Years later, Garman still creates character(s)

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Michael Garman makes the originals (left), and John Hodges (right) applies the color touches as requested.

Michael Garman makes the originals (left), and John Hodges (right) applies the color touches as requested.

Walking through Magic Town, one finds guests transported back to a day, place and time in the life of the artist who created it, sculptor Michael Garman.

Guests see the joyful faces of the guys at the bar, the hopeful face of a child wanting popcorn at the movies, the solemn face of a priest delivering last rites.

And so much more.

A creative display within the Michael Garman Museum & Gallery, Magic Town features miniature trash cans, tiny little cowboy boots and cowboy hats, happy dogs, all amid brick buildings in a fictional cityscape of Garman’s history.

Magic Town honors the street characters “that he grew up with, hoboed with, wino’d with and took him in,” said Mary Koehler, public relations director for the Garman business in Old Colorado City.

“He went to the soup kitchens, he stood in line at the missions,” Koehler said. “Those are the stories that are the most personal. His story is what Magic Town is.”

“I did a tremendous amount of drinking and drugging in the early days,” Garman said in a telephone interview from his home in Newport Beach, Calif. “I turned it into a sculptural autobiography.”

Garman grew up in Dallas and initially learned how to sculpt from his father. His father died when Garman was young, and a sweetheart died during high school.

“He kind of wanted to just run away” after high school, Koehler said.

Breakthrough in Chile

After spending considerable time hitchhiking around the country with his Nikon camera, Garman hitchhiked through Mexico. He walked through Central America to Santiago, Chile, where he talked his way into an art class and further honed his sculpting skills.

He started creating street characters, hobos and vagabonds, “which was him and the people he lived with in the wino districts of Dallas, San Francisco and Santiago,” Koehler said. He sold his first original pieces for a couple of dollars and walked door to door to find customers in the Chilean capital.

Later, he met a “shady character,” a counterfeiter who taught Garman how to reproduce his work, Koehler said. “One-of-a-kind artists sell their one-of-a-kinds, and he thought there was a better way to do that.

“How would you like it if your favorite author produced one manuscript and sold it to William Randolph Hearst for millions of dollars and for no one else to enjoy?” Garman asked. “We reproduce books, films, paintings.”

He called himself a “paperback sculpturist.”

“You could never dream that John Steinbeck would write one copy of Grapes of Wrath, and only one person would ever get to read it? That’s not even imaginable. It’s not even imaginable that Beethoven would write a symphony and have it performed once,” Koehler said.

Musicians, painters, writers — art forms other than visual artists — reproduce their work en masse, he said.

“I believe in publication in my world, and I appreciate other artists who do, too,” Garman said.

If it weren’t for reproductions of all the great art in the world, the general public would not appreciate its beauty, he added.

In 1971, Garman arrived in Colorado Springs, “almost by accident,” he said. He and his wife were pulling a U-Haul cross-country when they stopped here to visit her cousins “and just fell in love with it.”

Garman wanted to tell “very real stories in his sculptures,” Koehler said. “He is drawn to working-class American heroes,” such as cowboys, military, firefighters, police officers. “He loves telling stories of courage and telling stories of men who don’t necessarily tell their own stories.”

The company is able to personalize certain items, such as football and baseball players, on request.

“Bring us a picture, and we’ll make you that football player,” with the correct name, jersey number and team colors, Koehler said. “We can even personalize the little bitty newspapers.”

Garman Grunge

The process of making a Garman piece starts with a rubber-like mold. A heavy gray resin made of gypsum and marble dust is poured into an upside-down mold.

“We like to dry it two days before we begin painting,” said John Hodges, production manager who also manages the building housing the gallery and museum.

Painting may take several hours, and many of the same sculptures are painted at the same time.

“They follow a paint scheme Michael approves,” Koehler said. “Once Michael’s approved it, it’s John and his crew’s job to make sure every piece is like the one Michael authorized.”

“It’s a special paint we use that’s very hard, very durable and fast-drying,” Hodges said.

At this point, the characters appear “clean.”

After the paint dries, it’s time for the Garman Grunge, the finish containing burnt umber, water and sealant. The pieces are dipped into a large Tupperware container filled with liquid that looks like thick chocolate milk and has a distinctive odor.

“Michael and [daughter and chief operations officer] Vanessa are very specific about the Garman Grunge. It has to be exactly right because that’s what identifies it as a Garman sculpture,” Koehler said.

The grunge gives the sculpture a grubby appearance.

“They’re meant to look like they’ve done at least a day’s work,” Koehler said.

Other pieces are brushed with bronze, making them less-expensive options to the painted pieces.

Health matters

In the late 2000s, Garman was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.

“Doctors had given him two years to get his affairs in order,” Koehler recalled.

Garman’s son, an artist in his own right who had apprenticed with him, left the company. One daughter lived in Germany, and the other had just graduated college “so there was no one to take over the line,” Koehler said.

Garman did not want to sell his art and production, so he announced his retirement.

“He wasn’t prepared for the community’s response” of shock and disappointment, Koehler said.

Garman’s receiving his health diagnosis coincided with the economic crash of 2008, when foreclosures and vacancy signs dotted Old Colorado City. “He didn’t want to add to that,” Koehler said.

He moved to California, and doctors there are treating his condition differently than physicians here.

“He has a serious condition,” Koehler said. “At least the doctors are more hopeful.”

He became the artist-in-residence of the company he founded and turned over the business reins to his daughter, Vanessa Garman.

At the time, only around 290 of Garman’s 496 original sculptures were being reproduced. Vanessa Garman’s dream was to produce all of her father’s sculptures. It is Michael Garman’s wish to have any one of his pieces available to ship to a customer at any given moment, Koehler said.

Annual sales last year topped $408,200, with 6,732 sculptures sold, and “I have the expectation this year will be better,” Koehler said.

In all, Garman’s sculptures range from bronze-finished sculptures for $40 to $1,300 custom-painted shadow boxes.

 

Michael Garman Museum & Gallery

Info: 2418 W. Colorado Ave., 471-1600, michaelgarman.com

Years in business: 42 years

Number of employees: 9