Chrome Plated Visionary
A bottle of Montepulciano red wine sits on a polished aluminum step of the 1944 Beech C18 airplane fuselage that Sean Guerrero has converted into a camper trailer—it looks like a space ship from a 1950s science fiction movie.
On a perfect Crested Butte day with billowy clouds ambling along in a bluebird sky, Sean sits in a 1960s-era red velvet Mediterranean-style chair alongside the shiny time machine, which overlooks the panorama of mountains up at the cemetery. He’s parked in a secluded place, away from the curious crowds. A few eagle-eyed tourists find their way up, having spied the gleaming plane from the highway.
Sean graciously receives them with a friendly smile, answering all their many questions and inviting them to explore the interior, with its cockpit fully intact with dials, gauges and both pilot and co-pilot yokes. The ongoing conversion is a stunning work in progress.
Downtown, many thousands of visitors every year have been snapping photos of one of Sean’s most recognized sculptures for decades, the locally revered and massive chrome Knight and Dragon that sits at the town’s entrance in the far southern tip of the park. There are huge chrome horses, unique benches and avant-garde sculptures easily identifiable as Sean’s creations throughout town. While he was inspired by art and specific artists, Sean’s innovative style developed from a brief but educational bout of juvenile delinquency.
His father was in logistics in the Air Force strategic air command, stationed in Iceland, so his mom went to live with her mother in Philadelphia, where Sean was raised from the age of four. He wound up in Colorado when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and a celebrity intervened to get him into the best respiratory hospital in the nation.
“I had an uncle named Guy Marx, but his real name was Mario Scarpa. He traveled around on the circuit with the Rat Pack” (yes, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop), he says.
Sean says it was through his Uncle Mario that Frank Sinatra arranged to get Sean into the National Jewish Hospital in Denver.
“Frank had TB when he was young and so he was a major benefactor for the hospital. I was four years old and I went for treatment for five years, and I was monitored closely. I was put in quarantine for about four months and I still remember those glass block walls and the nurses with white uniforms, white shoes, white stockings and those hats.”
Sean’s dad got a transfer to Lowry Air Force Base from Iceland, and Sean remembers, “All around me was military in Morris Heights in Aurora. It was a traditional early 1960s development of houses, where young military families could afford to buy something. It was big open fields, lots of room, and interesting, weird people, from a child’s perspective.”
Sean did all the fun stuff kids do growing up—building forts, riding stingray bikes, and catching snakes. “We’d also imitate the more bizarre characters in the neighborhood, throwing dirt clods on their patios and making fun of them. I wasn’t a hoodlum—I was a mischief maker,” he laughs.
Sean’s interests were cars, hotrods, just for their aesthetics, and he cites the inspirations of his younger days. “Those old cars from the 1950s looked like they had these faces,” he describes the grills and headlights of those 40-weight gas guzzlers. “There was always some cool guy in the neighborhood who had his hair greased back and was named something like Chet or Lyle and he looked just like his car, or his car looked like him, and he was a cool dude. He knew how to fix things and thwarted authority in a good way. So those cars stuck in my brain.”
Out of boredom, the teenage Sean indulged in a little vandalism. “Stupid things like stealing mag wheels and things that you do with your friends to get a cheap thrill but is illegal,” he says. “We were smoking terrible weed. I got busted stealing some skateboards from a shop with a couple of friends and ended up spending a couple of nights in the slammer and then having to work at a crappy restaurant to pay restitution. I was around 18 and I thought, this is pretty stupid, I don’t want to get into any more trouble. At that point on I started finding things, objects, walking through alleys and fields and just kind of assembling them into creative little sculptures.”
Sean was a major science fiction fan of both films and books from the early 1940s to the 1960s, and shows like Star Trek and movies like Planet of the Apes got him thinking beyond any boundaries. He didn’t have a career direction at the time but scavenging for objects to create pieces was his entry into the world of art on a professional level.
“In high school, one of the artists that mesmerized me was Alexander Calder, who started the whole mobile movement. His work was brilliant and playful. The two things that stuck in my brain were that I liked the way he could construct from rudimentary metallic materials and also all of his sculptures had this childlike feeling about them. They weren’t something you really had to analyze like other artists of the day. He was the same period as Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, Robert Raushenberg. One thing I was mesmerized by was his large stone studio in Connecticut and as he became more famous, he was able to construct a large studio in southern France.”
Sean attended Aurora Tech Institute in 1979 and then Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. “At that time there was the van craze, when people were painting murals on vans, so I was getting into painting murals on vans to make side money while in school. A lot of people were painting with spray cans and stencils but I wanted to step it up a notch. I learned that the really good muralists were painting with airbrushes. A lot of the album covers of the day for bands like the Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Yes, and Emerson Lake and Palmer used cover artists who were all very good at airbrush illustrations,” he says. That same method is used in mechanical illustration, which he had taken a course in.
Because of his sculptures and the clientele who have invested in his art for their private collections, Sean had the opportunity to network with the so-called rich and famous. “I’ve always recognized and tried to appreciate what they tell me in suggesting how to go about life. It could be anyone, from a countess in France, Madame LeRochefacoud, to Kirk Douglas or Jack Palance. In the 1980s, if I had a sculpture at their house they’d invite me over for dinner with some other people,” he says, and it was at one of those soirees that he was introduced to a woman in the TV series St. Elsewhere who had seen a piece of Sean’s work in Denver.
