Dewey-Over

The resurrection of St. Louis visionary Dewey Dempsey

In the winter of 1981, artist Dewey Dempsey Jr., 39, one-time apprentice of sculptor Henry Moore, current resident of the Tivoli Apartments (the same building that now houses the RFT offices), was found by neighbors throwing up and "making noises." He was admitted to County Hospital, and while in the doctors' tender care, he suffered cardiac and respiratory arrest exacerbated by years of heavy drinking. And for a brief time, Dewey Dempsey was dead. It didn't take.

Resuscitated by a nurse, Dempsey re-emerged into the world a somewhat different man. Friends say his memory was spotty, and he had to relearn many things. He struggled with language and reading, but the drive to create was undiminished. He eventually regained his cognitive skills, married, started a family and began work on what his friend Bill Christman calls "his heroic sculptures." In this period Dempsey also produced drawings, paintings and eventually a book, Ratification of Prophecy -- and, despite occasional lapses of productivity, Christman believes that this second half of Dempsey's life was a more fertile period than the first.

For years Dempsey had been a collector, a stockpiler of scavenged items. In the '70s he had lived on a commune in a cave lined with bottles. Now, he filled studios with "animal skulls, feathers, rocks, marbles, anything that caught his eye," according to his wife, Nina. He incorporated these items into his work, first creating assemblages and later large sculptures that he epoxied together or had someone else weld for him. These works were scattered across the city, in friends' backyards or studios. Dempsey's works have a childlike or primitive sense, owing in part to their source material and ramshackle construction, but also because of the artist's fondness for moon-like faces and stick figures. But while the work may imply a childlike simplicity, Dempsey was not a child. He understood that there was no "forever"; things will not last, and there are hints of that in his work -- not a grim sense of entropy, but an acceptance that this is the natural order of things. His sculptures often fell apart, owing to the difficulty of welding over epoxy, but Dempsey didn't mind. Christman says that Dempsey seemed to enjoy the almost immediate decline; it was built into the work.

A Dewey Dempsey original, captured forever in its 
natural state of decay.
A Dewey Dempsey original, captured forever in its natural state of decay.

On July 12, 2003, Dewey Dempsey Jr. passed away. His friends and supporters have collected his existing works for a retrospective at the City Museum (701 North 15th Street; 314-241-2389; free with museum admission). Redemption, a celebration of the life and work of Dewey Dempsey, opens on Friday, June 4, and remains on display through September 1.

Strangely yet fittingly, new work inspired by Dempsey's vast output and, more important, by his vast life has appeared in a hidden corner of University City. Tucked away in an alley, not far from where Dempsey suffered the initial great disruption in his life, a small wall bears an assemblage of tin toys, rusty metal and a simple wooden plaque. A primitive human face, made of scraps of wood, smiles beside a quiet reminder carved into the wood: "La Dui est Mort." Not for the first time but, unfortunately, for the final time.

 
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