I first met Daniel Joseph Watkins as he shook some gritty residue from his straw hat and stepped onto the pavement where I’d just been arrested by an image in a window—an oversized black and white photograph of a handsome young Hunter S. Thompson with a Sheriff’s Badge pinned near his heart. Next to that hung a large Freak Power poster. My heart pumped hard like that power surging, peyote-button-clutching fist with six digits. This get up indicated that something radical was being pummeled into shape just behind that building front.
Most creative directors might have tried to hide the fact that a big project of theirs – one focused on a seminal point in the career of a high caliber revolutionary – was opening soon and still didn’t have stuff like electrical matters sorted out, let alone a lick of paint on a stack of sheetrock. The big-gun Dr. Hunter S. himself was notorious for taking too much on – edging deadlines and sanity to punishing limits where the teeth gnashing task of tackling his abject desperation would be wrangled behind bolted doors and surrendered as an integral part of a final document—all the while, eyes bugging and nostrils flaring in the exercise of frenziedly vacuuming excesses of white powder that looked very much like the traces of fine plaster dust scattered around a construction site.
Photos Courtesy of Gonzo Gallery.
But D.J, apparently un-flustered that the only thing hanging a day before the public opening was his reputation, presented candid transparency along with a chipper disposition about the responsibility of representing the wonderful and weird legacy of the great Dr. HST. For Aspen, this kind of retrospective seemed long overdue. It was perfectly pitched as a philosophical appraisal of a wild candidate who quite earnestly pledged to restructure a flawed political system, mainly by bidding to fulfill the civic virtues required for enacting healthy forms of law enforcement. Here was a timely showcase about a singular intellect leaping from volatile rounds of consciousness expanding – sword clutched to stake belief in the strength of social reforms which are grounded in the actions of a people unified for common good.
The works displayed in this inaugural exhibition, “Freak Power,” feature political posters, newspaper archives, photographs and artworks, mainly charting Hunter S. Thompson’s campaign to become Sheriff of Pitkin County in 1970, and belong to a cache of significant evidence which bears testament to the transcendent ideologies that reached through Gonzo Journalism and pushed an operation that began as a thought provoking lark, in a distinctly evolved direction—one that took aim far from the caravan which shuffled the carnival of American Politics on its largely misguided route.
Daniel Jospeh Watkins: Can you believe we pulled it off?
Hayley McCulloch: Well…when I first saw you and this place, I was worried for you. I am really happy for you now.
DJ: Yeah, we did it! We got the certificate of occupancy at 3pm the day of the opening.
HM: Wow. Your team seemed super relaxed. I was pleasantly reminded that this is Colorado, and not NY. But what is this, as I’ve heard it called both a gallery and a museum?
DJ: The official name of this place is, “Gonzo Gallery,” and we will have rotating shows here. Some of the works in this particular show, “Freak Power,” are for sale, but it’s museum-like in the sense that the majority of it is not. It’s my personal collection.
HM: You want to keep a comprehensive legacy circulating on this exhibition. There’s a rich and detailed history on display here.
DJ: We have a lot of stuff crammed in this archive —we plan for it to span out into a bigger space.
HM: Please tell me you plan to take this show on the road!
DJ: Yes! We are planning to tour major museums. This show is the launching pad to get that going.
HM: There’s an excellent piece I’ve seen—a red paint splattered photo of Hunter playing golf that has bullet holes shot through it. It’s a super dynamic work. I read somewhere that he poured paint in mini liquor bottles and suspended them in front of his portrait before blasting it. Why’s that not featured in this exhibit?
DJ: (Laughs) I own that one and it’s in storage. I’m sorting out the insurance on it. My lawyer advised me not to show it till I do that.
HM: How did you end up with that beauty?! That’s my favorite.
