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This massive new public art piece at 6th and Federal is built to last 300 years

“La Veleta” is a 40-foot totem pole, dreamed up by artist Jaime Molina

“La Veleta” features seven animal heads, all hand-tiled by artist Jaime Molina.
“La Veleta” features seven animal heads, all hand-tiled by artist Jaime Molina.

Quirky, crafted and visible from blocks away, Denver’s just-installed sculpture, “La Veleta,” has all the makings of a public art icon, one that could hold fast for hundreds of years as the city grows and evolves around it.

At least that’s the hope.

The 40-foot totem pole, dreamed up by artist Jaime Molina, stands tall at the crucial intersection of 6th Avenue and Federal Boulevard where tens of thousands of cars pass by every day. As a roadside attraction, it’s hard to miss.

The towering work has a broad, organic appeal. A stack of abstract, mosaic animal heads, it’s definitely kid-friendly. But because all of these animals — seven of them, with a bear at the top, a buffalo at the bottom — are native to Colorado, and some are endangered, the sculpture is likely to connect with everyone concerned about the way humans have cared for the natural world in the West. Just a few weeks in, “La Veleta” feels like it’s been there forever.

Painstakingly hand-tiled, the piece is, by every measure, lovely to look at. Molina, who has emerged as one of the city’s most prominent, 21st-century muralists, partnered with Tres Birds Workshop, right now the region’s most inventive design firm, to realize the concept. In that way, “La Veleta ” sets a sky-high standard for the way public art is constructed while recording a distinct moment in Denver’s cultural history.

But the reason it deserves raves — and the reason it stands out from so many of the decorative objects thrown up around the city — is that “La Veleta” is also a well-considered work of art. The three collaborators in its creation — the third being Arts and Venues, the city’s public art steward — pushed each other to make something that manages to have physical height and intellectual depth, while attending to the very difficult demands for public art.

By that, I mean it’s not just there to offer a cheap thrill, like Lawrence Argent’s “I See What You Mean,” the famous blue bear sculpture that peers into the Colorado Convention Center downtown. (Sorry, I do know that everyone reading this loves the blue bear, but I don’t. It doesn’t go all that deep.)

Nor does it attempt to go deep but get lost in translation, like the “Blue Mustang” at Denver International Airport, whose stern looks distract so many people from artist Luis Jimenez’s ideas about who and what define the West. (For the record, I admire this frisky horse, and wish people would leave it alone.)

But the two statues, so familiar to Denverites, do offer context for appreciating “La Veleta.”

Like those other oversized objects, it was paid for through the city’s “1 percent for art” law, which requires 1 percent of the budget for public construction projects to be spent on some sort of aesthetic element. “La Veleta” costs $125,000, half the sum set aside from the streetscape redevelopment taking place along Federal Boulevard.

There was another $125,000 generated from the same project that went toward artist Anthony Garcia’s “Crossroads/Encrucijada,” the serape-like, striped pieces that cap the supports for the highway overpass at the same intersection.

Arts and Venues knew public art at the busy corner would shape the city’s image for years to come, and it wanted to meet that challenge by commissioning authentic beacons that underscored the depth and diversity of Denver.

Molina’s proposal fit the bill. His animal heads represent the idea that different cultures exist simultaneously. The human ecosystem mirrors the one in nature in which a variety of species share the same geographic terrain.

Things don’t always go so beautifully in the wild. Some animals are kings of the forest; others scrape to get by. They prey upon one another. The same could be said about humans.

But Molina’s piece suggests that there’s some romance to all that mingling, and through it all, examples of hope and survival, assertiveness and resilience, triumph and oppression, and change.

It’s tempting to see the stack as one happy, peaceable kingdom, to focus on its presentation of “different people converging and moving forward as one,” as Molina puts it. Though he doesn’t let us off so easy. “La Veleta,” a Spanish word, translates to “The Weathervane” in English. He wants us to consider how the ranking of subcultures shifts and sways over time. To concern ourselves about who’s on top and when.

Think of it as a social barometer, a “gauge of our ability to survive ourselves,” the artist said.

Mike Moore, lead designer for Tres Birds, whose engineering was integral at every step, estimates the piece could last for as many as 300 years. The seven animal heads are rough cubes, about 4 feet by 4 feet, and have foam core at their center. The grout used for the tiling is actually an epoxy. It’s moisture-, wind- and weather-resistant.

That’s a bold proclamation. Imagine a work of outdoor art made in 1719 standing today.

Of course, “La Veleta” doesn’t have to actually last that long. It’s the intent that it ought to that makes the object meaningful — the notion that it could be testing the direction of our political and social winds for generations.

There are other things that went right with the project. Denver’s west side is home to a large segment of its Latino population and the choice of artists respects the demographics. Both Molina and Garcia work in abstracted forms of traditional Latin arts and crafts, particularly of Mexico, though each artist owns them in a very contemporary way.

Molina’s murals, for example, borrow from the imagery he grew up with in New Mexico. His inspiration relies heavily on folk art and on the Spanish Colonial painting styles he saw as he sat in church as a kid. His large-scale building murals around town tend to be centered around human figures, which are enveloped by intricate shapes and geometric patterns set in the background. Molina thinks of them as narratives with main characters in the forefront surrounded by visual storytelling elements that drive their biographies forward.

The totem pole shares that desire to relate a narrative, though in a more allegorical way. He has developed stories around each of the heads and hopes to publish them as a group one day.

Elements of those tales are included as part of the tile patterns on the back of each head. The rattlesnake, for example, has a cactus pattern, illustrating Molina’s made-up myth that the animal, forsaken by others because of its dangerous nature, was pitied by the sun, who created the cactus so the snake would have a companion.

With conscious acknowledgment, Molina’s piece borrows the language of some Native American cultures that have employed totem poles to relate their own narratives. As he puts it: “I have a profound respect for people’s traditions and culture, so it was my goal to create an original piece of art that honored the power of the tradition, but was completely unique.”

“La Veleta” is unique and, I believe, works earnestly to be respectful and inclusive in both its coding and symbolism.

People may have a variety of assessments about that, and those, no doubt, will change over time. Assuming it stands for centuries, Molina’s gauge of public opinion will offer fodder on that topic for generations to come.

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