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My Back Pages


portrait of Roland Bernier standing in front of his artwork
Roland Bernier

I once asked a friend of mine, Denver artist Roland Bernier, what it took to be a successful artist.


I was in my twenties, waiting tables, and living in a 180-dollar per month apartment in a neighborhood that still had a Jack Kerouac vibe to it. (Yes, there was a time you could get a one-bedroom apartment in Denver for $180!)


Success back then seemed like a distant, unachievable concept.


“That’s easy,” Roland replied with his typical straight-up New York tone. “Stick around long enough to where people take you seriously.”


I spent a lot of time in my 20s hand wringing about the future, fearing I would be spending a lifetime asking the same question day in, day out, “Would you like ground pepper with that?”


Fast forward a few years, after I had stuck around long enough, I was working at the university. My daily oft-repeated question changed from “Would you like that with ranch, blue cheese or balsamic vinaigrette?” to “When is that meeting?”


I had a lot of creative students come and go from my office during those years, and most of them spent a lot of time engaged in early-adulthood hand wringing too.


My sage advice used the same words Roland told me years ago, “Stick around long enough to where people take you seriously.”


Except I added a line, “And have a lot of fun along the way.”


As I was putting together the Portraits gallery on my new website, TheHeartofWandering.com, I remembered why my addition to Roland’s advice is so necessary to repeat.


I did have a lot of fun along the way. Perhaps my perpetual state of worrying when I was starting out meant I didn’t appreciate that fact as much as I should have.


Shortly after I graduated from art school, I rented a small writing studio in a historic synagogue that had been converted to a community arts center. I became good friends with the other artists renting space in the center, leading to the start of a photo series of portraits of artists in their spaces.


Somehow that lead to publishing a short-lived arts and entertainment magazine in Denver, giving me the opportunity to meet and photograph more artists and other creative folks.


Denver was a different city in the 1990s. Despite the fact the city was still struggling to shed its cow-town reputation, the art scene was vibrant. The first-Friday art walks in the various districts combined high-end galleries with exciting emerging art co-ops, featuring daring and bold work from artists pushing against the status quo.


On Sundays, my neighborhood had a special feel. I started those mornings off with an omelet dripping with gooey American cheese at my favorite greasy spoon, Pete’s Café. This was not the legendary Pete’s Kitchen famous among Denverites. It was a small, one room restaurant with the kitchen to the side of the fifteen old Formica tables in the dining room. It was a convenient way for Pete, who usually had a bottle of Budweiser in his hand while working the griddle, to argue about who was going to win that week's Broncos game. The waitresses were Pete’s daughters who were enrolled in law school at the University of Denver.


After a hearty breakfast fit for the average 25-year-old single guy, I made my rounds to my favorite used bookstores in the ongoing quest to stuff my $180-a-month apartment with as many volumes as I could afford.


Every so often, my afternoon concluded with a matinee concert at the Colorado Symphony, where the world-renowned conductor Marin Alsop worked her magic.


Alsop moved on, continuing her storied career across the U.S. and Europe, Pete’s Café is long-gone, replaced by a Thai restaurant, and several of the artists I had photographed have passed away, including the three featured in this newsletter.


There’s a line in a Bob Dylan song, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”


It took me long enough, but I think I finally understand that line. Take away the worry about the future, the stress of who we’re supposed to be, and we see life in a whole new refreshing way.


Perhaps that discovery is the joy of sticking around long enough.


portrait of Richard Vincent in his Denver studio
Richard Vincent

portrait of Dale Chisman in front of his artwork
Dale Chisman

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