By Ken Lutes
What kind of energy do you want to put in the world?” says Dennis West, founder and owner of 23rd Avenue Sculpture Studio and Gallery.
West not only puts his soul into every piece of art he creates, he puts it into his community. He proclaims, “Through the power of art, together, we can begin to unfold the myth. The myth is what life is, the journey we’re on, and what a passion does to your heart.
“I’m a big believer in God, in being a Christian and helping people out. I have people walk into my studio everyday who need something fixed – their favorite dandelion digger, or a wheelbarrow, or the chair they broke when they were yelling at the Broncos.” He stops everything he’s doing to make the fix, at no charge, “because these people are my neighbors. I only ask them to pay that favor forward to someone else who needs one.”
The studio is at the corner of W. 23rd Avenue and King Street, in a 1950s, four-bay, former Texaco filling station. For 27 years, West has taken on building everything from handrails to fences – work that helps to financially support his artistic side – and it’s all fashioned from metal.
“I’m selling out a little bit, but, you know, we live in a tough world; I have to pay the bills,” West said. A current project is “some cool furniture” and a series of iron planters and flower boxes that will surround the rooftop deck of a new three-story house in the Sloan’s Lake neighborhood.
“The hardest thing about my art,” West said, “is not being able to sell it all the time. But the easiest thing is being my own boss. I never have any same ol’ same ol’. It’s always different. I’ve built spiral staircases and heart-shaped cookie cutters for dog biscuits.”
A lifelong resident of north Denver, West grew up at 42nd and Clay, in Sunnyside; he attended St. Catherine’s and Holy Family High School.
“The Sisters of Loretto at Holy Family couldn’t offer me art classes,” West said, “so when I graduated they gave me a scholarship and said, ‘Go follow your dream.’” In 1976, he received a fine arts degree from Loretto Heights College.
Artistic talent runs in West’s family. His grandfather was a painter and an illustrator for the Bureau of Reclamation.
“We have a lot of his old etchings,” West said. He also discovered his mother was a closet painter. “After she died, we found many unfinished paintings stashed away. But raising four boys and girl by herself, she didn’t have time for that kind of stuff anymore. She was a good mentor in that she encouraged me to follow my dream – same as the Sisters at Holy Family.”
West said he kind of knew in grade school that he wanted to be an artist; by high school, he was certain.
“I was recruited to be the art editor of the newspaper and the yearbooks. In those days, that was the best the nuns could give me other than recruiting me to design bulletin boards for every classroom.”
West didn’t realize until he got to college that he’d take interest in being a sculptor and a welder.
“It’s spontaneous for who I am as an individual. [In college], I didn’t like carving stone; I didn’t like carving wood. I’d seen the oxygen and acetylene tanks sitting in a corner of the art studio, and I asked my instructor if he’d teach me to weld.
“I didn’t have to wait for glue to dry or for 10 other techniques to get in the way. When casting a bronze, you’d have to make a wax and then a mold. I always felt that after you made the wax, the sculpting part was over. With welding, I could put a piece together without all those other steps. I have a propensity to be able to find scraps of steel and iron that speak to me and make them into something that actually looks like a sculpture.”
Metal sculpting is West’s passion. His design influences range from abstract to contemporary to traditional – even figurative, or representational. Among his favorite artists are Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall and Vincent Van Gogh; many of the sculptures in the studio gallery reflect those influences.
West’s gallery is unusual in that it’s part of an outdoor garden that surrounds a year-round koi pond stocked also with goldfish and turtles.
“There are eight turtles in there,” West said. “We wanted one, then people started dropping them off because they didn’t know [turtles] could live 50 years.”
With no website, and an unlisted phone number, work comes to West by word of mouth.
“I shake people’s hands and look them in the eye and say, ‘Do we have a deal?’”
He doesn’t take credit cards.
“I’ve had people come to buy with only a credit card, and I tell them to load their truck and send me a check when they get home. And you know what? I always get a check. “I’m grateful to God for giving me abundance, so I like to give back. The nuns used to tell me the one word I needed in my vocabulary was ‘no.’ I maybe say ‘yes’ too often, but I might need an extra gold brick to get into heaven. I just know that when I get there, St. Peter’s going to say, ‘You’re half a brick short, West.’”
West said that if he weren’t an artist he’d probably be growing plants, like his brother, who owns Southwest Gardens in Wheat Ridge.
“I like to be close to the earth. I receive a lot of energy from plants. Knowing how to care and cultivate plants helps me care and cultivate my art and my life.”