“I swore I would never do this again,” says Kenny Be, laboring over dozens of boxes of prints and postcards and piles of colorful folders for his booth at the upcoming event.
What? The fair?
No, he laughs. “Art.”
He’s joking, but Denver would surely be worse off without Be showing the city its reflection in his distinctive funhouse mirror.
Starting in 1982, the Colorado native and CSU alum captured the life of the city and his own, warts and all, for nearly 30 years as staff cartoonist at Westword. Be left the alt-weekly to pursue his art down different avenues in 2011.
In the four years since, he’s done animated videos for a dentist in Greenwood Village, designed a book on the history of Stapleton, and illustration projects for a variety of clients. This year, he’s gone statewide with a fantastically detailed cartoon map of Colorado commissioned by the state’s tourism office.
He’s also does a lot of Denver-centric speculative work, including the Denver Neighborhood Seed Company.
An idea blooms
Denver County Fair organizers reached out to Be in 2011 to see if he wanted to do an art show at the inaugural event.
“They said, ‘You can show your comics,’” he says, a proposal he flatly rejected because he considers comics in gallery settings “pure torture.” “Comics are meant to be read at your dining room table with a cup of coffee.”
So Be dreamed up the Denver Neighborhood Seed Company.
“I’d always loved old seed packets,” he says of the concept. “And I’ve lived in Denver my whole life and people have always loved their neighborhood and people have always loved gardening.”
The intersection of these three loves is a series of Be’s interpretations of each neighborhood in vegetable form, like Five Points Beets (named for notable Beats with Denver ties, as in Cassady and Kerouac) and Overland Potato (there was once a big potato farm in southern Denver) and Stapleton Brussels Sprouts (the old control tower looks like a stalk).
He created 30 packets for the 2011 fair and added 30 more in the three years that followed. Be calls the project a “tremendous success.”
His personal favorites to date include Congress Park Cauliflower for the opportunity to draw the Denver Police and Fire Communications Center and Lincoln Park Asparagus for the chance to illustrate that particular vegetable.
There are 77 neighborhoods in Denver, he notes, as well as five additional “fiercely proud enclaves,” so he’s got 22 targets left in the city. “Alamo Placita is technically part of Speer, but they don’t consider themselves part of Speer,” he explains. Or Mayfair, technically part of Montclair.
Be is planning to draw the final 22 ‘hoods and sub-‘hoods by 2018 and round out the third and final series of 30 seed packets with a few Denver Mountain Parks. “I love the parks,” he says. Red Rocks Rhubarb, anyone?
Denver and beyond
For the 2015 Denver County Fair, Be is focused on promoting his Colorado map, with a slew of folders, stationery, and prints sporting its hectic imagery. The original piece was four feet by seven feet to accommodate everything from dinosaur tracks in Picketwire Canyonlands to The Tank in Rangely and every ski mountain in between.
Next he’s thinking of creating a Colorado travel guide with cartoons and maps detailing every corner of the state. He says he’s already got a good start with works created for projects past.
With the umpteenth boom in state history swelling to a crest, Be gets a little bit nostalgic. “I sometimes drive around LoDo and I think, ‘I miss Denver. I miss the solitude.’”
But the longtime Highland resident says change “is all Denver knows how to do. It’s always been a city that actively promotes itself. This is what it wants.”