Stories from the Hood, Part Three – The Gargoyle
Stories from the Hood
In the early 1900’s, Denver’s Mayor Speer initiated the most massive tree program in the city’s history. The single tree chosen for this urban forestation project was the American elm, an indigenous species to the region. This diverse-less tree idea didn’t hold water in the long run, but it was a good idea at the time. The American elm planted easily, grew well in poor soil and was tolerant of both drought and flood conditions. It was a perfect choice for Colorado’s climate. No other tree compared. At one time, Denver was home to over 200,000 of these magnificent elms. Less than 2% of those trees are still around today. The rest were killed off in the late 1960’s through the early 1980’s by the Dutch elm disease. There are many Denver news headlines on this epidemic appearing as early as 1948. Today American Elms are rarely chosen for planting. Into the 1990’s, four of Denver’s surviving elms surrounded my house.
Of the 100-year-old American elms that have survived, most are quite disease ridden. My four elms were no exception. Their history unraveled with huge, dead branches, sickly leaves, and the constant sappy mist of insect poop settling on the cars parked below. One day, a third of one tree broke and crashed to the earth with apocalyptic thunder. I ran to the backyard to find the fence leveled to the ground and the entire backyard filled with the fallen tree. The only way I could bring these trees to a healthy state was to have them sprayed each spring for $3,000 a shot. Being of the DDT and Agent Orange generation, I decided to spend my money elsewhere.
My trees in particular were chosen by swarms of cackling starlings for nesting and socializing. I would like to have thought of this “sound of nature” in a fond way. When I was artist-in-residence at the Delaware Water Gap in the mid 70’s, I randomly stumbled across thousands of frogs mating in an Appalachian pond; their mesmerizing croaks offered audio memories that echoed through the forest for miles… or when I was living in Japan in the early 1990’s, I often walked through a bamboo forest with the shrill, permeating sound of a million cicadas chirping from the forest ceiling above. Such sound was body-electric and altered one’s brain chemistry to a spiritual level. However, the maddening torrent of this starling chorus only reminded me of scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. I tried spraying a pressure hose into their hoard, only to result in a frenzied volume increase. As it turned out, Darwinian theory was about to unfold and help out.
One day the woodpeckers discovered these wonderful rotting trees and went on an aggressive and successful war to brutally drive the starlings out. The woodpeckers are the undisputed kingpins of the urban bird world. When they took over, no other bird was around to challenge them. They were my saviors. The mechanical hammering sound of peckers was like music to the ear. They remodeled and enlarged their lofts and started nesting. Then one hot day, I found twelve beautiful baby woodpeckers dead on the roasting hot sidewalk. It was at that moment I knew life would never be the same. The Great Squirrel Wars were about to begin.
Until that time, I thought of those cute furry critters in terms not unlike the musical relationship that Snow White had with them. That all changed with the epiphany that they were just rats with furry tails. After they took over the elms, they thrived and bred like the rodents that they are. The first of my four elms to die was the one in the front. Later I cut down the remaining three. After I replaced them with some ginkgoes, a Chinese pagoda tree and a Turkish filbert, the squirrel plague greatly subsided.
My feelings towards squirrels before The Baby Woodpecker Massacre and after The Baby Woodpecker Massacre can be summed up in these two paintings by Denver artist John Fudge. John passed in 1999 of a heart attack while watching the Perseids meteor showers. His work is presently represented by Rule Gallery.
When I first moved here in the early 1990’s, my new home and studio were my “fortress”. Any logic to exterior home improvements had to include a defensive aspect. The house and I were constantly challenged with dare by the street children. They were mostly in packs like child gangs but just as often as not, operated independently. I thought of them as future lifers, advancing from house and car thefts to the inevitable as they grew up. Engaging with them only made oneself more of a target for their sought-after entertainment. I avoided contact whenever possible. One morning as I was setting up to remove the previous night’s graffiti, the worst child terrorist on the block began to harass me. I knew that he had just broken into my elderly neighbor’s garage after an oil change and dumped all the cans of dirty oil on his concrete garage floor. When my meek neighbor finally got the courage to confront the mother, she just screamed foul language and threatened to call the police on him for harassment.
Gleaning something from hearing this, I decided to take a different approach. I said to this child terrorist, “Hey dude, you want to give a hand and help paint this graffiti off my house?” He was taken aback with the unexpected caring and trust. I handed him a brush. He was thrilled at the rare opportunity to be helpful. Not only did I make a friend, but better yet, I was moved to a lower position on his “to kill” list. Instead of the previous survival strategy of warfare, a seed of friendship and respect started to take ground in my thinking.
“Not only did I make a friend, but better yet, I was moved to a lower position on his “to kill” list.”
This was around the time the elm in front of the house died. It was cut down, leaving a very tall tree stump. I knew that in some creative way this stump could be used as an opportunity to establish the respect of the neighborhood kids. I just had to figure out how the remnant of this dead tree could be used to facilitate a public rapport of some kind.
