His art gallery might be closed, but Eric Dallimore is as busy as ever

Leon Gallery is closed due to the coronavirus, allowing Dallimore to focus on his own work.
7 min. read
Eric Dallimore, co-owner of the Leon Gallery, stands in front of his City Park West space. April 22, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

If the novel coronavirus had not shuttered his gallery, Eric Dallimore would have had a lot less time to make -- or make plans for -- his own art. He has produced not one but two proposals for developers who have expressed interest in installing a piece of his sculpture in the lobby of a Denver apartment building.

Since shortly after a March 6 announcement from Denver officials of the city's first positive tests for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, public gatherings have been banned to stop the person-to-person spread of illness. Dallimore has canceled openings at Leon Gallery, an art and event space he co-founded in 2011. The third annual Leon performance art series was delayed from April until May and transformed from an in-person to an online event.

Construction, meanwhile, has been deemed an essential activity. Hard-hatted crews are exempt from stay-at-home orders, but contractors have to ensure that workers wear face masks and have enough hand washing stations and that sites aren't too crowded. The rules have slowed but not stopped buildings from going up.

NINE dot ARTS is one point at which the busy construction industry and idle artist community connect. The Denver company run by artists, curators and art lovers has for a decade acted as a consultant to developers around the country who want original art to be part of their projects.

"Financial support (for artists) is our No. 1 goal," said Molly Casey, chief curator and a co-founder of NINE dot ARTS. "One of our missions ... is to get rid of the 'starving' before 'artist.'"

Dallimore is among three artists who recently learned they'd made the short list of candidates for the NINE dot ARTS client who is developing the apartment building. Dallimore welcomed the chance to keep busy even more than the stipend he and the other artists get for submitting designs and the chance of a larger commission if he is the winner.

He said he can finish his gallery duties, which include planning shows by other artists for later in the year, in a few hours every day. These days, he rarely goes to the gallery at 1112 East 17th Avenue in the City Park West neighborhood.

"A person with my personality really could have gone stir crazy being at home," he said. "I love to work."

Eric Robert Dallimore, founder and artistic director of Leon Gallery, works at home while a shelter-in-place order is in effect for Denver. Congress Park, March 25, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

When Casey contacted him, she told him he had three weeks to put together a proposal for a piece large enough to command attention in a lobby with a ceiling of nearly 19 feet. Ground is scheduled to be broken in June. The developer team, which did not want its name and the details of the project made public at this stage, gave the artists blueprints to work with.

'I can already see it built," Dallimore said. "I'm already there, in my mind."

But he did not get there immediately. Dallimore spent days sketching. While he worked he listened to music, often sessions that The Roots drummer and bandleader Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson has been curating and live-streaming almost nightly from his East Coast home now that the coronavirus outbreak has shut down music venues.

After 10 days, Dallimore was beginning to wonder if he would be able to come up with an idea. Then his eye fell on a necklace of porcupine quills he had. He was struck with how similar the quills were to wood carvings he has made. He imagined the shapes as large as logs and piercing the void of the lobby.

Both his final proposals incorporate the quill shape. In one, they and a classic column are suspending from the lobby ceiling. In the second, the central suspended element is an arm and bucket salvaged from an excavator. The column or the piece of machinery would be embellished with color in the form of graffiti or a mandala pattern.

Both the column that brings to mind official business -- think Denver's City and County Building -- and the machine strike Dallimore as beautiful. They are symbols of human activity, contrasting with the quill shapes.

"It's nature meets the city construction," Dallimore said, adding that he celebrates both.

People are drawn to Denver because of its proximity to the mountains. And as they come, the city changes. While some bemoan growth, "it does really create a vibrant cultural scene," Dallimore said.

Casey said her company has signed more contracts in the last four weeks than in the previous four months.

In response to the economic impact of the coronavirus, NINE dot ARTS developed its own grant program that is similar to a Denver government program that sets aside 1 percent of the construction budget of any large city capital improvement project to pay for art to be part of the project. Each NINE dot ARTS contract signed after April 1 will include money for a small grant to an artist in the city where the development is being built. NINE dot ARTS will hold a competition to choose the artists, who will get to keep the pieces they create and share them on Instagram.

The city's Arts & Venues agency and private organizations such as the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation have provided emergency funding to artists, and struggled to cope with large numbers of applicants. Casey sees NINE dot ARTS's grants as being as much about building morale in a "time of crazy uncertainty for creatives" as they are about distributing much-needed cash.

"We're reliant on creatives being available and open and working," she said.

Casey has known Dallimore as both the artistic director of Leon and as an artist in his own right. She collaborated with him to bring work by artists associated with Leon to The Maven Hotel in LoDo's Dairy Block mixed-use development.

She's come to see attending exhibitions at Leon as "going into a little world every time, a new world."

"I think of more innovative and more installation-based work when I think of Leon," Casey said.

She said she has long wanted to find a client for Dallimore's work. The apartment developer for whom Dallimore prepared his proposals was interested in the industrial scale and aesthetic of the large, rough-hewn sculptures Dallimore has created in the past.

Once Dallimore finally hit on an idea, he moved on to the research aspect of creating art. He scoured the internet to see whether excavator parts were available, and called a company another artist recommended to make sure the machinery could be powder-coated.

"There's so much problem solving in public art," he said. "I love problem solving."

Getting his ideas into proposal form was the most difficult part of the process. He'd rather be carving wood than formatting a PDF.

He met the deadline set by Casey, who was to present his two ideas and proposals from the two other artists to the developer team this week. She expected a decision in a week.

"Imagine if they let me build this," Dallimore said. "Just playing with these massive forms would be very exciting."

If not, he said, the idea will be safe in his notebook, awaiting its moment.

We'll be following Leon throughout the pandemic.

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