DJ: Hunter’s first art show around the mid-nineties, which displayed about a dozen of his works, was curated by David Floria in the Woody Creek Art Studio—which actually sat where the Woody Creek Community Center sits now. The works in it were originally on sale for $15,000 – $35,000. That particular one you’re talking about—the self-portrait that I own—was the most expensive in the series. The owners of the Tavern—Shep and Mary Harris, got it in exchange for forgiving Hunter’s bar tab. He had run up a considerable bar tab there over the years. They were shocked Hunter was selling such expensive work next door and that he owed them so much.
HM: I love that story and that piece even more now. Is there only one of this kind?
DJ: That particular piece is the only self-portrait that Hunter ever shot. There’s a William S. Burroughs/Ralph Steadman target piece too, over there.
HM: I’m so glad that you are here. I first visited Aspen 2 ½ years ago and I was disappointed by the lack of acknowledgment about Hunter’s legacy and his brilliant balls out run for Sheriff. I looked for recollections of him and all I found was a not too visible poster in the Hotel Jerome and a mention from a bar tender about where Hunter used to sit when he was writing and drinking and running his campaign for Sheriff—using the pub as a home from home office. I recently discovered that you operated a gallery out of Thomas Benton’s studio—the artist and friend of HST, who made these great campaign posters. Why didn’t I see that space the last time I was in town?
D.J: You had literally just missed us. We closed it in April 2012. Thomas W. Benton and Hunter worked on the Freak Power posters together there and at Owl Farm. The work in this exhibition I found mostly searching through barns, basements, attics. I produced a book about Benton’s work a few years ago called “Artist/Activist.” The Freak Power exhibition, this one up right now, is a collection I own wholly and outright – that I have assembled over the years. The reason I opened the new space is to debut the collection and to promote the new “Freak Power,” book.
HM: They are both beautiful books! Great that you catalogued all of this art and information. The freaks, the artists, the writers and their interests tend to get marginalized without spirited fights. The majority of the development of downtown Aspen seems exemplary of some things HST was running against…ok, he’d be probably be alright with the stores selling legalized marijuana. It’s good to see artist run galleries like Harvey Meadows and a couple of gem-like second hand shops around, but the proliferation of luxury goods stores seems aggressive and boring in that they generally serve to provide grazing ground for the loping, unimaginative moneyed crowd. The only bookstore I found (and it’s a good one) is Explore Bookstore which is on the outskirts. I know there are people working to keep the nature scene here beautiful. Keeping the mind evolution stuff happening is just as important. Highest five to you for existing at the heart of it, and you’re also right next to The Aspen Art Museum – which is totally free to visit. Hey, that was also on the outskirts of town last time too. What kind of shift happened in the past couple of years?
DJ: There’s a joke in Aspen—How many Aspenites does it take to change a light bulb? 24. One to actually change the bulb—and 23 to stand around and talk about how nice the old light bulb was. There have been a lot of changes in town—especially on the Hyman Ave streetscape. That being said, we are incredibly lucky to have the new Aspen Art Museum—designed by Shigeru Ban bringing world class artwork to our small mountain village. Opening the new Gonzo Gallery adjacent to the new art museum is turning this side of town into a sort of Arts District.
HM: You can see the surrounding mountain-scape through the parts of the museum walls. The design has good purpose – it’s like a loosely woven giant basket. I’ve heard that it arouses this irresistible mountaineer urge in some people to scale it and that there have been some arrests.
DJ: (Laughs) There have been, but only a few…
HM: Those who may be blindsided by the more outlandish aspects of his personality and the sensationalized movie portrayals of his character might fail to realize that the Good Dr. was not only a freaking genius visionary writer, but essentially a humanist with sensible ideas about fair governing. It should not be considered radical to petition for a good quality of life not only for the über rich. He was defiantly pro-environmental protection, against greedy investors and ‘land-rapers,’ staunchly against unwarranted police violence and vehemently opposed to the prison-industrial complex. Paradoxically – as a citizen who was pretty vocal and demonstrative about his love of bearing arms, he was notably quoted as saying, “The Sheriff and his Deputies should never be armed in public. Every urban riot, shoot-out and blood-bath (involving guns) in recent memory has been set off by some trigger-happy cop in a fear frenzy.” Look at the raging effects of police brutality and rampant inequality in our times. HST turned out some rotten truths about sanctioned megalomania – from corrupt office to the streets and back.
