Out of Colorado, American Expressions rolls on, heading south. As much as I wished to make it all the way across America, budgetary constraints have been reached. With winter coming towards the mountains, it became clear that it was time to plot a course back east. Once upon a time I had visited Las Vegas, New Mexico and remembered some long time friends in the area. Leaving the anglo Colorado populace, now many more brown faces with skeptical expressions look at my flag in tow. Fortunately the family Juarros welcomed me with open arms to their beautiful property, soon to be the site of a handmade home. Many thanks to Aaron and his lovely family for their gracious hospitality.
Las Vegas is a community knitted around the University of New Mexico Highlands and the New Mexico Behavioral Mental Health Institute garnering it a well educated and diverse populace. Good buddy sculptor and burrito master, Isaac Sandoval invited me to post up with the flag at the hippest food wagon in town, The Skillet.
Once getting situated with the trailer framing in the eatery courtyard, almost every patron participated. It was hard to miss and main man Dub pitched everyone when they ordered their lunch. Dub, pictured above left, was really impressed with the project, expressing his gratitude that something provocative had come to town. In talking with him, I learned that he worked for the state of New Mexico under the Gary Johnson administration. Yes, that Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for the Presidency. Here is someone with direct experience of working in a Johnson administration and I had to ask if he believed that Mr.Johnson's Libertarian platform would work at a national level. "It's a nice idea, but it would really screw poor states, especially New Mexico," Dub admitted. I concurred that most southern states would suffer under a national government that expected each individual state to generate its own revenue to cover all the costs of maintaining our civilized society. I asked, "Why then is he the best candidate in your opinion?" He shrugged and said, "Look at the other two! They have no interest in the well being of anybody else except them and their big money friends." Good point. I found most everyone that participated in Las Vegas had little positive to say about the presidential candidates, but expressed concern about our future.
I watched a couple approach the flag and study it closely. The young lady easily climbed up and wrote "Give this land back to the natives". While she wrote I met her companion, Javier, who was scowling intently as he read the expressions of his compatriots. I asked if he anything he'd like to add, "No, no, nope" I could see that he was really conflicted about choosing to participate and I attempted to get him to verbally express his feelings. He simply shook his head with mild disgust and then looked at me with a quizzical eye. He was about to speak when Dub called out his lunch was ready. I got a sense of cultural differentiation had emerged between us, that Javier wasn't about to share his true feelings with this traveling gringo. I had learned in Las Vegas the community internally debates the value of individual heritage: Native American, Hispanic, Spanish European, and lastly Anglo. I surmised that I wasn't going to get an answer from Javier, but after his lunch I found him again staring at the flag. He asked, "Can I write "America Fucking Sucks" up there?" "Yes you can. Express anything you want" I replied. As I moved to grab him a marker, I continued, "It's a free country." which caused Javier to recoil. I handed him the pen and reassured him that I'm just trying to see if we're coming together or coming apart. He ascended the stairs and slowly looked closely at some of the smaller expressions. I awaited a large scrawling condemnation of our country from a justified perspective, but he moved slowly, not making any marks, simply debating what to write. After a few minutes he quickly scrawled "In God We Trust", much to my amazement. He wasn't joking about his first inspiration, so I could only guess that what he expressed was simply fodder. Coming down the stairs I asked, "Really? what about "America Sucks"? He gave a slight embarrassed smile and said, "Naaaa, not today", took his sweetie by the hand and went on their way. Javier's deliberation seemed to me to be a decision of trust. He doesn't trust America. Even given the opportunity to express freely, without fear of reprisal, he felt most secure in providing a generic slogan, keeping his guaranteed 1st Amendment personal opinion to himself. This is what America is to him: repeat appropriate slogan, stay in your place, keep your opinion to yourself.
As American Expressions trucks closer to the end of the tour, the intensity of our national election can not be ignored. I am noticing less involvement with my project, people upping their guard and simply not willing to engage. We've reached peek saturation with all the howling about who is the worse candidate and constant denigrating of our social manners and mores. We are exhausted from the debilitating experience our democratic process has become. We struggle for our freely thinking minds against our addiction to hyper-factually fabricated "information" from our mass media masters. We cannot stop watching, even though we have stopped caring, relinquishing our better wills away from 'being the change.' Life will go on no matter who is elected, but are the good times really over for good?
