Colorado-based sculptor Don DeMott creates one-of-a-kind pieces that are inspired by scenic views in the Centennial State.
Before he gets into how he made a name for himself and how John Denver fits into everything, sculptor Don DeMott wants to talk about the family business that taught him and launched him. “DeMott Corporation — my family’s metal-sculpture company — had a 20-year run,” DeMott says from his studio in Loveland, Colorado, where he relocated in 1993 after falling in love with Colorado in the 1970s. At its height, his family’s California-based company had a crew of 80 people making thousands and thousands of pieces that were sold across the country in a successful gift line.
“A lot of people contact me today to confirm that they have a DeMott sculpture,” DeMott says. “Some people cherish and keep them; others choose to sell these 35- to 40-year-old pieces handed down from their parents.” Those vintage pieces show up on eBay and Etsy and in movies. “Movie prop houses have contacted me for permission to use one of our sailboats on a shelf or on a desk as a backdrop. I’ve spotted them in episodes of Cops when they are filming in someone’s home, and more recently in the movie Ted. In the ’80s the TV show Dallas contacted us to purchase 20 of my gold-plated oil derricks to decorate the tables in the Cattlemen’s Club, where they shot many scenes. And the White House even called to get a declared value on a DeMott sculpture that had been given as a gift during the Reagan administration.”
While still working his day job designing for the family business, DeMott would spend his free time creating his own projects. “After work, I would go back into the shop and play. Something I learned early: Never give up on a sculpture,” he says remembering a particular turning point when perseverance paid off in a new direction for his career: “I was building an airplane and working on the skeleton of the fuselage, which I was going to wrap in metal. It wasn’t working and I got frustrated and threw it into the rock pile. When I picked it up, it was crushed, but it came alive. I painted it in German colors and added some bullet holes and a skeleton of the pilot hanging out of the cockpit. I set it on a desk, where a sales rep saw it and said, ‘My boss was shot down in WWII — I’ve got to have this piece!’ So he bought it, just like that.”
That bit of serendipity set DeMott on a path of creating his own original sculptures — in the early days, everything from airplanes to sunken pirate ships to carousel horses. These days, his custom sculptures tend toward Western rustic: old freight wagons, zigzag or split rail fences, wagon wheels, old mine remnants, and Indian tepees. Whatever he’s creating, though, the piece will include his signature aspen trees.
To make his trees, which can be as tall as 3 feet, DeMott has evolved a meticulous method that starts with digging through piles of alabaster mined in Colorado and then sees him chipping, pressure washing, drilling, sculpting, welding, painting, gluing, sealing, drying, and, finally, signing the work. An astonishing, even onerous, amount of hand detail goes in to each one-of-a-kind piece. The process is so time- and labor-intensive it sounds almost antithetical to the creative inspiration underlying it. But ask DeMott about the universal attraction to aspens and you discover the poetic heart that is the source of his focused devotion to rendering them in his art.
“The stark white trunks with the black eyes and their vivid fall colors. The way the leaves quake or shimmer in the breeze. The way they grow in groves by the thousands in high altitude with the majestic Rocky Mountains as the backdrop. When collectors call me about my work, it’s usually the first thing they bring up — how my sculptures take them back to Colorado, where they have such fond memories of how striking the aspens were in the fall, whether they were just driving through, on vacation, or have a second home here. If you have ever flown over the Rockies in the fall, it looks like the mountains are on fire with no smoke.”
It wasn’t a hunting or fishing trip or a second home in the mountains that drew DeMott to the Rockies — it was John Denver. “He inspired me to come to Colorado and see what he was singing about,” he says.
Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” had come out in 1972. Seven years later, its lyrics imprinted on him, DeMott was driving back to his then-home in California from Texas and decided to take a scenic route through southern Colorado. There he saw aspen trees covering the countryside, and the inspiring sight changed his life. He began working on a way to re-create the beautiful trees in metal.
Initially, DeMott’s aspens were bare winter trees since he hadn’t yet figured out how to fabricate leaves. It was the first of these winter aspen sculptures that he donated in 1981 to an auction benefiting John Denver’s Windstar Foundation. Exploring the auction site before the evening’s event and needing help with directions, DeMott ran into a helpful stranger almost disguised in a bulky winter coat, hat, and sunglasses; it turned out to be Denver. “At the auction that night, my first aspen piece was sold in a lot that included an original landscape photograph taken by John Denver. There’s a photograph of John Denver holding up my very first aspen sculpture.”
Following Denver’s example, DeMott would spend his summer vacations in the 1980s camping in Colorado and photographing the aspens. All the while, he was working on his process for sculpting the trees, eventually launching a gift line called Colorful Aspens in 1989; he retired the line in 2001 and began focusing solely on the originals he creates today.
He’s been in Loveland for almost 30 years now.
“To this day, I am still in awe when I see the fall colors of the massive aspen groves high in the Rockies,” DeMott says. “Just before sundown, when the angle of the sun is just right, thousands of aspens of yellow, orange, red, and splashes of light green glow as if someone flipped on a light switch. Seeing this recently, I had to pull over, get out of my truck, and catch my breath. I looked in another direction where this mountain was already in shadow and saw fall colors forming a stripe, winding down the mountain, tightly surrounded by thousands of pines. It was a streambed from the snowmelt where aspens grew along both sides of the water. Within a few minutes, a sculpture and title came to me: River of Fire. I said to myself, ‘Well, my work is done here,’ and I got back in my truck and drove on.”
Find Don DeMott’s sculptures on his website, demottaspentrees.com.
From our October 2021 issue
Photography: (All images) courtesy Don DeMott