When artist Jeff Gipe talks about his sculpture Cold War Horse – a renegade art piece he created to protest the construction of a toll road and housing development near the former plutonium plant and Superfund site Rocky Flats – it sounds as though he’s reading from the pages of a John Grisham novel.
Indeed the entire Rocky Flats’ story reads like a made-for-Hollywood movie, replete with leaking drums of nuclear waste, FBI raids, and so-called government cover-ups.
“That’s the thing about Rocky Flats,” says Gipe. “You can’t know one thing. It’s like this ever-widening scope where you have one question, and then you’ve got ten more.”
Located near Arvada, Colorado, Rocky Flats produced plutonium triggers for use in nuclear weapons from 1951 to 1989. Through its operational period the plant was plagued with accidents, including the two fires in 1957 and ’69 that distributed plumes of plutonium-laced smoke across Colorado’s Front Range. After an investigation revealed supervisors had failed to abide by environmental laws, the FBI raided the plant in 1989. The site was subsequently turned into a superfund site and later a wildlife refuge.
Calling Arvada home for much of his life, Gipe got an up-close-and-personal view of the mysterious facility. “I remember as a kid it being this sort of ominous, hidden place,” says Gipe. “It was almost like there was this hidden city there. We would constantly see this orange glow that came from the plant.” Gipe’s father worked at Rocky Flats as a maintenance supervisor for twenty years and eventually acquired Parkinson’s disease, which he always attributed to working at the plant. Despite his father’s occupation, Gipe – like most residents – had no idea that plutonium triggers were being produced inside the Cold-War facility. “A lot of people thought they made dish products or something like that for years,” Gipe recalls.
But on one rare occasion Gipe did get an insider’s view. In a bizarre version of take-your-child-to-work day, Gipe was allowed inside. “There were tanks rolling around, armed guards everywhere. All this stuff was a complete shock to me,” Gipe remarks. “I just remember partially being terrified but also really intrigued too.”
Rocky Flats imagery has a palpable presence in Gipe’s sculptures, drawings and etchings, which depict everything from plutonium buttons to the glove boxes workers used to handle radioactive material. Cool, detached, and industrial, Gipe’s aesthetic is almost Dickensian. Mediums like steel wool, metal and wire figure heavily. Industry is an important theme for Gipe: “The remnants of industry and how we have used and abused the land is everywhere in Colorado,” he says. “Industry and technology aren’t inherently evil but often times monetary gain overrides safety and environmental concerns.”
Current Controversies in Colorado and Beyond
Standing beneath the granite pillars of the southern Rocky Mountains, Rocky Flats is framed by swaths of blonde prairie grass and several small creeks. With purportedly 300 days of sunshine a year, the area seems like paradise. Located well within the burgeoning Denver metro area, the land is highly desirable for real-estate developers and homebuyers alike.
But after Rocky Flats’ closure, many were uncertain whether the surrounding land was safe for development. A disagreement between experts ensued, mainly between Dr. Carl Johnson – a former Jefferson County health director who claimed contamination near Rocky Flats was forty-four times higher than that reported by the government – and government scientists. Johnson was criticized over the validity of his protocol. He was eventually forced to resign, though he continued to oppose development on land near the plant. In 1979 the Rocky Flats Advisory Notice informed new residents of potential hazards, but the notice was discontinued in 1982.
Now, after years of restrictions, the EPA has declared lands surrounding Rocky Flats to be safe for development. Today several new subdivisions have been built nearby and plans exist to build a toll road directly through land formally occupied by the plant, leading to concerns among activists about the disruption of plutonium particles by construction activity. While the EPA has reported that measurable levels of plutonium do not pose a significant risk, its reports have not assuaged the fears of activists and concerned residents.
Fears like these are precisely what inspired Gipe to erect his now-infamous Cold War Horse outside the Candelas development, a new subdivision that rose seemingly overnight on land known as “Operable Unit 3.” Gipe’s larger-than-life horse, which sports a bright-red hazmat suit, was his contribution to a series of protests sponsored by the Candelas Glows activist organization. When he and fellow activists handed out fliers during Candelas’ grand opening, he knew he had to create something that would get people’s attention. “It was a shock to see how much had been built out there,” Gipe recalls. “It’s totally pristine, beautiful land; no marker there would tell you there’s anything going on. Once I talked to people and realized that some of them had no idea Rocky Flats had even existed, and that they had already put money down on these houses, I thought wow, we really need to be here.”
Cold War Horse isn’t the first time Gipe’s used the horse image – in fact many of his works capitalize on the animal’s pathos. “It’s funny coming to making horses after being from Colorado. Out there that’s possibly the cheesiest thing to pick,” Gipe jokingly remarks. “But getting a little bit of distance from Colorado and being out here [in Brooklyn], I kind of took the bronco on as this sort of mascot. This idea that it’s an unbroken or partially broken mustang; this idea of a free horse, or at least partially free horse – this horse that’s hard to tame.”
For Gipe the horse is a symbol of the American West and the ideal of freedom. His thoughts on freedom are greatly influenced by photographer Robert Adams, who featured the Denver metro area in his book The New West. “Everyone thinks Colorado is this free sprit,” Gipe says speaking of Adams, “but for Adams, he found through his photography and living there that it’s not as free as you might think. You go there and you’re still in the same structures – you’re still bound by the same society.”
And the United States too is not as free as one might think. For Gipe the American West represents a larger narrative about the way U.S. citizens see themselves, mainly as “free.” But U.S. freedom is only a partial freedom, and the story of the American West is a mythology – one laden with the irony that those burdened with power often use the abstract notion of freedom to restrict actual freedom. U.S. citizens accept NSA spying, stop and frisk, and laws like the Patriot Act because they fear terrorists or criminals might take their freedom away – but in the end those are the very policies that actually end up violating their freedom.
As a Brooklyn resident Gipe has observed stop and frisk firsthand. “I’ve never seen a bigger police force in my life,” he says. “Over the last five years I’ve just seen an amazing amount of police brutality and corruption.” The New York policing policy became his inspiration for his Stop-and-Frisk MetroCard, which he created for Single Fare 3, an exhibit featuring artwork on New York City subway tickets. Gipe’s stop-and-frisk design drew a huge response from viewers and also on social media, impressing upon Gipe art’s capacity to affect change. “It’s created a lot of really interesting discussion. I love that about that piece,” Gipe says.
While MetroCard continues to inspire important discussions about stop-and-frisk, Gipe hopes works like Cold War Horse will reignite interest in Rocky Flats. “Rocky Flats is completely invisible now,” he says, urging all of us to stay informed about the Cold War relic. “The threat to public safety will exist long after the half-life of plutonium (24,065 years) but the memory of Rocky Flats is fading fast. It has a rich history we must cherish and keep alive because the lessons it has to offer are too valuable to forget.”
To see more of Jeff Gipe’s art, visit the Tikkun Daily Art Gallery and go to the artist’s website
Annie Pentilla has an MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State University. She co-edits Highway 101 Press and interns at Tikkun. Her work has appeared in Improv 2009: Anthology of Colorado Poets and Read This.