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When artist Barbara Jo Revelle won a $200,000 commission in 1989 to create a two-block-long mosaic mural at the Colorado Convention Center, she learned that dealing with politicians was itself an art.
Revelle, head of the photography program at the University of Colorado-Boulder, spent more than a year collecting stories about Coloradans whose faces she wanted to include in "Colorado Panorama: A People's History," which is constructed of 300,000 porcelain tiles. But the city balked at producing a key that would tell viewers just who was being celebrated on the giant mosaic.
Now Denver officials have finally decided to identify the 168 faces on the southeast side of the convention center. But Revelle's is the one that's missing. She's been left off the team working on the production of the key to understanding her own work of art.
The artist speculates that the key--a register that identifies the faces--is being done only now, five years after the piece's completion, because the mural features a host of controversial Coloradans and dredges up memories of some of the state's infamous episodes. "I think they didn't want you to know who the faces really are," she says.
"I am a left-wing character," explains the New York native, who has done similar projects for the Chicago Council of Fine Arts and Colorado's Social Services Building on Grant Street. "I was inspired by revisionist history, and I chose people with those politics. It's not only governors and other white men who are already in the history books."
In addition to the faces of Molly Brown and Kit Carson, the mural includes those of Cheyenne chief Black Kettle (who was killed at the Sand Creek Massacre), Denver Japanese-American artist Yuriko Noda, journalist Agnes Smedley, James Beckworth (a black explorer who became a Crow chief), labor activist Mother Jones, and Golda Meir (the former prime minister of Israel graduated from Denver's North High School). It also features Josephine Speer, a 22-year resident of Denver's Silver Triangle neighborhood, the area that was torn down in order to build the convention center.
As part of her proposal for the 20-foot-high, 394-foot-long mural, which covers an exterior wall of the convention center on Welton between 12th and 14th streets, the CU fine-arts professor budgeted $9,000 of the grant to create a computer touch screen that would give a detailed biography of each person. "I wanted the poetic story of the people on the wall," she says, "and that's the part of the proposal that got taken out."
Revelle contends that money for her original key was cut out of the funding because city officials disagreed with her choice of faces. She says she is being "left out of the loop" in the creation of the new key for the same reason. "They wanted a non-controversial, nice, generic history that didn't challenge anyone or focus on any bad history," she says. "But all good art is controversial."
The artist chose teachers, miners, political activists, railroad workers, farmers, philanthropists and Colorado legends who might only be recognized in the small towns from which they came. "I see history as concurrent stories," she explains. "It's not a `pioneer heroics' kind of thing. These people were not necessarily role models or heroes. But they do reference different chapters in Colorado's history."
Revelle's vision did not match what aides of then-mayor Federico Pena had in mind. She says that after her year of research, city officials fought her final decision about who would be on the wall.
They asked Revelle to remove, among others, the faces of a prominent AIDS activist, of Chicano civil rights leaders Neva Romero and Rudolfo "Corky" Gonzales, and of the leader of Denver's original Black Panther Party, Lauren Watson.
"They said they wanted a mural that `we could all be proud of,' so I thought they wanted a whitewash," she says. "I wouldn't be proud of a whitewash."
After six months of grappling with city officials, Revelle finally persuaded them to keep the most "controversial" faces in the mural. However, Lauren Watson's face in particular haunted city officials, Revelle says. A vocal promoter of black power, Watson was also a convicted felon in the 1960s and has had run-ins with the law ever since, including a drug arrest in December 1994. Revelle says she was given the freedom to include whomever she wanted in her mural--including Watson--only after she brought leaders from Denver's black community with her to meetings with Pena's aides and threatened to quit the project altogether.
Even after Revelle was granted complete artistic license, Greg Giesler, chairman of what was then called Denver's Commission on Cultural Affairs, issued a public disclaimer saying the mural "is an artist's interpretation of historical events in Colorado. As she wasn't open to changes, the committee made its decision on the aesthetics of the work of art, not on the political comment."
The mural consists of a women's wall and a men's wall, with 84 faces chronologically arranged on each. The artist digitally reconstructed and then enlarged original photographs of each face. The photos were then recomposed on the black, white and gray tiles that make up the mural. By the spring of 1991, when the 7,880 square feet of tile had been installed, city officials found another way to spend the $9,000 Revelle had allotted for the touch-screen computer key.
"They said that I hadn't put epoxy in the tile grout to make it graffiti-proof," she recalls. "To do that, they just happened to need $9,000."
Now that the much-needed key to the mural is finally being prepared, the controversy could bubble up again. But Denver's current public-art coordinator, Greg Esser, insists that Revelle is not being left out of the team that is creating the key.
The plan is for her to contribute her research to local historian Tom Noel, who will write the text for the new key with the help of students at CU-Denver. Revelle also has been asked to contribute ideas about the graphic design of the key to an artist from the Denver Planning Office who will be handling that part of the project. According to Esser, Revelle has been "very cooperative."
What happened to the originally planned computer touch screen? Esser says such an interactive computer key would now cost between $20,000 and $30,000, and for that reason, "it was never really an option. Her original concept is just not feasible given what our budget is."
Revelle agrees that the city probably wouldn't have enough money to hire her to do the key as she had intended it. Although she will turn over her records to Noel, she says, "The thing that is sad to me is that the biographies are now going to be reduced to one or two lines. That was never my idea."
Noel insists that when he and his students work on the key, they have no intention of diverting from Revelle's original political sentiment. "I'm certainly not in it to revise what she did," he says.
Two glass cases have already been installed just inside the center's Welton Street entrance. Later this spring, the key identifying the people in the mural will be displayed inside those cases.
"I regularly get phone calls from people who want to know about the faces on the wall," Esser says.
Revelle still feels the impact of working on the project. "You get disabused of your idealistic views working in public art," she says. "You have to learn to be a fighter and learn to find your voice.
"At first I was afraid of the mayor's aides and all those architects. They were real smooth-talking and considerate. But I learned that they were on a different side. In the end, I had to go out fighting.