Denver Lawyers’ Arts and Literature Contest: Sculpture Winner Travis Simpson
Q&A with Sculpture Winner Travis Simpson
Tell us more about your work. What was the inspiration? What techniques did you draw on? What do you like about this work?
I began working on “Bear v. Darts” in the fall of 2008, when I began attending law school at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. As a law student, I received free, all-you-can-eat access to LexisNexis and WestLaw research programs. I also earned points every time I used these research programs. I accumulated quite a few points throughout my time in law school. In May of 2011, just before graduating, I was notified that I had accrued so many points and that, if I didn’t redeem them soon, I would lose them forever.
So, I scoured all of the potential prizes, scrutinizing each one to see if it would be the worthy recipient of my three long years of accumulated research points. The point-to-actual-value ratio of the prizes was analogous to the dollar-to-actual-value ratio of items in a prison commissary. After rejecting all-expenses paid trips to Fiji (lack of points) and “The Annotated Guide to Deeds” (lack of interest), I settled on a sleeping bag and a dartboard. I used the sleeping bag the last time I went camping, and I still needed to wear five layers of jackets, three layers of pants, and two layers of socks to stay warm, and that was in August. However, the dartboard is quite nice.
As soon as I received my prizes in the mail, I immediately tossed the sleeping bag aside, and ripped open the dartboard box. I tacked it up on the wall, stood back, and let a flurry of darts fly. Three darts hit the dartboard and three darts lodged in my wall. After several more rounds of equally accurate dart throwing, I took the dartboard down until I could fashion an adequate backstop that could catch the errant darts.
Around the same time, I learned that my firm had a client that worked at a Styrofoam plant. I had always thought that sculpting with Styrofoam and then coating it with plaster and paint would make for an interesting art project. When I found out that our client could get massive blocks of Styrofoam for barely any cost at all, I jumped at the opportunity. Last summer, our client dropped off a refrigerator-sized block of Styrofoam for my carving pleasure.
I thought about what to do with the giant block of Styrofoam for several months. Then, one day while riding my bike along the South Platte bike path, I had an epiphany. I could once again use my dartboard if I incorporated it into the Styrofoam sculpture and used the sculpture as the backstop. I quickly settled on having an animal hold the dartboard. I needed a bulky animal to stop wayward darts. I also needed an animal that could stand up on its hind legs to hold the dartboard at the proper height. Through deductive reasoning, I concluded that a bear would be the ideal animal to hold the dartboard. I then set about carving.
This was my first sculpture in Styrofoam or any other medium for that matter, and there was a bit of a learning curve as to which tools and techniques were ideal for the job. I had ordered a hot-wire Styrofoam cutter, but I quickly realized that it was better suited for elderly hobbyists crafting tiny ornamental sculptures, and that it would take me roughly 10 years to complete my bear sculpture using the hot wire cutter.
Next, I experimented with saws. I started with a three-foot handsaw. This worked fairly well but required an immense amount of physical exertion and still didn’t take off that much Styrofoam, as the Styrofoam was quite dense. So, I bought an electric chainsaw. The chainsaw worked great for big cuts, but as the bear’s form took shape, I needed more precise instruments.
Through experimentation with everything from garden hoes to ninja throwing darts, I found that a combination of taking out chunks with the forked-side of a hammer and then smoothing over by scrapping with a steak knife was the most efficient and accurate way to sculpt the bear.
Once I was satisfied with the proportions of the bear and the height of the dartboard. I coated the bear in a mixture that I use for texture. I then took a wide brush and covered the bear in spirals. I do this as a base with all of my oil and acrylic paintings, as I like how the continually spiraling texture provides a sense of fluidity throughout the entire work. Once the compound dried, I painted the bear matte black and painted the bear’s eyes with acrylics. Finally, I spray-painted the base neon orange and coated the bear with a polyurethane gloss.
How did you become interested in art? What do you enjoy most about being a artist?
