A Place in the Sun

It's an old Denver story: In 1968, a group of local artists erected nine temporary plywood sculptures in Burns Park, setting slabs of sheer color at playful geometric angles against a background of green grass and blue sky--a visual flight of fancy for passing Colorado Boulevard motorists. Intended to last the summer, maybe, the sculptures somehow never came down. They listed and warped, and the bright paint blistered and peeled. Some were eventually refurbished, but others, damaged beyond repair, had to be ripped out. Swallowed up by encroaching traffic and nearly inaccessible to the public, Burns Park languished.

But that's slowly changing. Amid sculpture-related festivities Sunday, Burns Park will see a new work installed for the first time in thirty years--one that not only complements the look of the remaining old works, but also carries on the spirit with which the originals were constructed. This time around, though, Barbara Baer's new red and gold, twelve-foot-tall, eighteen-foot-wide steel concoction will be built to last--for a while, at least.

"The plan now is to commission sculpture on a yearly or bi-yearly basis, depending on fundraising," says John Grant, public art administrator of the Mayor's Office of Art, Culture and Film. "We hope to get back to a total of nine sculptures in the park. Then we'll decide whether to move them to another part of the city or sell them to corporations." If that happens, Grant adds, the city could continue to commission new works for the park indefinitely: "The minimum life would be nine years in the park. It would be a cycle, but it may also turn out to be a sculpture incubating place for the city--they'd start out there and then move to other parks or schools."

Baer's work, "Jazz," was chosen by the Burns Park Selection Committee, which is composed of neighborhood residents, patrons of arts, sculptors, city officials and people concerned with sculpture in Denver. "It's a beautiful piece," notes Grant, "a lyric piece that draws a line in the air and then re-emerges from the ground." The mixed product of careful study, complicated planning and a bit of serendipity, "Jazz" seems to be ending up right where it belongs.

"It's scaled in keeping with what is there already," Baer says. "While researching the park for my design, I walked through and measured the other pieces, and looked at the geometry and color of them. The originals have a great drive-by impact--and this does as well, although it's also fun to walk under and around it.

"The forms change as you roll by," she continues. "The two colors of paint are meant to show the play in space, so I used a flashy kind of paint--it's hot-rod paint." And as the playful sculpture pirouettes in space, it provides a kind of commentary on its multi-leveled reason for being. "The original works were temporary," Baer notes. "But the new ones are an interesting hybrid--they belong to the City of Denver and have to be in place for nine years. But for all practical purposes, that means permanent."

Though Baer has often worked in large-scale dimension in the past, the finished sculptures were either designed for interior sites or created for festivals and other ephemeral events. "One reason I had such a tremendous interest in entering this competition was for the opportunity to try new things--when you work in the commission realm, you have to wait until someone gives you the chance."

For Baer, the actual concept of the sculpture preceded that opportunity by several years: "The initial design had actually been sitting around my studio for about six years. It started with some pieces of cut and curled paper I'd taped together. I kept it over my design desk, taped to my lamp."

But it's one thing to have an idea, and another to see it to concrete fruition. "It's been time-consuming," Baer says. "I'm a project manager as well as an artist." In this case, part of the challenge for the artist was managing the many groups providing different skills and specialties: steel fabricators and cutters, structural engineers, industrial painters, welders and the like. And, Baer adds, "you can't just find any company--you have to find a company that's interested in doing something offbeat--someone who doesn't mind the odd request."

That done, Baer thinks it's all come together beautifully. "Two and a half weeks ago when steel pieces had finally been fabricated, I had an opportunity to see what the overall form of the finished work looked like. I saw it, and I thought, 'Hey, this thing looks just like the model!' The finished work still has the immediacy of the original paper one."

Temporary or permanent, Grant sees all this activity as a natural progression for Burns Park, which will also be home for six weeks to a pair of transient works by high school students participating in the Design and Build Competition (sponsored by the Museum of Outdoor Art). Not only will Baer's sculpture and the students' works both be unveiled Sunday, but the park will also play host to hands-on sculpture events throughout the afternoon. He hopes the activities, which were introduced last year, will become an annual or bi-annual occurrence as more new sculptures continue to grace the grounds. "It used to be the park you couldn't get to," Grant says, "but now there's a new entrance on Alameda Avenue and a new parking lot. And it really is one of the biggest hunks of grass around," he adds. "Which is kinda nice."

--Froyd

Burns Park Sculpture Celebration, Sunday, May 16, noon-5 p.m., Alameda Avenue, Leetsdale Drive and Colorado Boulevard, free.

 
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