Beautiful Crested Butte, Colorado. Settled as a mining town, CB has turned into a haven for outdoor sports year round. With a quaint grid of homes and businesses, Crested Butte appears to exist within a vacuum of time, only yielding to the latest technologies in snow skiing. I would have not ever made the trip out over Monarch Pass without the invitation of good friend Jesse Blumenthal, long time resident and talented metal sculptor. Thank you my friend for the invitation to this special place, I'll be returning someday soon!
There is a saying in Crested Butte, "Local since now", meaning it is hard to know who is really historically from the area and who has came and not left. Unlike the resort towns of the I-70 corridor, Crested Butte is a destination off the beaten path. Once getting out there you realize that the local is much more interesting than the wider world. And why not? The natural beauty, the outdoor activities, enough of everything to go around, and ample generosity make it very attractive in a time of amplified widespread strife. Alas, Crested Butte is not without its transitioning issues and growing pains.
As par of my visit, Jesse recruited me to participate in the 2nd Annual Crested Butte Community Iron Pour in conjunction with the local Arts Center. What a great event, with much credit going to Jesse and Arts Center Director Melissa Mason for putting it all together. In speaking with Melissa, I learned a lot about the community and the challenges it faces. Just like everywhere else in America, little Crested Butte is experiencing gentrification too. In my observations from city to city, Crested Butte isn't quite suffering the "riptide of white-flight" where people are moving back into parts of town they abandoned because of racial fears. No, Crested Butte is almost completely homogenous. This community is being gentrified by affluence, second homes/rentals, and big money, mainly from Texas. So much so that there is a low income housing shortage in the community because outside money is snatching up all the little houses and turning them into short term rentals. This leaves no where for the "local since now" folks to live. Of course everyone likes the additional tax revenue and visitors cash infusion to the community, but it comes at a cost of being able to have people in the community to serve the rich. It is a precarious balance that forces the less affluent into housing further down the valley, necessitating this small community into public transportation, thanks to the efforts of Councilman Roland Mason.
In a community of 1500 people, Crested Butte is taking a proactive approach to the growth. Roland explained that monies have been put towards low income housing, but part of it sits vacant because of federal regulations on income threshold to qualify. This is problematic, but not anything that can't be overcome, says Roland. The issue that faces the community now is how to write regulations that favor the locals and respect the folks who simply own property and visit twice a year. By and large the community works well together takes care of one another, but as it happens with big money, they send lawyers to contest the regulations for their interests. The community is changing. Gone are more simple times, but also gone is the mining industry and its' threat to the natural beauty, which makes the community very happy. Crested Butte lives in a beautiful bubble, but not one void of awareness. The community knows how to take care of itself, knows how to keep their beautiful bubble intact.
It was a little more difficult to engage the community about national politics, the going ons of the wider world. Most everyone I asked kinda gave me an exasperated sigh and lamented their slacking effort on getting enough wood chopped for the oncoming winter. I suspect that's where much of their political disgust gets alleviated, swinging an ax, insuring themselves a comfortable season.
I did have a nice dialog with Bob, a gentleman assisting in the iron pour. Bob conceded that most people avoid the political discussion and the ones that do are often a little more of the radical internet obsessed type. Bob was not impressed with either candidate, but finds some of what Mr. Trump resonates within the valley. Gunnison Valley stretches from the town of Gunnison to Crested Butte, with Gunnison being home to WCU, industry hub, and coldest winter temperatures in Colorado. Bob explained to me that Gunnison has many more big city problems: meth, prostitution, unemployment, petty crime. "Why is that?" I asked. "Mexican mafia. They run the show down there." Bob went on to explain that the notion of a boarder wall is exactly what many people in Gunnison see as a cure to their community ills. I asked if he thought that element, the mafia, was coming up the valley to Crested Butte. "No. They have no interest in tourism and all jobs here are spoken for, even the lowly ones." It is merely 35 miles between the two communities, but the difference in attitudes is strangely similar. They both want the outsiders to go back where they come from. Certainly Crested Butte enjoys the trappings of privilege of wealthy visitors, even if it is a hard lifestyle for the proletariat, while Gunnison wants the problems of a tourist mountain town without the plague of organized crime. Despite the remoteness of both communities, their respective problems reflect their political dispositions: one wants to build a wall and the other wants to work together to stay a tight knit community.
