The Poet Spiel avoids the cliché when he speaks of 38 Degrees Latitude.
It's not strength in numbers, he says, but "power."
The longtime Pueblo poet and painter, who goes by Spiel, is careful but earnest with his words. A similar attention to nuance emerges when talking about 38 Degrees: It most definitely is not a gallery sheltering individual artists or hobbyists, but instead is a new idea-swapping cooperative.
"Ninety percent of the people in the group are cemented in what they do professionally and how their process is," says co-founder Justin Reddick. "So it's not going to be one of those things where [we're] trying to find ourselves within a group."
Unlike in some arts clubs or co-ops, no one huffs on the tired topic of what art is. 38 Degrees wasn't borne of any pretentious griping on what the scene lacked before the group came along. In fact, the 11 modern-contemporary-abstract artists in the group have nothing but complimentary words for their town of Pueblo. Yes, Pueblo, as in home of the Slopper Burger.
They insist the abstract and contemporary arts climate has gained momentum along the 38th parallel in Colorado. And 38 Degrees wants to bolster the burgeoning movement, gaining exposure for the scene and networking with artists and venues.
The group introduced itself formally at the Loft and Wireworks, both coffeehouses, at the beginning of August for its first group show. By booking themselves at hybrid galleries, they unconsciously draw attention to the other side of the arts scene, the venues, of which there are more than the average outsider knows.
"This town supports their art," says native Puebloan and member Bonnie Waugh. "They always have, in their own way."
Not that the group's been welcomed universally.
"I'm not sure if old Pueblo really knows what to do with us," says Reddick. "I've talked to a few artists, [and] I don't know if they really respect what we're doing or understand what we're doing.
"They've kind of puffed their chest out a little bit about it. But I think that means we're doing something right."
In 2007, Reddick met fellow artist Randy Wix in passing while Reddick was deassembling his OpticalReverb show at the Park East Restaurant. In time, they befriended one another, and late last year, they decided to form an art group with another friend, Gabriel Wolff.
The three observed a beginning of an "abstract-contemporary" movement in Pueblo, noting that the time seemed right to reach out to friends and artists the three admired. Everyone they solicited signed up immediately. And with a Web site they published in March as the starting point — 38degreeslatitude.com functions as the group's only permanent public space — they began to meet at members' houses once a month.
When they gather at Wireworks the afternoon before the opening of their self-titled show, talk flows easily. But still, Paul Alhadef, a professional photographer and small-scale, natural farmer, calls the group a "loose confederacy."
"We can have this group where we get together, but we're not tied to this thing," he explains. "[We] have the network, but don't have to work a booth or a gallery."
Besides artistic companionship, Waugh says group members also gain the critical eye of peers from a surprisingly wide demographic. A few members grew up here; others, like Reddick, came from the Denver area; and others were born out-of-state and have lived in an array of regions. At 68, Spiel is the oldest member; Reddick, 29, is among the youngest.
"When you're in college," notes painter Sam Pisciotta, "you have other students and professors giving you feedback and once you leave, you're sort of in this vacuum hoping that what you're creating is worthwhile."
They gladly riff off of each other's ideas as well. Reddick, who has shown numerous times in Colorado Springs through OpticalReverb and other galleries, frequently employs text in his sketchy, gestural paintings. And when you peruse the walls of Wireworks, words and letters pop up in pieces by other members.
SK Cothren, whose paintings combine rumpled fabric elements washed in acid hues, similar to Robert Rauschenberg's style, features wording that's cut off before it can be coherent. Her letters are more figures, she says, whereas Reddick's scratched text courses throughout the work like a subconscious commentary.
The spread of inspiration isn't limited to the painters. From Waugh's collage and enamel works (made partially from leftover industrial countertop materials) to Alhadef's urbane and ironic photography (featuring pin-up housewives on the verge of snapping) to Aaron Williams' metal pieces, members add a variety of media and artistic backgrounds to their collective shows, and by extension, the Pueblo arts scene.
And the group now offers mentorships for new artists in the contemporary vein. Members guide sponsored pupils in building portfolios, framing works and other professional development tactics. In time, new individuals can join the group, though Reddick, Wix and Wolff want to keep it small so it stays organized.
"You never know who's out there painting in their garage, or studying what, [or] who'll be inspired by what we're doing as a group or individually," says Reddick. "It's hopefully all going to benefit the area."
Latitude vs. attitude
Even though their mission sounds noble, the members don't seem to take themselves too seriously. That attitude deems 38 Degrees one of the most refreshing collectives.
"Pueblo's a real blue-collar town," says Alhadef. "People don't associate it with art, but you look around and there's some really strong art coming out of here that would show anywhere.
"Most of the people here are easygoing, working-class people. There's nobody here with that attitude of a big city."
And rather than talking big, they let their art speak for itself. Next spring, 38 Degrees will debut its own large-scale exhibit at the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center and Buell Children's Museum with Crossing the Lines: Exploring American Values through the Lens of Contemporary Art.
The group began with a concept of documenting American history through their art before coming up with a more aggressive approach in commenting on American values, which they successfully pitched to the museum.
As befits a community-minded collective, outside proposals are welcome.
Says Reddick: "We're trying to put contemporary artwork in the hands of residents of Pueblo."Click here for the complete Fall Arts Preview 2009 table of contents!