I met Dean Fleming in the summer of 2005. Driving through the Sangre de Christo mountains about 40 miles south of Pueblo, I realized the weather in Colorado in August is about a perfect you’ll ever fine. Heartbreakingly beautiful. The sky is a pearlescent blue ocean hanging over the sage green ocean-bottom valleys and the distant coral-reef mountains. On each side of the Huerfano valley, the landscape rises up into scrubby chaparral then disappears into rocky murky mountaintops.
Dean Fleming first discovered this region in 1966. At the time, he was feeling increasingly stifled in New York. “Art was a profession,” he said, “like playing football. You get together a resume and a portfolio. You work to get the critics to do a review… The structure of the profession was not something I ever worked at. I didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about it. In New York, there’s a lot of pressure to repeat yourself and do the same thing. In New York I was the ‘parallelogram’ painter, which I thought sucked beyond belief. I didn’t want anything to do with that. I wanted to do what I felt like.”
Dean Fleming, “Untitled,” 1965
Fleming took a get-out-of-New York trip to California in 1966 with composer Steve Reich and painter John Baldwin. On the way, they stopped Ignacio, Colorado, to catch a Native American Sundance. “I found it magical,” said Fleming. In a letter to New York gallery owner Paula Cooper in July 1966, he wrote:
Excellent mustanging across country spending 4 days with the Colorado Utes sun dancing, basking in stars & Rocky Mountain blaze of sun, cleansing chunks of Manhattan funk & generally changing. Steve playing tapes, John the trumpet & me giving out books & buttons, we Johnny Appleseeded culture across the land…
Fleming’s suggestion that he was changing was revealing. It was difficult for him to adjust again to SoHo when he returned: “When I went back to New York, ” he said, “to my loft on Broom Street, I had a dream that I was supposed to be in the country, surrounded by friends. That was the impetus to come back to Colorado.”
In 1965, some artists, filmmakers, and philosophical types from Lawrence, Kansas had started—in Trinidad, Colorado—what would become known as the first rural “hippy commune,” Drop City. The founders of Drop City had hope to continue working on an art concept—Drop Art—they had developed earlier at the University of Kansas. Drop Art was informed by the “happenings” of Allan Kaprow and the work of John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and R. Buckminster Fuller—a professor and inventor who pondered questions related what would later become known as the “sustainability” movement. (Fleming knew “Bucky” Fuller, as he called him. In fact, he learned to make the geodesic dome that is his Libre Commune studio/home from him.)
“The Ultimate Painting ,” by Drop Artists, 1966, acrylic on panel, 60″ x 60″
Fleming first stopped at Drop City with a few friends for a short stay, coming to think of the place as a “touch chaotic.” “They had this open-door policy thing that was untenable,” he explained. “Artists need their own space to think and get work done. They were doomed for failure.” (Drop City was abandoned by its residents in 1970.)
After a few months, Fleming and his group discovered a plot of acreage on a mountainside near Gardner, Colorado. Somehow they scraped up the money to purchase it ($6000), and thus began the Libre Community, a continuously existing commune that has expanded and contracted through the years—with various artist microcommunities popping up then fading away. Amazingly, the commune still exists today, forty years after its founding.
“It’s a funny mix here,” said Fleming, who these days possesses deeply lined face and a long mane of white hair. “There have always been Native American practitioners, Buddhists, wine drinkers, pot smokers. Theater artists. Photographers. Artists. Everyone, each in their own area. Some of the groups overlap. But for me, it’s always just been a great place to work.”
Fleming’s life as a working artist in Colorado has been long and rich—even removed as it’s been from mainstream currents. “I don’t have a lot of money. I never have. But if I have a place to stay, it works out.” Still, like anyone, he seems to have his share of regrets. “I worry about not having health insurance,” he said several times over the course of my stay.
Fleming still paints every morning, first thing—”even when I’m traveling,” he said. Behind his geodesic studio, a good-sized shack holds a large cache of paintings reveals the results of this fifty years of effort. He is pensive about his legacy as he shows this trove to me. “My situation (as an obscure artist) is deliberate. It doesn’t matter in the long run if people like my work or not. I seek a place always where the painting takes over. I’d hope the observer would have that experience, but that’s very individual. It’s the nature of people to like a different painting for different reasons. I think of painting as being a mirror for people—where they’re at.”