The seven animal heads of “La Veleta” were tiled by hand by the artist Jaime Molina. (Daniel Tseng, especially for the Denver Post)

The recently installed sculpture “La Veleta” from Denver is quirky, handcrafted and visible from afar. It has all the characteristics of a public art icon that can last for hundreds of years as the city grows and develops around it.

At least that’s the hope.

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

In “La Veleta” you can see seven animal heads, all of which were hand-tiled by the artist Jaime Molina. (Daniel Tseng, especially for the Denver Post)

The towering work has a broad, organic appeal. A stack of abstract mosaic animal heads, definitely kid friendly. But since all of these animals – seven of them with a bear upstairs and a buffalo downstairs – are native to Colorado, and some are critically endangered, the sculpture is likely to be related to anyone who cares about the ways people do things looked after them the natural world in the west. Just a few weeks later, “La Veleta” feels there forever.

Carefully tiled by hand, the piece is beautiful to look at in every way. Molina, who has become one of the city’s most famous wall painters in the 21st century, has teamed up with Tres Birds Workshop, currently the most inventive design company in the region, to implement the concept. In this way, “La Veleta” sets a sky-high standard for the construction of public art, while also recording a specific moment in Denver’s cultural history.

But the reason it deserves raves – and the reason it stands out from so many decorative objects in town – is that “La Veleta” is also a well-considered work of art. The three collaborators at its inception – the third was Arts and Venues, the city’s public arts administrator – pushed each other to create something that would be physical size and intellectual depth while meeting the very difficult demands of public art.

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

It also tries not to go deep, but to get lost in translations, like the “Blue Mustang” at Denver International Airport, whose austere appearance distracts so many people from the ideas of artist Luis Jimenez about who and what defines the West. (For the record, I admire this playful horse and wish people would leave it alone.)

But the two statues so familiar to Denverites provide context for the appreciation of “La Veleta”.

Like these other oversized objects, it was paid for by the city’s “1 percent for art” law, which mandates 1 percent of the public works budget for an aesthetic element. “La Veleta” costs US $ 125,000, half the amount earmarked for the renovation of the streetscape along Federal Boulevard.

Artist Jaime Molina during the installation of “La Veleta”. The piece was made by the Denver architectural firm Tres Birds. (Daniel Tseng, especially for the Denver Post)

The same project generated an additional $ 125,000 that was used for Anthony Garcia’s “Crossroads / Encrucijada,” the serape-like, striped pieces that cover the supports for the freeway overpass at the same intersection.

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

Molina’s suggestion matched the bill. His animal heads represent the idea that different cultures exist at the same time. The human ecosystem mirrors that in nature, where a multitude of species share the same geographic terrain.

Things don’t always go so well in the wild. Some animals are kings of the forest; others scratch to get through. They chase after each other. The same goes for humans.

But Molina’s play suggests that there is a certain romance to all of these blends and through all of these examples of hope and survival, assertiveness and resilience, triumph and oppression and change.

It is tempting to see the pile as a happy, peaceful kingdom and focus on the portrayal of “different people coming together and moving forward as one,” as Molina puts it. Although he doesn’t let go of us that easily. “La Veleta”, a Spanish word, means “The Weathervane” in English. He wants us to consider how the hierarchy of subcultures shifts and fluctuates over time. Worrying about who is at the top and when.

Jaime Molina’s 40 foot tall totem pole “La Veleta” or “The Weathervane” was installed in Barnum Park on December 14th. (Daniel Tseng, especially for the Denver Post)

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

Mike Moore, lead designer at Tres Birds, whose engineering was essential every step of the way, estimates the piece could last up to 300 years. The seven animal heads are rough cubes about 4 feet by 4 feet with a foam core in their center. The mortar used for the tiles is actually an epoxy resin. It is moisture, wind and weather resistant.

It is a bold proclamation. Imagine an outdoor work of art from 1719 that stands today.

Of course, “La Veleta” doesn’t have to take that long. It is the intent, which it should, that makes the object meaningful – the notion that it could test the direction of our political and social winds for generations.

There are other things that went right with the project. The west side of Denver is a large segment of the Latino population, and artist selection takes demographics into account. Both Molina and Garcia work in abstract forms of traditional Latin arts and crafts, particularly Mexico, although each artist owns them in a very contemporary way.

Molina’s murals, for example, come from the paintings he grew up with in New Mexico. His inspiration draws heavily on folk art and the Spanish colonial painting styles that he saw when he was a child in church. His large-scale city murals tend to focus on human figures surrounded by intricate shapes and geometric patterns in the background. Molina sees them as narratives with main characters in the foreground, surrounded by visual elements of storytelling that propel their biographies forward.

The totem pole shares a desire to tell a tale, albeit in a more allegorical way. He’s developed stories around each of the heads and hopes one day to publish them as a group.

Elements of these stories are included as part of the tile patterns on the back of each head. The rattlesnake, for example, has a cactus pattern that illustrates Molina’s invented myth that the animal, abandoned by others because of its dangerous nature, was pitied by the sun that created the cactus in order for the snake to have a mate.

One of the heads that make up “La Veleta”. (Daniel Tseng, especially for the Denver Post)

With conscious appreciation, Molina’s play borrows the language of some of the Native American cultures that have used totem poles to tell their own tales. As he puts it: “I have great respect for the traditions and culture of the people, so my goal was to create an original work of art that honors the power of tradition but is completely unique.”

“La Veleta” is unique and, in my opinion, works seriously to be respectful and inclusive in its coding and symbolism.

People may have a variety of assessments about this, and these will no doubt change over time. Assuming it stands for centuries, Molina’s measure will provide fodder on the subject for generations to come.

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