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.