My mom got me into pottery, painting, and drawing at a young age, and I continued experimenting with painting and drawing through middle school. However, the artist in me really took flight in high school. Through the arts department at Fairview High School in Boulder, I volunteered to paint the wall of a Mexican restaurant in Boulder with Ishmael “Izzy” Lozano, a Chicano painter from Denver. I not only learned all about oil painting but Izzy also told me about a tattoo shop in Aurora that might accept me as an apprentice. I went to the shop and showed them my portfolio and they let me hang out, build and sterilize needles, and learn the art of tattooing. I was so fascinated with tattoos and tattooing that, at 16 years old, and against my parents’ strong opposition, I obtained my GED, withdrew from high school, and went to apprentice at American Tattoo.
It wasn’t until a year or so later that I decided that tattooing people’s names on other people’s necks didn’t satisfy my artistic or intellectual sensibilities. So, I enrolled in community college, transferred to the University of Colorado at Boulder, and graduated with a bachelor’s of arts in psychology with a minor in Japanese. I continued painting with oils and acrylics throughout this time and continued developing my style and technique, even though I only took a handful of art classes.
The thing I enjoy most about art, much like life, is exploration. The process of creating a piece of art is just as satisfying, if not more so, than the actual finished piece. I usually start with a rough idea. Then, with only a rough outline of the design, I begin crafting the piece. Sometimes I add a detail or use a certain technique because there is meaning behind the detail or technique. However, I don’t like to over-think the piece. I prefer to let myself go and just enjoy the rhythm and feeling of painting, carving, or drawing. I like to work within boundaries and outlines. However, if I carve off too much or paint something I didn’t intend to paint, I figure out how to make the “mistake” work within the piece. I think these imperfections are what give the piece the most character and are the most beautiful aspects of the piece. As Bob Ross says, “We don't make mistakes, we just have happy accidents.”
Why did you become a lawyer? What do you enjoy most about the profession?
I decided to go to law school because I enjoy writing, reading, and research, and I am objective and level-headed. However, it was not until the summer after my 1L year that I met my employer, mentor, and friend, Robert J. Corry, Jr., and realized that I really wanted to be a lawyer, specifically a trial lawyer. The intensity and strategy of trial fascinates and inspires me, and I enjoy telling our clients’ stories to juries and judges. Furthermore, the rush of successfully impeaching a witness on cross-examination is only matched by the rush of hearing the judge announce a not-guilty verdict. Through working with Rob, I have experienced the sublime joy of back-to-back-to-back-to-back jury acquittals on felony marijuana cultivation charges and have also successfully impeached high-level detectives on cross-examination. Furthermore, I have learned how to protect the rights of Coloradans to use marijuana, whether for medicinal, religious, or recreational purposes. I have always been a staunch opponent of the war on drugs, as the incarceration of innocent, nonviolent Americans over the use of substances that humans have used since time immemorial is an egregious waste of our strained taxpayer resources and the biggest legislative violation of human rights since the Jim Crow laws. To be able to use my education and skill to combat these unjust laws is the most personally satisfying aspect of the legal profession.
Art and lawyering seem to draw on very different skills and different parts of the brain. How do you think being a lawyer helps your art, or vice versa?
Art and lawyering compliment each other very well. First and foremost, lawyering itself is an art. There is certainly an art to trying a felony marijuana cultivation trial. There are many factors and decisions to balance; who to pick for the jury, what evidence to admit, what evidence to suppress, what witnesses to call, when to object, and every tiny detail down to what your client is wearing to court. The same is true for sculpture, painting, and any other art form. As an artist and a trial lawyer, you control the production, and you are the director. It’s your show and every decision you make reflects upon your own personal style and technique.
The other way art and lawyering compliment each other is that art is an amazing way to stop thinking about the law after a long day of lawyering. When lawyers love their work, as I do, it is hard to stop thinking about your clients’ cases or upcoming trials. However, you must take breaks to avoid burning out. For me, sculpting and painting is an amazing way to give my brain a break from lawyering and exercise the other side of my brain. By exercising both sides of my brain, I feel more balanced and I feel that this increased flexibility of mind is both an asset to our clients as well as beneficial to my artistic expressions.
Tell us briefly about your background as an artist and as an attorney.
I am an attorney at Corry & Associates in Denver, specializing in criminal defense, civil litigation, and civil rights. I earned my law degree at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and received a bachelor’s of arts in psychology with a minor in Japanese from the University of Colorado at Boulder. I have been painting with oils and acrylics for over a decade, know how to tattoo, and enjoy sketching, sculpting, and all other types of expressions through myriad mediums.