They’re kind of hard to miss, the towering, brightly painted figures that recently appeared on Bridge Street. Even amidst all the recent sculptures and murals that have popped up in the small town, the colorful totem poles are a standout.
They’ve attracted some attention from a few members of the local arts community and curious passers-by, said Michael Cleverly, the artist behind the totem poles. “A few knocks on the door. One appreciates being appreciated a little bit.”
Cleverly stops short of comparing his works to their iconic Native American counterparts found mainly throughout the Northwest. In Native American culture, each totem carries meaning, and the entire piece is traditionally carved from a single tree. But Cleverly isn’t feigning tradition. “Totems, vertical sculpture. The semantics I don’t worry about. People think they’re totem poles … and that’s ok with me.”
The 60-something artist describes the carvings as “three-dimensional doodles.” Atop perhaps the most eye-catching tower floats Quetzalcoatl, the Mesoamerican deity that, some believed, was to destroy the world in 2012, said a not-too-serious Cleverly. “I really don’t know that much about it. If Quetzalcoatl happened to be a male deity, then it’s Mrs. Quetzalcoatl.”
Within weeks of erecting the totems, a banner appeared near his front yard, boasting the North Fork Valley’s 2013 designation as a Colorado Certified Creative Arts District. Another was placed across the street. Coincidence? A nod of approval from local artists?
Cleverly is also a two-dimensional artist, mainly acrylics on canvas. He is a writer, a former columnist for The Aspen Times and contributor to Aspen Sojourner Magazine and numerous other publications. He likes to stir things up and was the Aspen Bureau Chief for The Vile Plutocrat and co-authored “The Kitchen Readings: Untold Stories of Hunter S. Thompson.”
“I did not move here for the arts scene,” said Cleverly, who, by coincidence, moved to within a block of the Creamery Arts Center and photographer Mary Hockenbery’s newly-created Church of Art and its recently installed larger-than-life mural by internationally-recognized social artist, Chip Thomas. “I was delighted to see these two great venues. That was a bonus.”
Cleverly said he knew early in life that he was destined to be an artist. His only doubts came in his early education, when high school teachers advised, “Don’t do it, you’ll never make a living.” But a well-intentioned educator persuaded him to pursue his passion. In the early 1960s, a tumultuous time in the art world, Cleverly attended Windham College in Vermont. “My training was by better bigger-time guys than your usual liberal arts school in Vermont. I was extremely fortunate,” said Cleverly, who studied under world-class sculptors Chuck Ginnever and the late Peter Forakis, a founder of Park Place, a 1960s cooperative gallery in Soho, which later became the world-renowned Paula Cooper Gallery.
After college, Cleverly worked as a ski instructor in Vermont. There, “Ski areas pack it in for the season a lot earlier than Colorado does,” said Cleverly. One spring he decided to visit a fellow artist in Aspen, Chris Cassatt, creator of the Aspen comic character, Sal A. Mander, and the internationally syndicated Shoe comic strip. For three years, he went back and forth. “I realized I was out of my bleeping mind to keep going back to Vermont when I’m already in Aspen.” In the early 70s, “It’s hard to remember, it was the 70s,” Cleverly left Vermont.
His primary teachers were right, of course, and Cleverly paid the bills by doing carpentry work.
About five years ago, while living in a secluded cabin in Woody Creek, Cleverly began turning pieces of wood into sculptures as a way to stay active after long winters in front of a computer screen and an easel. “I started carving these ratty little pediments, I can’t even remember why,” said Cleverly. “Spring comes and you want to be outside. I saw my friends my age getting kind of sedentary and keeling over dead from it. I just started working outside for the summer.”
Cleverly uses whatever material is on hand. Years of carpentry provided a pile of materials, and when a neighboring woodworker moved, “his debris pile became my debris pile.” For his larger pieces he starts with dimensional, cut lumber because, unlike logs, its flat surfaces are easy to draw on. He uses a chain saw to remove the bulk of the material, then finishes carving the pieces by hand. Wood isn’t like clay, he mused. “Once it’s gone, you can’t put it back.”
Last winter, circumstances uprooted Cleverly, and he landed on Bridge Street. Each totem had to be disassembled, packed, transported, and re-assembled, but reassembly was the easy part. “You spend months and months carving, you know where everything goes. It’s not like opening a model for the first time,” he said.
There are no plans to create more totem poles this summer, but perhaps next year, “Assuming I’m here and alive and everything. I’m scheming up stuff.” But he’s happy with the move, even though he lives on the main artery and on a state highway. “Frankly, I’d rather be in the middle of nowhere and have everything. Main Street in the middle of Hotchkiss is pretty close to the middle of nowhere. I’m not that far from my ideal space.”