Gonzo exhibit looks at history of Pitkin County sheriff
March 10, 2012
ASPEN – 1970 was an odd but fateful time in Aspen’s history. Hunter S. Thompson was running for sheriff against the reactionary incumbent, Carol Whitmire, who along with the Aspen Police Department made cracking down on hippies a top priority. Thompson worked with artist Tom Benton and others on a two-page bimonthly newspaper of sorts, the Aspen Wall Poster, which contained psychedelic-induced musings on Whitmire and Republicans, Nazis and land developers.
Thompson, running on the Freak Power ticket, even wrote an article in Rolling Stone headlined “The Battle of Aspen.” He lost the race when Whitmire and his fellow Democrats cut a deal with the third candidate, a Republican, to drop out, which consolidated opposition to Thompson so that Whitmire could be re-elected. The dream of a better way to police the community did not die with Thompson’s defeat, as Aspen policeman Richard Kienast was elected in 1976 espousing many of the same philosophies that inspired Thompson in the 1970 race. The tradition of a sheriff’s office that flies in the face of conventional law-enforcement thinking has continued to this day, with the administrations of longtime Sheriff Bob Braudis, who retired early last year, and the current head of the department, Joe DiSalvo, who won the election in November 2010.
Much of this – especially Thompson’s run for sheriff, three decades of campaign posters created by Benton and philosophical comments made by Kienast and the great thinkers who inspired him – are brought into view by a new local exhibit. “A Visual History of the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office” will run for the next two weeks at the temporary Gonzo Museum in the Benton Building, 519 E. Hyman Ave., the former home and studio of the late artist.
D.J. Watkins, who created a book on Benton (“Thomas W. Benton: Artist-Activist”) that was published last year and who runs the Gonzo Museum, will open the exhibit Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m. Watkins said he is hoping to line up a few guest speakers to make a few remarks at 7:30 p.m.
“The important part of the show is really the display panels (sandwiched between Benton’s campaign posters) with writings by Dick Keinast,” Watkins said. “They sort of outline how Aspen and Pitkin County came to be a more compassionate law enforcement community, without collaborating with the DEA and FBI.”
The exhibit is especially relevant today, Watkins said, given the DEA’s newfound presence in the Roaring Fork Valley and the recent arrests of suspected cocaine traffickers and their subsequent plea bargains.
“With everything that’s going on now, with the drug investigations and the DEA in town and all of that, we thought this would be an appropriate statement about the history of the sheriff’s department and how it came to be the way it is,” he said.
The display panels, which Watkins developed, feature quotes from Kienast that are interwoven with the writings of history’s great philosophers and thinkers to outline how the former sheriff came up with his approach to law enforcement, Watkins said.
A typical Kienast quote, taken from one of the panels, reads: “Men have invented government and laws to protect themselves from both violence and deception and have empowered the police to enforce these laws. They have even given the police the powers of coercive physical force to achieve this. Have they also given them the right to deceive? I think not; at least I hope not.” These comments are framed by quotes from Goethe, Clarence Darrow and others.
Any exhibit involving Thompson and the Freak Power movement in Aspen would be incomplete without writings from Thompson himself, and so all of the issues of the Aspen Wall Poster are part of the show. As was the case with most of Thompson’s literary output, it’s hard to tell fact from fiction with many of the stories, which are nonetheless entertaining and provide a timeless and local view of the battle for Aspen’s soul. There are also a few bizarre stories grounded in fact, such as the time someone built a controversial windmill in the Holland Hills area, a project that was literally blasted – with dynamite – by opponents.
One of Thompson’s pieces, in the April 1970 issue, captures the feelings of the time and the season in the usual breezy Gonzo fashion.
“This issue of the Wall Poster is deliberately late,” he wrote. “We’re using the spring doldrums to straighten out serious production problems and get ready for what looks like another long Summer of Hate. Aspen’s dual culture schism is not so obvious in the winter, perhaps because of the snow which chills our population like it also covers our garbage.
“But the inevitable spring thaw lays it all bare, and each spring it gets uglier, both the garbage and the politics, and in this context the summer of 1970 is already shaping up, like a king hell bummer on all fronts.”
Watkins said the exhibit would not have been possible without donations from Dr. Bruce Carlson, the Kienast family, DiSalvo and many others.