Storyteller sculptor Garman carves a colorful life
By Becky Hurley
He’s a familiar figure here in Colorado Springs.
Just stop by the Michael Garman Gallery in Old Colorado City where the Pikes Peak region’s legendary sculptor demonstrates a few of Magic Town’s elusive hologram illusions for a mom and her two preschoolers. Or watch as he signs a new cowboy piece for visiting Kansas fan, Gary Plumer who’s adding it to his six Garman Cowboy and two Mountain Men collection. Michael Garman never met a stranger.
Keeping up with artist – now in his eighth decade – isn’t easy. A visionary with a flair for the theatrical, Garman first began work on Magic Town’s 23 uniquely crafted scenes in the mid-70s. Ten years and one million dollars later, he admits it’s still a work in progress. With help from family and a skilled production team, he’s incorporating LED lights and fresh sound effects to add to Magic Town’s original back alleys, bars and 20-plus patina’d brick buildings. He’ll also add videos and new hologram lighting to the project’s dozen or so streetscapes. Garman obviously enjoys scene engineering.
“There’s not another Magic Town anywhere. I never know where we’ll go next, but it will be done one loving moment at a time,” he says. “Magic Town is me.”
Upstairs in his studio you’ll find a handful of in-progress clay figures on his bench. They reflect characters from all walks of life. One example is Sarah Rose, a statuesque gal in a cowboy hat and cut-offs that reminds him of a woman (or women) he’s known.
“I’ve been working on her for 15 years or so,” he says.
A clue to what drives Michael Garman lies in his early years. His parents – especially his Dad – were supportive of their son who as a child created detailed toy soldiers out of pipe cleaners and hand-sewn uniforms. These early characters became “dear friends” he says. Longtime public relations director and autobiographer Mary Koehler describes how he took off in his 20s for a series of adventures.
“In 1959, he left for Mexico with $35 in his pocket and a Nikon camera for what he thought would be a two-week sojourn,” she writes. “When his money ran out, he would charm his way into a restaurant, offering to sweep the floor … for a bit to eat or drink.”
More often than not, the owner gave him a meal and a place to sleep. During those years roaming through Central and South America he was able to talk his way into the School of Fine Art in Santiago, Chile where he realized his talent for sculpting. He started creating sculptures of the fascinating folks he’d met, selling them door to door. The money was good, but he missed being surrounded — as he is today — by his “little pals.”
Michael Garman eventually moved back to the U.S., setting up a studio in San Francisco before he coming to Colorado Springs in 1971. His Bay Area experience inspired many of his later Magic Town Scenes featuring street people huddling to stay warm, pool players and down-to-earth working folks.
“Man, I landed in the center of wino town,” he told Koehler. “I loved it.”
Today, the artist’s collection includes more than 500 individual sculptures, 100+ props, mini-figures and accessories. Among his most popular: a series honoring American heroes from all walks of life – military, first responders, law enforcement, doctors and more. Prominent collectors have included names like President Ronald Reagan and John Elway.
This spring – even with a long list of projects ahead – Garman is energized. That’s because he’s been given a second chance at life – a clean bill of health.
“In 2008, they told me I had two years to live,” he says. Shocked by the diagnosis, he moved quickly to try to finish Magic Town.
Ultimately, however, he had to move to lower altitude in California. Fortunately, while there, the ailing storyteller sculptor met with a top San Diego University medical team who identified – and performed surgery — to correct the problem. A decade later he’s back to work.
“It’s amazing,” he says. “I feel great.”