret stash came to mind. And, sure enough, a thorough scrutiny of the squeaking hard wood floor revealed an access point where with the aide of a large screwdriver he unearthed a stash of some thirty canvases rolled into a log, most of which Angelo had painted in the 1930s before joining the military and before his Haitian experience that had catapulted him to fame. The stash of paintings had obviously been hidden the entire time Angelo lived in Central City, works he obviously cherished for personal reasons. Most were realistic oil portraits of the avant-garde of Broadway circa the early 30s: actors, writers, Prima Donnas, opera singers and musicians, the New York artistic intelligentsia if you will, who looked the parts they played in American culture with wild hairdos, clothing and appurtenances. But two of the paintings were like no other. Painted in 1937, they were a pair of Diego Rivera-esque murals illustrating a di Benedetto family farm in Connecticut circa the early Twentieth Century. In one the farmers were clean-shaven unadorned men and women, plainly dressed, who looked as if they just arrived from Italy fresh off the boat, tilling and planting a hillside in spring with manual implements and an open book. In the next the autumnal hillside was prolific with fruits and vegetables ready for harvest and the farmers had grown into their true selves with beards and mustaches, forsaking the clean cut look they’d employed to pass through Ellis Island.  As they were not priced I offered the nephew a C note each for the pair because they were the same size as paintings priced likewise. He accepted my offer because of what I’d done for the family in terms of arranging the memorial and I walked away with what I’m sure were two of Angelo’s most prized possessions, things he had hidden because he did not want to sell them, because he did not want to be a poor artist, an almost other worldly chain of events starting with, if you will, a squeak from beyond the grave that more than made up for me not getting a percentage of the deal I brokered a decade earlier.

Saturday, November 19, 2016


Cover art – Edwin Forrest Ward

A Mix of Physics, Alcohol, Gambling,
Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Sex:
These Things Don’t Necessarily Add Up
to Lost Virginity

A little more than fifty years ago, in the summer of 1966, I was working for the Atomic Energy Commission in an unpublicized basement laboratory of the Customs Building on Houston Street in Manhattan. Drexel University had arranged the prestigious paid internship as I was, at the time, majoring in Physics at Drexel. The six month commitment involved intellectual and spiritual challenges - I mean there was a war going on in Viet Nam and I was working for the government responsible for the war; there was also petty conflict – my three math major roommates and I couldn’t really come up with a satisfactory formula for a division of labor, for sharing our one bedroom apartment in Queens. Add to this the uneasy euphoria of living away from my inner city row home (and mother) in Philadelphia for the first time in a place where the drinking age was eighteen. Throw a wonderful young woman of a girlfriend who was very much in love with me into the mix and I was overwhelmed with prospects and commitments and confusion. Not to mention I was Catholic.

At the time of my internship I paid more attention to Bob Dylan than I did to my studies, my work at The A.E.C. and my faith (or lack of). Bobbie D truly seemed to be the prime mover in changing my world.  He was responsible for bringing white America – people like myself who grew up in uber segregated overtly racist Philadelphia into the Civil Rights Movement and singing a language that could be employed to protest injustice in America and abroad. Two years earlier at The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech was followed by Dylan singing “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” Whereas I had memorized all the words to every Dylan song released at the time (some 90 or so), I could not recite – other than E=MC squared - any of the differential equations and quantum theorems necessary to express an understanding of modern physics. I originally had chosen physics as my major because I wanted to rock the world as I believed Einstein had in 1905. I sought someday to shed new light on the nature of things (and people) and change understandings of how the world works. Also, practically speaking, what better way to wow the women of my dreams is there than Einstein-ing them? “I’m majoring in Physics” had the kind of cache that I believed got a girl’s attention. That’s how I had met Ann at a college mixer in the spring of 1966.

Ann was a bright-eyed blonde who went after what she wanted with a fierceness that was beyond the norms of 1966. And she wanted me. She’d do most anything to be with me. She lied to her mother and father, climbed out her bedroom window to rendezvous with me after her exceedingly protective parents went to sleep, stole cartoons of Kool cigarettes for me from the Mom & Pop store where she worked part time, cut classes at Beaver College to play Frisbee with me when I was out of class, and had friends lie to cover for her when she came for the weekend to visit me in New York. Put crudely yet succinctly, Ann had more balls than the entire Rugby team at Drexel.

As I shuffled through my days at the AEC – measuring particulate matter in the air in ventilation systems pre and post filtration – something as uninspiring as the office politics that surrounded me, I knew I already was on my way to the underground where there was “darkness at the break of noon,” where there was poetry not physics, where there was love not war, where there was art not religion, where there was risk not steady employment. Ann – or what she represented – meant more than cold fusion. Love meant more than a new unified theory of the universe.

At the time my sister Carol worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad as a keypunch operator; not the greatest of jobs, but one that came with passes for all family members to ride the Pennsylvania Railroad; hence, I could travel for free from Philly to New York and vice versa. Most weekends, for reasons of economy, I went home. I needed to save as much money as I could from my job, in order to pay my tuition, as my family had not the means to do so. I kid you not when I say: my family was never more than a dollar or two ahead.

