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Art and Countercultural History in Walsenberg

Posted on 2015.07.15 at 11:34
Regions have nothing to do with state lines. Eastern Kansas is hilly, at times dramatically so. It looks pretty much like the area of Illinois just across the river. The western half is prairie, the tornado country made famous by Frank L. Baum in The Wizard of Oz. (Odd, then, that the billboards for Oz-related tourist attractions all seemed to be in the eastern half.) The prairie continues into Colorado. Towns are few. Their skylines are dominated by silos. Seeking a news station on the radio, I found one that was all farm news all the time: agricultural commodity prices, the poultry death toll from avian flu, the latest changes to USDA policy, and, inevitably, the rain. Until last night, there was rain every night of this trip, sometimes extending into the day. I had detours due to roads being washed out. I passed cornfields with ponds in the middle of them that I don't think were supposed to be there. I slept in the Prius with rain pelting the glass a few inches above my legs.

When there wasn't rain, there was pounding heat, temperatures in the risk-of-heat-stroke range. Somewhere in the middle of yesterday, in the middle of nondescript Colorado prairie, the heat changed its character. It wasn't a warm front being pushed ahead of yet another storm. It was just the climate. I was in the Southwest.

And then the Rockies loomed. There's very little gradation between prairie and mountain, just a thin line of foothills. I-25 is built almost exactly along the boundary between the two ecosystems. You drive south and out your driver's side window is flatness as far as the eye can see, but out your passenger side window are these ginormous mountains.

Back in the Berkshires, I had concluded that Beethoven was perfect for driving through mountains, and it was... for those Eastern mountains. But there's something lush and juicy about Beethoven, and for that matter about most European classical music, that just doesn't work in the Colorado Rockies. Neither does the pop/rock/disco category, really. Popular music calls for populated areas, not vast stretches of empty. I was thinking that something traditionally Spanish might be called for, flamenco or classical guitar, but it had been a long time since I played any of that. I wasn't even sure I had ripped it from CD. So I was driving along (and if I-25 hadn't been virtually empty, I would not have tried to do this while driving) groping for my iPod, which was attached to my stereo by a patch cord that was semi-entangled with the charging cord that my phone was on. Somehow, I'm not sure how, I ended up undermining the stability of the half-open Colorado map on the seat beside me, which rose up on the breeze and began trying to get out the passenger side window. I grabbed for the button to close the window, but I was too late; out it went.

So I needed a new map. The next town was Walsenburg. Cute little town. Lot of antique shops. Half a block from City Hall was a Tourist Information office, the kind of place that usually has the free map printed by the state government. Just inside the door, taped to the glass, I saw this:

Drop City. I was a teenager when I found out about the place, mainly through the book of the same name. I was mesmerized by its depiction of a Sixties commune created by drug-addled fools who were also hard-working visionaries. Their story spoke to a yearning in me, a yearning to participate in the transformation of the world, to experience community and taste wonder. Drop City itself, including its award-winning geodesic domes, was taken down decades ago, but when I saw the poster I remembered that at the end of the book, a bunch of Droppers (as the book called Drop City's denizens) had founded a new community called Libre, which was, as it turns out, just outside Walsenberg. The people putting on this 50-year retrospective were probably those people. The place hosting it, this Museum of Friends, was only two blocks away. I had a parking spot in the shade, so I walked.

It's a small storefront in a typical 19th century retail block. Around the door, there was a crowding of student artwork and gift shop stuff. Beyond that, the whole first floor was opened up into a single big gallery displaying the work of artists who were among the founders of Drop City, some of it done at the time, some newer. Now, the thing to keep in mind about the art of the Vietnam War Era (a more accurate name for the period than The Sixties, in my opinion) is that there's more to it than Peter Max and Andy Warhol. A big part of it was Op Art, works designed to play with the optic nerve. This example, titled "One Over One", by Clark Richert, is one of those.
It's just a bunch of vertical black and white lines, bisected by tiny dashes of color, but if you stare at it (the original, I mean; this may not work onscreen) from just the right distance, you start to see diagonal "argyl" patterns in every color of the rainbow in your peripheral vision. I found it very cool.

Other works ran the gamut from exuberant poster art to surreal sculpture to the geodesics that Drop City was famous for. A young woman named Candice was on hand to provide biographical details for each artist and where any particular work fitted into the chronology. And then she took me upstairs, where the real museum was.

Oh, yeah, the real museum. What's downstairs is a temporary exhibit, with a lot of things on temporary loan from private collections. Upstairs is the permanent collection. Upstairs, too, was Brendt Berger, its"co-founder and curator, handyman, and fund raiser," as his bio on the museum's website describes him. Never a Dropper himself, he was a longtime associate of several Droppers, and he had stories. Boy, did he have stories.

One was about the book, which he described as inaccurately depicting Drop City, and I can see his point. The Drop City in the book was all about getting high and freaking people out, with the art as a minor and secondary feature, while Berger remembered a community that was primarily about the art. And the book (and related articles in magazines and newspapers) did its subject no favor by making it famous. There were tour buses bringing people to Drop City to gawk at the freaks. There were also people inspired by the writing to come and live there, a common problem in those days (and occasionally even now) with intentional communities: total strangers show up at the front door with all their worldly possessions, expecting to move in, and the community they expect to move into is the one depicted in the writings, not the one that actually exists. Drop City was founded as an inclusive community, meaning that anybody who wanted to come was welcome. It was a policy characteristic of the times, and it worked as long as the place was known only by word of mouth, but fame led to it becoming unliveable. Libre was one of several communities -- at least nine, Berger recalled -- formed by ex-Droppers. Three are still in existence -- and exclusive; to live there, you have to be invited.

Berger also told me some of his own story, including an episode of being homeless in New York City with his then-girlfriend (now ex-wife) and doing a vast painting on a section of elevated highway through Manhattan that had been condemned for lack of maintenance, "an act of anarchy" with no permission from the authorities. About a decade ago, Berger and his current wife, Maria Cocchiarelli, bought the building that is now the museum, exhibiting the artworks given to them by their friends, hence the name. As soon as there was a place for the art, people began to donate more. It's still coming, at the rate of at least one piece a month. They crowd the walls in no particular order, styles and periods mixed in a way that reminds me of the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston, although the resemblance ends there. And there's much more to it than the Drop City material. They do exhibits about local history, culture and tradition. There's a permanent Hawaiian collection. There are one- and two-person shows from time to time and art activities for children. It's a fine little museum, perfect for its context.

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