I had always thought it fun when people carved dead tree stumps into sculptural forms. Deciding not to sculpt it into a giant pencil or phallus, it’s purpose became a “pedestal”. The next question was, a pedestal for what? I then mounted a virtually indestructible, plastic T-Rex dinosaur on the top. This little beast was almost animated as it looked down from high atop the stump and certainly demanded a second glance and smile from passersby. But alas, the next morning someone had shot off its front arms. A week later, its head was shot off. The amputated stump of his body was up there for six months before it too was gone with lots of little foot prints left from shimmying up the stump. I was back to the drawing board.
Whatever replaced it needed to have that “cool-bad” factor in order to survive and not just be pleasing to the eye. I had always been enthralled with the protective gargoyles of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, as well as historical guardian figurines such as Anubis figures from ancient Egypt – they guarded the realm of the afterlife (an image below shows the Anubis figure that was guarding King Tut when they opened his tomb in 1922) ; then there were the Chinese and Japanese guardian foo dogs, Thai spirit houses – housing the spirits of the earth where a house stood, and the Japanese Shinto gods that inhabited “Jizo” rocks. An ancient Jizo rock used to “look over” my house in Japan, which I acknowledged in passing each day. Two houses in my present neighborhood also had gargoyles that I admired – before someone climbed up one of those houses and stole that set.
Images of gargoyles, Anubis, foo dogs & Thai spirit houses
I finally decided to make a guardian gargoyle out of concrete and mount it on top of the stump. I figured that concrete would be able to withstand bullets. At the time, there was a wonderful, historic Italian concrete-statuary factory named Amato’s just down the block. They made concrete statues and fountains for churches and yards from their own hand-made molds. It was a fantasy land for browsing. Amato’s Concrete Statuary first started in the early 1920’s when Carlo Amato moved here from Italy. He purchased this parcel of land down the street for the statuary business in 1944 for $600. After four generations, the business ceased to exist when, in 2010, the family sold it for 2.5 million dollars and it was redeveloped into a trendy micro-brewery.
I had Amato’s make this gargoyle with a two foot steel re-barb coming out the bottom. To install it, I poured a concrete cap on top of the stump with a hole down the middle. Then the steel re-barb was sunk down through the concrete cap and the gargoyle’s base was sealed with construction adhesive. This was my “theft strategy”, but I also needed to prevent kids from climbing up. My solution to this was to embed nails at the top of the stump (above public reach) and cut the nail heads off with wire cutters for a razor sharp edge… then let them rust. Initially there were a few footprints left from failed attempts at trying to ascend the tree shaft ; ultimately, the strategy was successful.
While I was installing the gargoyle on the top of the stump, a group of passing teen-agers (all hip, tough and cool-acting) commented with thumbs in the air, “Hey man, that is just sooo fucking cool! Right on man! Awesome! We love it! You rule!” At that moment I thought, “Hot damn, I have struck the cosmic nerve vein I was prospecting for.” Perhaps this “cool factor” might actually repel destructive tendencies toward this vulnerable corner house. Maybe a gargoyle’s power was real after all. I began to feel like I was giving something to the youth of my neighborhood in the form of art that they could relate to ; art that made a connection with their lives.
The morning after I installed the gargoyle, it was already evoking neighborhood response. A group of old folk from the church congregation gathered around the tree, pointing and chit chatting; my Mexican neighbors at the time thought it might be Satan worship. This neighboring family often came up with strange ideas to explain away things about this house that was beyond their comprehension. They were told by their priest in a Sunday sermon that Pokemon was an agent of Satan and that Pokemon was Satan’s plot to steal the souls of children. They politely rang my doorbell one day when they saw my 5-year-old son wearing a Pokemon teeshirt. I had just read a news article reporting a priest in Colorado Springs burning a stuffed toy Pikachu as an idol in a sermon to dramatize his disdain for the satanic evil of Pokemon. I had also heard about the 1997 episode of Pokemon that sent 700 Japanese children into the ER with seizures. That had to do with 1 in 4,000 people who can suffer from photosensitive seizures and four million who were watching the show. It was a scene with some flashing light where Pikachu used his lightning powers to blow up some missles. The episode was banned from airing again. But of course, this gave fire to the theory that Satan was taking over children’s souls. My neighbors were understandably fearful on our behalf and proceeded to explain Satan’s plot as their priest had laid it out to them and then… this gargoyle appeared in front of our house. Could it all mean we were in league with the devil or just innocent and unaware victims?
As if this wasn’t enough to worry my poor neighbors, one afternoon around that time, my son was modeling for one of my art fabrications. I sat him on a stool in the backyard and covered him with pink mud as the neighbor family watched in disbelief from their back porch. As I was getting his mudded hair to stand on end with a hair blower, the whole neighbor family was straining to look over into our backyard with bug-eyes and babbling in rapid, frenzied Spanish, all at the same time, like a flock of starlings. Jesus could only imagine what they must have been saying. We certainly challenged their thinking to no end. At the same time, we endeared ourselves to them and they soon converted and became fond of our gargoyle.
