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Dangerous Art

Stewart Oksenhorn
"Man of the Old West," multi-media wall hanging
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Steve Main earned his nickname as a younger man, tracing it to a habit of “falling off too many barstools,” he says. But even now, at 62, with a balloonlike left knee that causes a bad limp, and an even-keeled demeanor, Main lives up to the moniker he earned as a Vietnam grunt and linebacker at the University of Colorado: Danger.At the Old Snowmass hay ranch where he has lived since 1978, Main is putting an uncommon element of danger into his art. His multimedia wall hangings feature icons from the Civil War era and the frontier years just after the War between the States: photographs, saddles, horseshoes, buffalo skulls. But most prominent are the guns – 12 of them in his most ambitious piece, “Man of the Old West.” The weapons, precise reproductions of the 19th-century originals, are functional to the point that Main has to disassemble his work after each showing.

Danger describes not only the end result of Main’s artistry, but also the process he has taken toward becoming an artist. For one, there is the financial risk Main took in creating his series of works. Already in weak shape financially, Main put himself deeper in the hole to buy his materials: the guns for “Man of the Old West” alone cost some $17,000.Danger is also what someone would find themselves in who was foolish enough to stand in the way of Main and his ideas. Main has had no training as an artist, had no thought to make art until a couple of years ago. But with the same bullish sense of purpose that he brought to his other interests – surfing, rugby, football, soldiering, hunting – he has pursued his latest passion.Main first hurt his knee early in his short-lived football career. After further damage, mostly from skiing, he finally had knee-replacement surgery in January 2002. It went terribly wrong and got badly infected; over 13 months, Main had nine surgeries on his knee. For 10 months he was without a knee joint, and for two years he couldn’t hire himself out as a farmworker, the source of much of his income.”I had to think, ‘What can I do now that I’ve been rendered a cripple?'” he said. “It’s that circumstance you’d never want, but you ask, ‘What do I do with the rest of my life?'”Main’s thoughts wandered to his late uncle, Karl Van Meter, a naval aviator who “lived one of the most marvelously full lives you could want,” according to Main. And he also flashed back to a memorial he had created for Uncle Karl, out of the deceased’s military knickknacks and photographs. The memorial piece and a few other decorative collages that followed – two football-themed ones for friends who had been pro athletes, one revolving around his own service in Vietnam – were small-scale, personal and, by his own admission, imperfect. But pondering what his next step should be, with those wall hangings in mind, Main thought he might be able to make high-grade art in a similar vein.His first effort at a gallery-quality piece drew on his experiences hunting elk. The work combined guns and photographs, and featured a resin technique that Main had learned while making surfboards in his Southern California youth. Last fall Jim Gibbons, a friend from Main’s days on the Gentlemen of Aspen rugby team, stopped by and came away impressed with the piece.

“He looked at this elk-hunting collage and his jaw hit the floor,” recalled Main. “He said, ‘You did this? You know what this would be worth up in Aspen?’ He named a figure and a light went off in my head. I had never given a thought to making these and selling them.”The art of warDeeper, broader concepts began to creep into Main’s vision – thoughts about the Western frontier, his experience in Vietnam, the problems that face the soldier returning from any battle. Key to this visual expression was weaponry, and a lot of it. But the kind of arsenal he was envisioning, that would make a real visual statement, cost the kind of money he didn’t have.”The question was, do you have the brassware in your pocket and the balls to do it,” said Main, “to go further in debt than you’ve ever been?” Main reached into those pockets and bought revolvers and rifles in what he calls “the most high-risk move made in my life.”Along with the guts to invest in the project, Main had the ideas to give the work some weight. Main’s well-crafted collages, framed in heavy wood, touch on themes of American history, war, violence and people facing the frontier.

“I wasn’t interested in contemporary cowboy art or cowboy-and-Indian stuff,” he said. “I’ve been more interested in the people who came out West before that, after the Civil War, in what they called the buffalo era. Someone crossing the Mississippi then came into an environment that was extremely hostile – the terrain, the weather, the Native Americans who lived here.”Men didn’t conquer the frontier, or the West. Men with guns did.”The question that seems to intrigue Main most, an issue that the work brushes up against, is what happens to a soldier when the war is over. Main’s Vietnam service gives him an obvious personal interest; although at the time Main returned to the States, in 1964, the backlash against U.S. soldiers was still a few years away. But by focusing on the Civil War era, Main is finding a more universal experience to explore.”Civil War vets came back to unemployment, hostility,” he said. “There was only one place they could go to utilize what they had learned. And that was out on the frontier – the ‘Yarner’ they called it. There was a need for buffalo hides, then tongues and bones. They had to co-exist with the Yarner, Indians, buffalo. A lot of buffalo hunters hired on with the military, as guides and scouts, as the country expanded westward.”Main sees a similarity to the experience of soldiers returning from Vietnam to find their homeland almost as hostile as southeast Asia. “There was a parallel between what the Vietnam vet and the Civil War vet experienced, what war is all about,” said Main, who nearly returned to Vietnam after his hitch ended. “Death and killing – and then you go home and there’s an inability to assimilate into the culture you left. There’s a separation that lasts all your life. There’s no comprehension of the carnage that people experienced.”You’re thrown into this incomprehensible situation. The only thing that matters is survival. And when you do survive, it takes a cleansing, a process of finding oneself.”

Main’s art doesn’t seem to be about his own war-and-return experience, though. His service was complete before Vietnam got too hairy, while it was still in what is referred to as the “covert advisory era.” And he says he got over any scarring some time ago, when things like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall began paying tribute to the dead soldiers.Main’s work, like the Wall, is meant to honor heroism. Main calls his fellow soldiers in Vietnam some of the most impressive humans he has known. The work has a heroic element to it, in its scale and even its unexpected beauty.”If it is the intention of art to make an impression, this, in my humble opinion, set in somebody’s home or office, would be the No. 1 show-stopper in any room,” he said. “The question you’ll be asked is, ‘Are all of these [guns] real?’ And the answer is yes. And because of that, there’s a slight aura of lethality.”Which is appropriate, having been made by a man who answers to the name Danger. “People say, oh yeah, we can tell you did this,” said Main. “Which I consider a compliment.”Steve Main’s Aspen Custom Artworks can be reached at 923-4768.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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