Syntax Issue 10
Denver Syntax

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In ancient Rome, genius was a term allocated for that which inspired. It was considered to be a kind of guiding spirit that brought enchanted things into being. Genius wasn’t then something that was given to a man, it was about something earned. As it should be - genius is about what is brought into being – and more: how it is brought into being.

To the truth of this definition: Markham Maes has spent time with the genius. He has employed the world around him for his creations. More than that, he has navigated situations and located the appropriate conditions for his work to thrive. Genius is but one virtue Maes has employed in his lifelong cultivation of all skill sets.

Read closely: for the young and old artist alike – there are lessons in this story.

Denver’s Markham Maes invented who he was going to be. It was simple in theory – he always wanted to be an artist, but it was slow in forming: for what does that really mean, out and in the world? How do you actually make a living with art? As a kid he drew, frenetically, in front of a wildly interesting and supportive mother. In their house: Maes learned about Juxtapoz from his mother, when she bought him a copy. And he practically learned to read from graffiti journals, from Disney, from Jim Henson.

Once older, Maes’ roamed the streets with spray cans in his bag. He fell in love with graffiti and spent his time with those that it touched. Then, he saw a fine art show hanging at the Snake Pit and thought one simple thought: I could kill that. I’m going to start painting on canvases. And so, he began on that road to do just that and his now-famous moniker, Shitty Kitten, was born.

Like much about Maes, his work is a blend: of the free-flow and often wispy, cirrus clouds of graffiti murals to stark, sharp illustrative expression, words and phrases in his work and his trademark fantasy characters. His is a smudge of elegant: a Victorian grit, a royal dirtiness.

Maes is an odd mix of humanity: he is kind and supremely confident – but oddly, he doesn’t wax egomaniacal, nor cocky. He knows that people think well of his work. He will talk about that. He will talk about how people have taken to his ideas. He is not afraid of Shitty Kitten being talented. That’s what he was supposed to be. But, he also isn’t afraid of the idea that he could be better. And while he feels that he has a lot to prove, he knows that his sense of humility – born from his past – is more important than peacocking around town in new sneakers every week.

Maes life hasn’t been an easy one. And maybe the unusual sensibility for balance in his character is due to, in part, the fact that where he has found toil and storm he has also found peace and blessing. He had his first child when he was only 16. He has been an active, working parent since that age, and nothing has ever been more important than his kids, save his sense of family and Shantell - the woman that has been by his side for thirteen years. His is a unique dedication that never fell prey to the poison of adolescence and arrogance and a cocky sense of entitlement.

Here is where another axiom was given a place in Maes’ world, as the sneakers he now wears: Nothing great was ever achieved in comfort. What’s more? Nothing achieved without toil and adversity will resonate. Long frequencies, that span centuries, continue through the ether only because they are heard.

And really, it’s somewhere in here where Maes’ story finds more intrigue. When he was in high school, he worked at a screen printing company – just cleaning-up and scraping shirts, nothing glamorous. But then, when the company’s owners came to the staff and told them that they were going to close the shop unless one of them bought it, Maes asked, impossibly: for how much?

Ready, Willing and Able was what he bought. But he also bought a partner that, at the same time of his divorce – decided to blackmail him to get out of the business. Maes did what he could and severed ties. Now, he’s on his own, restructuring the business and giving it some new life by inventing what it is supposed to be about: Art or Die. Yes, that’s the name. And it tells you a lot about Maes’ resolve: Simple. Aggressive. No bullshit. Nope, not afraid. Yup, let’s go.

One important trait that Maes has carried with him surpasses ego and blends with our Roman notion of genius: When he was a kid, roaming the alleys, throwing-up murals and likewise admiring the talents of those around him – he never was afraid to ask and learn. Since he was a kid, he has been hungry, probably starving in moments, and so: he reached-out. He got better. He listened. He watched. He found the genius around him and tapped-in to it. Both in his art and his business – this has risen to form the tough upper crust of his ever-evolving, fearless exterior.

Maes works in several mediums. He’s not afraid to use absolutely everything he can find: pen, pencil, paper, wood, polyurethane, watercolor, spray paint and even needle and thread. Yes, for years now, Maes has prided himself on the fact that he sews. Question him about it and you’re likely to get a shrug and a big smile and look that says: yeah, I make cool shit…

Maes works quickly. It’s usually: several pieces at once. Working at night after playing with the kids and putting them to bed (his kids have grown-up, in large part, in his studios and screen print shop). He starts from his journals and what he has been carrying in his head. It’s raw. Not over-thought. He starts with a color palette and a background - typically spray paint and wispy lines of air that eventually frame what it is that comes to the fore of his psyche in that ferocious moment of conceptualization. Maes is about free-flow; opening the nozzle and letting it run – he is about big production and not holding back for any show that he is slammed to finish – all while, out and in the night, away from the beautiful moments in paint, away from his cans and brushes and perspiration, the truth is: he’s under pressure from the business, from life, from having mouths to feed and small minds to encourage and a heart to heal.

Maes recently received a great commission that blended his entire sea of skill: he was given a room to design at the Queen Anne Bed and Breakfast in Denver (see the gallery for images). And he did: he threw-up murals, gave the room some Victorian patterns and even sewed pillows in his effort to give the room a Shitty flavor.

All this talent and production and Maes hasn’t shown much in local galleries. It’s mostly their air and their flavor that disinterest them. They feel untrustworthy. They don’t feel like community. And so, Maes came-up with a different paradigm: He has spent his years hanging in accessible places. Places where people will see his work. Places where people can afford, and buy, his work. And he likes that aesthetic: he likes the idea that his work doesn’t need to be expensive. He wants it hanging in people’s homes. He wants to be able to use it for trade with other artists. Perhaps this is because he produces so much, always, always journaling and doodling and writing – but maybe it’s because of the ethic of the street: murals don’t live long. Everything is disposable. Temporary.

I like hardworking. And: Smart. Driven.

I like not afraid to ask questions. And: humble yourself.

I like seeing massive talent blended with kindness.

And I like what I see with Markham Maes.

Watch-out for next his next big project, a store front and all: Art or Die.