DJ: One of the great things about Hunters campaign were the prescient ideas he exposed. Many of the writings, whether they focused on law enforcement, the environment, development or drugs were way ahead of their time. In fact, many of the published writings in the new book Freak Power are more relevant today than ever. I often say you could just change the date on the article and it would appear to have just been published in today’s era. That’s a testament to Hunter’s genius and his desire to create a more livable society.
HM: Do you have any plans to obtain some personal artifacts of his… some pistols? A visor? The indispensable cigarette holder? A bullet ridden typewriter?
DJ: We are hoping to expand. Some of the people who were very close to Hunter were not available to help us when we asked. We did it anyway. Seeing what we have done now, maybe they will help us going forward.
HM: You have a few great Ralph Steadman originals here. Are you going to be showing more?
DJ: We’re going to do a whole show of his work soon. The Ralph Steadman show will be early next year – if we get a lease extension.
HM: Great news. By the way, how did you get this place in magical shape so quickly?
DJ: Bob pulled some strings and helped us pull some permits..
(Bob Braudis—a striking figure, good friend of HST and former Sheriff of Aspen from 1986-2011—also featured in this retrospective, is chatting opposite us.)
HM: Bob, I’ve heard some heart-warming things about you. Seems like you are well respected around here for your peace keeping duties.
Bob Braudis: Yeah? I hope so. I am the only Sheriff to have been elected 6 times.
DJ: Yes—Bob was elected six times—24 years as an enlightened compassionate law enforcement official.
HM: That’s impressive. An interesting lady called Sarah Diamond pointed you out to me at the opening and told me that if you had to make an arrest, you’ve been known to get burgers for your detainees before booking them, or drive by their homes first so they could pick up a sweater if they were feeling cold.
BB: Well, especially if they were naked when I picked them up. Things can change when the alcohol wears off.
HM: Ha ha! Aspen evenings can be chilly. How did you end up here? How long were you and Hunter friends for?
BB: I met Hunter in the Jerome Bar when I came here in ’69.
HM: So you met him just as his campaign really went public. Did his effort inspire you? Who inspired him?
BB: Bob: I had no plans to be involved in law enforcement. I grew up as the enemy of the cops.
HM: You were outlaw brethren.
BB: I’d been working for a corporation in New York before I came here to get away from it all, and I’d ditch the three piece suit to join marches and protest some nights and weekends, but I had no real political leanings. Joe Edwards inspired Hunter to run. There was no snow one winter, in 1976—not a flake. I had 2 young daughters and work was hard to find – nothing to do on the ski slopes. In ‘76 Dick Keinast, ran for Sheriff and he hired me as deputy.
HM: I’ve been reading about your philosophies regarding honesty and tolerance and also about the founding’s of Keinast’s office. You shared strong beliefs in police accountability and compassion. It seems like a well-established legacy around here by now.
BB: Yes, that is what it’s about.
HM: The occupancy limit here says 57. It looked funny next to so many people at the opening. I hope somebody won’t have to enforce a velvet rope policy.
BB: Nah, I don’t think so. Hunter wouldn’t have liked that.
HM: Ok, maybe just a head count and a hemp rope.
BB: There was a Planet Hollywood that opened here once. It was ridiculous that it ever got approved. Those people had the red velvet rope, and nobody came out. They had to hire people to show up for the press photos to make it look like crowds were lining up to get in. I really don’t know how it ended up here, but it did not last for long. Hunter was happy to shoot an IBM typewriter once for them though.
HM: I imagine. Best piece of memorabilia they probably had. I wonder if that might be added to this great exhibition. I’d shove a piece of paper into it and type something for a keepsake.