It’s hard to miss the crowd of colorful wooden statues decorating the south side of U.S. Highway 160 just outside Mancos, although their creator says drivers rarely stop to investigate.
Dave Sipe, a folk artist who specializes in chain saw carvings, has lived and worked in the Mancos Valley for about 18 years. During that time, he’s transformed his house and the surrounding property into a colorful, chaotic museum, featuring hundreds of wooden statues and pieces of furniture that line the fence around the house and spill out from sheds and trailers.
The carver’s work can be seen all over the U.S., but he’s left a significant mark on Montezuma County, where his work is displayed in public places from Mancos Schools to Southwest Memorial Hospital.
Originally from Minnesota, Sipe spent much of his adult career traveling around the country with his partner in art, Nancy Segel. He created several pieces of public art that are still on display in places like the Mall of America in Minnesota and the Harley Davidson Headquarters in Wisconsin. He’s shown work at galleries in Durango, Telluride, and Sedona, Arizona.
He said he and Nancy decided to settle down in Montezuma County because it didn’t have a building code. He wanted his studio and museum to resemble his work, which is made from recycled materials and often appears asymmetrical and cartoonish.
“I’m not a perfectionist,” he said. “I’m not anatomically or politically correct in anything I do.”
Sipe likes to say his artistic career began with his habit of “smearing crap on the walls” as a baby. Later in life, he dabbled in other media, such as paint and bronze, but settled on wood carving as his preferred art form. It’s more challenging than many other types of sculpting, he said, but it also gives the artist plenty of freedom. He uses dead wood that he finds on his property or in the surrounding county, and allows its shape to determine how the sculpture will look.
Bears are a common sight in the museum, and so are birds – especially eagles, ravens and roadrunners. Sipe said those sculptures tend to sell well.
But he also has a wide variety of more unusual statues. A giant hula dancer he carved while living in the Northwest stands next to a mural of the Virgin Mary. Crude caricatures of Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and other political figures can be found alongside superheroes and cartoon characters.
Segel, a physical therapist with an office in Cortez, often does finishing work on Sipe’s sculptures. She also provides him with much-needed supervision and moral support, he said.
He regularly works about 40 hours a week, despite being semi-retired, but the museum doesn’t have regular hours. Whenever Sipe is home, which he said is usually in the morning and evening, he’s happy to show visitors around. But he said visitors are relatively rare.
“Everybody drives by (and says) ‘We’ve got to stop there someday,’” he said. “Everybody is aware that it’s here, but they’re not aware of how much work is here.”
For those who don’t venture out to his museum, Sipe’s work can be seen in various places around Montezuma County. He carved the totem pole outside the Mancos Schools Performing Arts Center and the memorial sculpture at what was once the Ron Kotarski playground in Dolores, before it was torn down.
His work is also displayed regularly at Absolute Bakery.
With a few exceptions, like the hula dancer, all the sculptures in the Sipe museum were carved within the past 18 years. Sipe said he has more ideas for sculptures than he has time to work on them.
“You wake up with fun ideas and go, ‘Well, we’ll try and get them started today,’” he said. “There’s a lot of unfinished stuff. The older you get, the more you realize, ‘I’m not going to finish everything I did.’”
More information about Sipe’s work and museum can be found on his website, davesipe.com.