This is the resulting picture that I prepped Casey for in the backyard while my neighbors looked on. If you were a fly watching us, what would you have thought we were doing?
Elsewhere in Denver, the artist Terry Allan had just installed two bronze sculptures of gargoyles in suitcases at the new Denver International Airport (entitled “Notre Denver”). I had just photographed them for him from atop a ladder before the airport opened. During the shoot, a custodian came up to me and asked “Aren’t you afraid of those creatures? They are demons filled with the force of Satan.” I replied, “No, I am not afraid.” I then offered him one of the Polaroids, which he shunned. The next moment, I noticed a curious red object in one of the bronze suitcases. It could only be seen from atop my ladder, so I moved my ladder up close to check it out. I peered inside to find a well-worn, red leather, new testament Bible. Someone had thrown it into the sculpture. I thought, “Wow, this must be from some kind of exorcism.” I left the red bible where I found it. I bet it is still there to this day. But despite the superstition and misconceptions about gargoyles, the numerous positive responses from the neighborhood started me thinking of further additions to the outside of my house.
When I first moved into this house, I converted the old TV repair shop space on the first floor into my photography studio and business. My photo business specialized in the photography of art for artists. This was a natural niche for me and many of my clients came from the art world that I inhabited. I named the business “Maddog Studio”. The name felt appropriate to such a renegade, grass-roots upstart business. At that time, I also named the gargoyle and my English bull terrier “Maddog”. They became the mascots for my new business. Once I even got a job totally based on the business name.
It was a sleepy afternoon when the phone rang. The caller ID was from the state penitentiary in Canon City. The inmate calling was a lifer that needed some photo work done. He said he called because my business name stood out to him above all the others. As a mandatory prison project, he needed to come up with some idea that could earn him a living in the outside world. He came up with the idea of developing a business that sold realistic replicas of valuable coin currency. I was to photograph the product for his advertising brochure. I joked with him and asked “What did you do to end up for life in the slammer… rob a bank?”. To my surprise he very seriously said, “Yes.” He further explained, “I lived in Chicago and my family had no food. We were about to be evicted when I decided to rob a bank to feed my brothers and sisters. I was later caught. The judge had no mercy on me as I had shot and killed two police officers in the process. He sentenced me to life without parole.” His story sounded like a passage out of the Victor Hugo tale Les Miserables. At that point he had spent almost his entire life behind bars. He was first incarcerated in the maximum security penitentiary at Marion. No one had ever escaped from there… until he and his three buddies, Ed, Frenchy, and Porky, moved in. They were the first, and last, to successfully escape from this virtually escape-proof Bastille. When he was finally caught and returned to Marion, the warden nicknamed him “Maddog”. I took this as a good luck omen and proof of my gargoyle’s ability to bring in business.
Mike sent me this photo along with a 30-page essay on how he escaped Marion maximum security penitentiary with his partners, Ed, Frenchy and Porky. He submitted his manuscript to Hustler, Readers Digest and 3 other magazines… but no bites.
Excerpt from Mike’s letter dated 3/30/1995
“Yeah, I’m in for bank robbery. Plus a parking lot altercation. Me and my two partners were just exiting a bank in Illinois as three squad cars came swooping down. A gun battle ensued in which two cops were killed and three wounded. We won the battle but lost the war as we were apprehended four days later. To the parole board it must seem like ‘only yestereday’ as they still take extreme umbrage at a reasonably justifiable conflict of interest which transpired over a quarter century ago.”
The Gargoyle survived surprisingly well over time with one unanticipated exception. It was 1:00 in the morning. As I was sleeping soundly in bed, a pickup truck came barreling down the street. The pickup smashed the corner stop sign to the ground and proceeded up the sidewalk, directly towards my house. After devastating the stop sign, it ran into the tree stump, ricocheted off it and crashed head-on into the side of the house. The entire brick corner and the front door were demolished with the sound and impact of a powerful bomb. The Gargoyle shot straight up and out of the stump with a trajectory that landed it on the other side of the street, breaking it into three pieces. The truck was then abandoned on the sidewalk as the driver fled. The next day, I epoxied the gargoyle back together and reinstalled it. Earlier that year, the fire hydrant at our intersection was broken off by another care-free motorist during a sub-zero night. This resulted in a geyser flooding the street with a foot of solid glacial ice. I put the two incidents together and realized that all the big, beautiful rocks in front of people’s houses were not the xeriscape lawn decorations that they appeared to be. With this new insight, I purchased some large rocks and installed them to protect the house and its gargoyle from any more of these unexpected assaults. The Gargoyle has since enjoyed the unhindered admiration of passersby for the past 25 years.
Although I would like to feel that “Maddog the Gargoyle” sits there protecting my home like the demons atop of Notre Dame, I do know that he sends out an energy. He is, in a way, a diplomat to the neighborhood; an old friend to those that pass by each day. He is a constant that is always there sitting atop his stump ; a resident himself that has been there longer than most can remember. Children have now grown up with him. The fond feelings people project towards him have contributed to an invisible energy field, that in its way, does protect and look over this place.