The road less traveled
Local artist hopes to use open road – and art – to open minds

The road less traveled
Missy Votel - 05/25/2017

Ringling Brothers may have pulled up stakes, but there’s a new circus about to roll out of the gates right here in Durango. And, if not the greatest show on Earth, it promises to at least be a really entertaining one. (Minus the live animals, of course).

Going by the no-less show-stopping and intriguing title, the “Moonhead Man Road Rocket Art Tour,” this “cross country art carnival” is the idea of local ringleader and artist, Jeff Wise.

In a nutshell, the tour will “use art and an old car as ambassadors of the open road, where we’ll talk about carburetors and Caravaggios, politics, Picasso and life on the home planet,” according to Wise, who bears more than a passing resemblance to the Moonhead Man himself (more on that in a minute).

Driving an old souped-up car (preferably a 1948 Buick Roadmaster, but something similar will suffice), Wise and his brother, Mike, will travel the countryside from Denver to Buffalo, N.Y., trailer in tow, with two sculptures bolted to the top. Not just any sculptures, mind you, but bronze-castings of two of Wise’s very own creations, the aforementioned Moonhead Man and his lovely counterpart of presumably female persuasion, Movumundo.

Along the way, they will talk with the folk (interviews will be posted on their blog), host art workshops (Wise is no slouch, with his work appearing in the Smithsonian, Museum of Modern Design in New York and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts), collect mementos to paste to the rocket ship, shovel manure and hay, and “meet mechanics in more places than they care to think about.”

In the tour’s grand fe?te, these two – the sculptures not the men – will be given away to the most deserving town somewhere along the route as a good will gesture to humankind. “If I’m in some town with a cafe? that makes really good pies, that might be the place,” says Wise of the criteria. “But most likely it will be whatever community ‘gets’ it, and says, ‘This is really cool.’ It could end up in some smaller jurisdiction, or a school. Or it could end up in a cornfield somewhere.”

Now, if your head is already spinning at the size of this nutshell, not to mention what the heck a Caravaggio is (16th Century Italian painter), then it’s time to take a trip past the giant floating question mark at the bottom of Wise’s driveway (no lie), up to the artist’s compound he shares with wife, Susan, and back in time.

This story, like many, begins with two boys and their bicycles. The year was 1968, and things, well, they were a lot looser back then – even in suburban Denver. That is where the Wise brothers – Mike, almost 16, and Jeff, 14 – grew up and hatched one of the best “Stand by Me” bro-ventures of all time.

heir father, Capt. Jim Wise, was packing the family truckster for the annual trip to the summer house in Buffalo – where Capt. Wise grew up – when they were informed there would be no room for the bikes.

“We said ‘Forget that, we’ll just ride out,’” Wise recalls.

Thus, armed with some travelers checks, a note from their parents on bank stationery saying it was OK to use said checks, some camping gear and presumably a map, they embarked on the 1,500 mile adventure. (Helmetless, if you must ask.)

Ah, the good old days.

Bear in mind, this was before coal-rolling, lycra and other things that can perceivably pit those on two wheels against those on four. Nope. Just two boys, some cut-off jeans and the open road. Oh, and a kitten in a backpack that “adopted them” along the way.

“In 1968, with the upheaval of Vietnam and the rock ’n’ roll revolution, two kids taking off on a 1,500 mile bicycle trip fit the zeitgeist of the times,” says Wise.

Also bear in mind, the Wises were no wussies either. “My dad said ‘go for it.’ He was really pretty adventurous,” says Wise. Among the Wises’ accomplishments was a winter ascent of all the 14ers in the San Juans, including a first ascent of Mount Wilson in 1971. “I was not particularly into freezing my ass off,” recalls Wise, who opted out of this adventure with his brother and dad. But he does count work on a cattle ranch near Kremmling and a potato farm in Scotland among his more character-building endeavors.

In fact, compared to these sufferfests, the 1968 tour was practically a cakewalk.

“We had bacon and eggs for 1,560 miles,” he says. “We camped out, but we frequently were invited to stay in people’s homes.”

And while the miles and saddle sores are nothing but a distant memory, it is the people they met en route to their destination – which, by the way, they made in two weeks – that stuck. Along the way, Wise kept a journal, where he jotted down people’s names and contact info. He also wrote about their encounters, like the waitress who, upon hearing of their trek, slipped them each a 10 spot under their plates. (They got her address and later repaid her.) Then there was the harrowing shimmy under a stopped freight train that was blocking their route. Half-way through passing the second bike under, the train rumbled to life. The boys escaped, but the journal did not. A few weeks later, it mysteriously showed up, mailed to them by the Burlington Northern section general who found it alongside the tracks.

Could it be, this was a kinder, gentler, united America? Where people went out of their way to help out a complete stranger, regardless of where they came from or what their story was? And more importantly, did this America – or these people – still exist?

Fast forward 50 years. Wise, after retiring from a lucrative career as a high-end jewelry artist with Susan – finds himself fighting for his life in a hospital from a bone infection. The country has a new president and seems more divided than ever. It is a low point for Wise, and many of his fellow Americans – and then the bright light comes on, while recuperating in the hot tub of all places.

There, under the stars of a San Juan sky, he had an epiphany. “It was just this amazing synchronicity. There was all this dismay over what was going on, and I thought, ‘I need to talk to these people. What are the issues? How did this happen?’ We’re all Americans,” he says.

And that’s when he knew he must hit the road again, retrace his journey of half a century ago, in search of the America he knew, loved and hoped was still out there.

“There shouldn’t be this huge stigma. That’s bad for the country,” he says. “On this bike trip, there were some incredible people we met. The people of the prairies showed us boundless generosity and kindness.”

And who knows? Maybe he will run into some of his old friends, like the waitress or the Burlington Northern guy, whose addresses he still has. “It’s certainly conceivable that those people would still be alive,” he says.

So, with his brother, and the aforementioned sculptures and classic car (they’ve admitted that doing it by bike at their age could be a bit daunting), the two hope to set out in the fall on their journey. That is if the kickstarter campaign starting May 30 to raise the estimated $50,000 comes through (see breakout box.)

Wise is confident it will – with the momentum building for the project before it has even left the gates. So far, the tour has a website (www.moonheadman.com), promotional movie (made with the help of an 11-year-old neighbor) and even its own theme song (written and sung by the multi-talented Wise himself.)

“I’ve already learned and discovered things I never would have dreamed of before I created this project,” he says.

Likewise, he is hoping to discover a similar interest in middle America. “I don’t think it’s going to be like some ‘lynch the freedom rider,’” says Wise. After all, he’s got art, children’s books and sculpting clay to hand out, and a wonderful gift of gab – he’s fluent in everything from fine art to cowboy to train hopping. And when all else fails, he’s got the great American equalizer: a car.

“The car will be a great ice-breaker out there in Kansas,” he says. And, in the words of Capt. Jim Wise all those years ago, sometimes you just gotta go for it. “I am all in on art, the struggle, the stretch, the juicy life carnival,” says Wise. “I am very confident that I’ll raise the money, but if I don’t, it’s already been a hell of a ride.


The road less traveled

The Wise brothers, Mike, left, and Jeff, and a very understand- ing mother (center) and kitten (far right) circa 1968 upon ar- rival in Buffalo, N.Y., from Denver./Photo courtesy Jeff Wise