Denver. A budding metropolis amid the plains and the front range. Like any other big city, American Expressions was best served by parking and people. Many thanks to my brother, ST, for assisting in getting a permit for two spaces near the Octoberfest in downtown Denver. Who knew that asking permission would be so easy? Kudos Denver for being hip to what I'm doing.
Since I had procured a parking permit for the flag, the process of getting set up was a lot easier. We selected the corner of 20th & Lawrence right in downtown, in front of perhaps the best hidden breakfast joint in the city. It was certainly entertaining to the people inside when a giant flag showed up and two hustling patriots set up shop. Instantly we had steady stream of people hitting up the flag. A nice variety of folks, the perspectives shared on the flag ranged across the political spectrum.
The most compelling discussion I had about our country was with a middle aged black women who would not write on the flag. She watched intently, furrowed brow, slightly shaking her head at what she read. When I approached her the first time, she retreated into the diner. Later on she returned and I inquired, "What do you think of my project?" She replied, "I know what you're doing." I thought that was good since I really don't know what I'm doing. She continued, "You're trying to get to people, trying to get them riled up." I gave her a skeptical look and said, "Am I upsetting you?" She curtly looked me in the eye with a flat stare, examining if I was full of shit or genuinely concerned about her disposition. "What are you really up to?" she inquired. I went on to explain how I was touring the nation promoting freedom and compassion. She quizzically looked at me and then the flag again. Now it began to make sense to her and she began to read some of the expressions out loud. "Love is the answer," she read, "I like that one." "You're really out here trying to help, aren't you?" she questioned. "Yes mam', looking to see if we're coming together or if we're coming apart," I replied. "Well?", returning to her flat stare of skepticism. "There is a lot of love in our country, despite all the ugliness" I replied. "You really believe that?" she countered. I then took on her steely gaze and gave her a broad smile and said "Yes, I do." She held my eye for a couple seconds, taking in my goofy grin and then slowly broadened her fixed face into a wide smile, an approving prideful grin. "You keep up the good work, young man," as she patted my shoulder, turned and went on with her day. Art at work, brothers & sisters, art at work.
There are two opposite experiments in state governance happening in close proximity: Colorado & Kansas. One state removed as many taxes as possible and the other removed prohibition of a taxable substance. One state has a booming economy and the other is contemplating how to pay to educate its' children. One state boasts about its 'ethical integrity' and the other brags about its progressive programs. In 3 months of touring I have yet to meet a conservative who has any ideas that are not self-serving and pass judgment on the wider population. In fact, you can see where conservative politicians in Indiana had to renege their ethical opposition to needle exchange programs because drug abuse caused a rampant Hepatitis outbreak. What are the conservative principles that are good for all of us as humans and companions and stewards of our earth? I can hear the bemoaning of those who don't want to give their hard earned money away to free loaders while extolling the virtues of Jesus F. Christ. They continue to complain of the government "crushing them" while ignoring the realities of populations who actually have been oppressed. And they bloviate to their moral perch upon which they proclaim their "love of life" in defense of the unborn while dispensing hatred towards anyone different than them. The Republican Party cannot remedy the contradictions between its policies and its morals and it stinks and everyone can smell it. How do I know this? Because none of the conservative counties in Colorado, who opposed cannabis legalization, refused any of the tax revenue generated by it. I would encourage Republicans to get comfortable in the minority position because nobody wants to hear your bullshit anymore.
My first stop in Colorado was Boulder to see Ms.Sclafani and meet her art graduate school compatriots. Boulder is a special college town, nested in the foothills of the Rocky Mountain front range. It is a highly educated and progressive community and it is extremely white, almost to an unnerving degree. There is a lot of money in Boulder and it seems that it is only increasing. Could be a good thing, but I don't know. Props to Melissa Sclafani for bringing dat NYC attitude to Boulder and swinging for the fences.