“She contacted me and told me of a show that took place in Beverly Hills, and helped arrange for me to exhibit there and that’s when I made my initial push to Beverly Hills with my sculptures. They’d invite me over to their little public get-together to display the new acquisition they had bought from me. Los Angeles is actually a small town, socially, it’s just very hard to get into behind that door.”
Sean’s sculptures throughout the 1980s and mid-90s were horse-themed and things that would appeal and attract the eye. He explains, “It is what it is, it’s not cerebral.”
Sean traveled back and forth to Colorado but he wound up living in Crested Butte in 1991, after a breakup with a girlfriend. “I ran into Andy Bamberg [another metal sculptor], who I knew. I was down and out and needed a change and Andy said come up to Crested Butte with me. I stayed at Pat O’Neil’s for a week reading Charles Bukowski’s Hollywood. Then Andy and I decided to get a shop together. I was there until 2001.”
It was 1994 when Sean first went to Paris to visit his aunt. “I still had my shop in Crested Butte but I wanted to do something different when I turned 40 and a lot of things came together at the right time. I had saved some money from sculpture sales and I had become friends with a part-time resident of Crested Butte, Henry Stuart, who owned a chateau winery in the Dordogne region of France. He was giving a party in France for an heiress who also lived in Crested Butte and I attended this event.
“It was while I was there that I wondered what it would be like to own a little farmhouse and live in that region. After the party, friends of Henry started driving me around Dordogne to look at farmhouses. Eventually we came upon a Frenchman who was throwing all this furniture into a big fire pile. When the man realized I was American, he asked if I would like to buy a farmhouse. He was cleaning out his aunt’s house and it was coming up for sale. I paid $60,000 American for seven hectares, which is a little under seven acres, right in the heart of wine country. I had English, American and Dutch neighbors and a Buddhist colony below me.”
Sean smiles about picking up monks at the train station to give them a ride to their monastery. “There was a lot of history there, behind me was a big chateau where the Nazis hung out in WWII. I’d visit my aunt in Paris,” and spend some days going to the markets in the little villages around his house. “It was a whole different world,” which he enjoyed.
During the time Sean was entrenched in his French country life, he’d return to Colorado to work on his sculptures and sell his artwork stateside for income. “I was still working on my U.S. commissions in Colorado. I sold the French house in 2008 because after 12 years of having it and being in France off and on, it was like living a book. I lived all those experiences that you would read about and that book was done and it was time to move on.”
When Sean’s mother became ill, he moved her and his father from Denver to Montana so they could get proper medical care. “I moved there too in 2010. After Mom passed away, Dad got sick too, and I decided to stay and do my artwork there.”
He did well, visiting Crested Butte and selling his sculptures throughout Colorado. People and clients have seen his work on TV and in various magazines, like Modern Marvels, all of which have helped get him more commissions to do more of his art. Others have seen his larger pieces in private homes and then commission Sean to do a piece for them also. Some pieces are bought from people’s private collections and estates.
“And finally, it’s really strange,” he says of the fate of one of the early benches he created in Crested Butte, “the bench is now sitting in the Booth Museum of Western Art in Georgia, sponsored by the Smithsonian and on permanent display because it was donated by an older couple who had it, all because of a Pontiac hub cab with the Indian head logo from the 1940s.”
Sean recalls another serendipitous occurrence with a different Pontiac emblem he had found on the Blackfoot Indian Reservation while collecting some bumpers for a horse sculpture. “I had found some other pieces of chrome from old cars, along with a Pontiac emblem that later went into a big chrome buffalo skull, that through a set of circumstances was later given to Neil Young while he was touring. At that time, while I was mowing my farmhouse yard in France, I received a message from Neil. When he saw the buffalo skull was chrome and had the Pontiac emblem on the cranium of the skull, it was something that reverberated in his psyche. He loves chrome, he loves old cars, he has a buffalo ranch and he likes Pontiacs. Although I never met Neil, I learned he made it into his guitar stand.”
The plane Sean has made his travel home came out of an old junkyard, “an aircraft salvage yard that I used to go to as a kid,” he says. “They had these really cool old aircraft and they were going to scrap a few of these.” He couldn’t fathom letting them destroy a piece of art in its own right.
“It’s such a beautiful thing,” he says. And after he rescued it and brought it to his studio, he added some period vintage auto parts to the plane body, adding character to the flying machine he calls the Silver Bomber, or he may name it the Silver Cloud. “It’s an elegance you’re not going to see anymore these days.”
Last month, Sean moved his studio and workshop to the town just over Kebler Pass. “Paonia is my girlfriend and you can see I’m not with her right now,” he laughs, enjoying Crested Butte from his velvet throne set up at the cemetery. Looking far up the valley reflected in the mirrored plane fuselage, he nods, soaking in the glory of a mountain summer day.
Here in Crested Butte, he seems at home. “We’re sitting in a postcard amongst former persons and the remains of their DNA here in the graveyard, realizing our mortality and knowing for a fact that we will continue adding to the town’s DNA. And what more can one ask for in this postcard that we sit in? We have to contemplate the existence we currently have here as Crested Buttians,” he ponders.
“You don’t have to be rich to be rich. Not having the physical aspects of wealth has allowed us to recognize the random acts of an impromptu situation and benefit from it.” He laughs and under his breath, whispers, “From the minds of madmen…”