On Fridays, during the ninety-minute train ride from Grand Central to Philly, I usually played pinochle for money with a bunch of older men. Initially they took me for a novice card player whom they hoped to fleece, but a novice I was not. I’d been playing pinochle with my family since I was seven years old. My parents and sisters and I played for pennies and the focus-as-a-family playing cards allows, whereas the guys on the train played for dollars and the braggadocio that playing cards allows. We snarked, broke balls, bragged, and snide-commented our way the entire train ride as we shuffled, cut, dealt, bid, played and wooed the three card kitty; the patter of card playing Philadelphia wise-guys belongs to a universe where Roberts’ Rules of Order don’t apply, and feeling like one of the older men - counting cards, counting trump, counting losers, counting suits, counting coo, gambling and winning money, bragging about Irish luck, plying the card skills I’d learned from my mother – was exponentially more rewarding than the prestige of my Atomic Energy Commission credentials.  Fortunately, rare was the time that I didn’t arrived at Holmesburg Station in Northeast Philly without having double or tripled in an hour and a half the pay I’d received for working forty hours at the AEC, thereby learning early that there are ways outside the norm to make a buck. I had January’s tuition in the bank by October! Punching a time clock was not nearly as thrilling as making a forty hand - against all odds - in spades, a sort of differential equation I took to heart.

As I said, Dylan was the hat I wore although I did have hair like Einstein; thus when Ann came to stay with me for an overnight in July of 1966, after rendezvousing at Grand Central, we chased after music and poetry, not science. After drinking  half of the bottle of wine I had concealed in a paper bag, we went in search of the ghost of Bob Dylan, to Greenwich Village on a hot summer Saturday night and paid two eight dollar covers to enter the Cafe Wha?, where a coke was another eight dollars, and where a skinny twenty-four year old black kid with hair curlier than mine wearing blue denim bibbed overalls sat in a corner with a pair of guitars, a microphone, and an amplifier with a reel-to-reel on the floor. He exhorted the audience – mostly suburban kids from Jersey – to get enthusiastic because a demo was going to be recorded this night and crowd appreciation would go along way to his getting, as he said “that contract in the sky.” I had been expecting an acoustic Dylan-esque folk scene – as I knew that Dylan had played his first gig in New York City in this very room in 1962, but what ensued was like nothing I had ever heard. The guitar playing was ear dazzling and driven and mad and improvisational and outrageous while the singing was sensual and intimate. “Crazy, wild, psychedelic, sexy, furious” is what Ann said. I was too blown away for words. The guitar player’s name scribed in gold and silver across his black guitar case was spelled strangely: Jimi.

Now after the show, Ann and I returned to my place in Queens. It being the weekend, my roommates were not around, as they regularly went home to their parents in Jersey and Maryland and Pennsylvania, meaning Ann and I would have the pad to ourselves and we would probably get around to the elephants in the room of our relationship: our virginity. Of course we were not virgins when it came to orgasms. But sex as in copulation was just not something we had had the opportunity to partake of. In cars and movie theaters and on blankets at the beach, these are not places where full nudity and penetration are going to happen. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out as dreamed.

When we climbed into bed a bit tipsy from our finishing off the wine, dizzy with Hendrix sounding in our heads, enthusiastic and shy with the puppy love that we owned, inexperienced with nudity and flesh against flesh, it so happened that we when we began to embrace, skin to skin, and kiss, I got had the most monstrous erection I would ever have. And when Ann took me in her hands I had the most monstrous ejaculation I most likely would ever have. Embarrassed by my inability to control myself and by the amount of cum that seemed to come from me and cover Ann’s stomach and thighs, my ego was tattered and my manhood so spent there was no way on earth I would be able to penetrate her safely, if at all, and thus I resorted to something I had only fantasized about: the cunning linguist within orchestrating an intense climax for Ann. Spent and satisfied - however awkward our technique - we felt bliss . . .  and, upon reflection, blessed in a strange 1960’s parochial Catholic sort of way: the silver lining amidst the cloud of a bungled first-time was that we were able to bring virginity to the people we would later meet and marry. To this day, I can still see Jimi in his overalls playing guitar strings with his teeth and with the brass buttons of his outfit and I can envision Ann in her birthday suit, so beautiful, so willing, so loving. Sadly, not long after this Jimi-Hendrix-not-five-feet-away-from-me-CaféWha?-Saturday-night experience fifty years ago, Ann and I broke up for no good reason. Puppy love is after all only puppy love no matter how pure and intense.

And because I do believe in “taking what you have gathered from coincidence,” it must be noted that some fifty years after I heard, really heard, music for the first time in my life, after not losing my virginity, and not getting Ann pregnant as would most likely have happened given our lack of contraception and our Catholic belief that making love was purest when engaged in for the purpose of procreation, a grandson was born to me whose name is Jonah Hendrix!