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Remarkable Residents of Huerfano County Dean Fleming; Free as a bird… Part one: The Early Years

by Mary-Ann Brandon

Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom ~Albert Einstein~

Without an expectation that he was dropping out, Huerfano County’s celebrated visual artist, Dean Fleming, left the money driven art world of NYC and built his Colorado utopia to simply be free to create. Still enjoying a cult following in 2012, he continues to be a prolific painter who remains entirely too obscure but largely content.
With no hesitation, and for more than six hours, Dean Fleming told the story of his journey in life so far. Sitting in his spartanly furnished geodesic dome that serves as both his home and studio, he started at the beginning.
Born in Venice, California in 1933, his early life was profoundly informed by the circumstances of the Great Depression. Fleming remembers, “It was a very simple time with no emphasis on materialism”. He recounts how close his family was during these tough economic years. After the depression he observed folks striving for more and better possessions and growing further apart. “People were miserable,” he says, and from that point forward, his life has been about living fully rather than collecting stuff.
He suggests that his primary influences were cartoons. In fact he says, “All of my paintings have been caricatures or cartoon-like”. Not inclined to follow in the footsteps of the laborious style of the Dutch masters, Fleming began to dip his brushes into primary colored paint at an early age. Inspired by the spontaneity of free Jazz music, his art follows a similar philosophical idea. Saying that his thumbs get in his way, he draws and paints within the confines of what he can comfortably do with honesty and without concern for commercial trends.
A pacifist by nature, Dean talks of being drafted and sent to the Korean War for two years. In his words, “it was really hideous”. He stayed in trouble for his peaceful stance and as soon as he could exit he headed straight for Mexico where he met a guy who told him to go to San Francisco and look up the “Six Gallery”. Enrolling in art school for the first time, Fleming forged life long bonds with the some of the other students. His teachers at art school hated New York and told him not to go there. Ignoring this warning, at his first opportunity, he went directly to Manhattan. Once there, several of his California friends followed and together they began to develop their own scene.
He got a building downtown on Park Place for $35 per month and proceeded to fill it up with his compatriots. When the word got out that something interesting was happening in this funky building, the foot traffic became untenable and the artists went together to create a public space where they could show their work and have music as an alternative to the conventional New York galleries. The group rented a storefront that became the first gallery in Soho for the sum of $100 per month. Ten artists shared this space and soon the word got out and the art world began to take notice.
The shapes and grids of the city were a powerful influence on Fleming at this point and he began to paint in geometric patterns. Becoming known as “the parallelogram painter” and being asked to constantly reproduce in this style was not how he wanted to proceed. When he was asked to take a teaching job at Carnegie Tech. in Pittsburg, he packed up and left New York. This job allowed him to save a pile of money by living in his usual starkly simple style. When he left Pittsburgh, he took off for Europe and North Africa where he hitchhiked across the Sahara desert in the middle of summer, eventually winding up in Greece. There he was able to rent a large house in Lesbos, far away from tourists. He proceeded to paint until his money ran out. Missing New York, he left Greece and traveled to Italy, Paris and London before taking a Norwegian freighter back to the United States.
Next week: Part two of Dean Fleming: Free as a bird…

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