At the behest of Melissa, she insisted that she had the Dean's approval to park the flag in the center of campus, outside the Art School. I expressed my skepticism because giant institutions like UC have policy & protocol and almost NEVER roll with it. She said it was fine, so I rolled with it, despite knowing better. We got up at 5:30am and dropped the flag on campus with great anticipation.
Upon returning at 9:00 there were a few tags, but definitely a mass of students wondering about it. I jumped right in and started pitching to the crowd of undergraduates. I kept asking, "Do you have any thoughts about America?" and the response was always the same, "Uhhhh, I gotta get to class". Now this wasn't apprehension, this was intoxication. Not drunk college students, but stoned ones. Mouth breathing, glassy eyed, fully functioning, "adults" taking in something abnormal to their daily routine. I wasn't too surprised by this, but it did seem like EVERYONE was in this same condition. I felt like I was challenging their numbness to reality and they didn't really know how to respond. Not only was this something unusual and demanding of a political thought/opinion, but also was an intruder from the real world. The enclave of Boulder knows that serious stuff is happening in our country, but why "harsh our mellow" with racial tensions, political discourse, & challenging thoughts? This is college, man. To their credit, there were many insightful additions to the flag. Of course these came from minority students, while the white students chose glib or catchy expressions (yeah yeah yeah "Dicks out for Herambe" what ever that means kid). I imagine it is hard to know or even formulate a genuine expression when your entire life has been really fortunate and really homogenous. This is where the ultra liberal crosses over into the secretly conservative. Everything is beautiful and easy to accomplish, and we're all in this together, things are so good because we're so good. It is one thing to extol the virtues of progressivism and another thing to put them to practice in a culturally and economically diverse society. You can't find minorities in Boulder because they can't afford to live there. Is this by design? Probably not. Really just the outcomes of white migration into the area over the history of our country. But it has generated a place where affluent whiteness is the norm so much so that if you're not "green" (read rich) you're not accepted. This is a convenient method of segregation that reinforces conservative principles within the younger population: we're supposed to be here, you're not.
Of course the our illicit interjection into campus life was not to go unnoticed. Shortly after lunch, a finely dressed women from University Events approached me to inquire "why" and "how" I got here. I explained I was at the invitation of the art school Dean. Of course that matters not because "you must have permission from me", she said. I attempted to get her ideas about America, to see that this is a good project, that your position could influence the thoughts and minds of the student body. She wavered for a moment, but became insistent that "you just can't do things without permission or everyone would do what ever they wanted." I do understand, but every small school I've taken the flag to has welcomed me and the experience I bring to their campus, while every large institution has denied me because someone has the responsibility to make sure there is a decision about what is happening. Strange but not at all surprising. My adjudicator insisted I move the flag immediately, that I was not permitted, now! She was getting huffy that her power might be getting disrespected. I explained that I had to walk to get my truck, maybe an hour before I could have it removed. This made her fume. As I walked away, she just kept repeating, "Move it now." Power is messing with your head, lady.
Upon my return to "fix the problem" a small crowd had gathered because now the campus cops were there to enforce her will. (POWER! I NEED MORE POWER!) I cooly greeted the officers, giving them a quick pitch on the flag. No reaction. "Hey guys, relax. I'm hitching up right now, be gone in a minute." No reaction, hands on tasers, assuming firing distance and stance. I say, "Hey kids! get your cell phones out! We're gonna be YouTube stars today," as I continued to prep my rig for departure. At this moment, I wondered about being black, if I would already be on the ground writhing with compliance shocks, what it is like to not get any benefit of the doubt, to be assumed guilty and a threat to society for simply being. A reminder of how fucked up things are outside "the shinning city on the hill" known as Boulder. I looked at the officer in charge and asked him if he'd help me guide my truck back to the trailer, which made him relax and engage me in a cooperative manner. The tension had passed, I was determined not a threat and we joked a little bit about trucks and trailers. I could have gone for fame, ("Artist Tased on UC Campus Today Over Free Speech") but that is not my purpose. Peace, compassion, expression, collaboration. In those terms, my stop at UC was a success. Cheers!