Public Art is Back in Civic Center Park, and This Time It's Fireproof

Artist Theresa Clowes created this new piece, unveiled June 25 in the Greek Amphitheatre in Civic Center Park.EXPAND
Artist Theresa Clowes created this new piece, unveiled June 25 in the Greek Amphitheatre in Civic Center Park.
Courtesy of Civic Center Conservancy
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The Greek Amphitheater in Civic Center Park was dedicated a century ago, but what's old is new again, thanks to a temporary art installation by Theresa Clowes unveiled on June 25. The piece was designed to highlight the colonnades of the structure, wings that had been boarded up for years due to persistent vandalism; Clowes designed her series of flowing textile panels to give the space a more peaceful feel.

The installation, commissioned by Civic Center Conservancy, celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Greek Amphitheater and the reopening of the colonnades to the public.

“I really feel like it calms that space up there,” Clowes said as she watched the panels billow lightly in the wind during the unveiling. “It's very soothing and inviting... . I want people to step out of all the things going in their life and just be able to have even a few minutes of calmness, just therapeutically watching the wind move the pieces back and forth.”

Clowes calls the piece a “narrative landscape.” Each panel is composed of a series of layers inspired by consecutive 25-year periods in Denver’s natural and civic history. For example, one layer's pink tone represents the 1920s movement to “beautify” industrial cities; another is composed of bottle-cap prints to represent former governor and mayor John Hickenlooper’s impact on Denver. One of the top layers is even printed with leaves that Clowes collected after Denver’s recent severe hailstorm.

Civic Center Conservancy was established in 2004 with the mission of restoring, enhancing and “activating” the park, as executive director Scott Robson put it. The only nonprofit organization that has a formal agreement with the city surrounding the cultivation of a public space, it organizes major events like Civic Center Eats and the Independence Eve celebration coming up on July 3.

Even without official events, Civic Center Park's location at the crossroads of government buildings and a major transportation thoroughfare makes it a gathering place. As Robson noted at the unveiling, the park is also a “traditional place for decades for individuals experiencing homelessness to find respite.” Civic Center Conservancy is neither trying to push people out nor necessarily invite them in, he added.

But Civic Center Park's unique location and history makes it a tricky place to navigate big-money public-art installations. (The Clowes piece is funded by a grant from the Xcel Energy Foundation.) The organization learned that the hard way last year with its debut public-art piece, an interactive sound art installation called "The Tree of Transformation." The functioning antique piano was repeatedly vandalized, then burned irreparably in the middle of the night on July 25, 2018. Police eventually arrested a 28-year-old woman and charged her with arson; it was not clear why she targeted the installation.

Robson says that incident won’t stop them from continuing to bring public art into the space; he hopes to put at least one installation up each year. But for this second attempt, they took precautions: Clowes created her piece using fireproof material that melts before it burns, and the hanging installation ends well above a reachable height, to discourage vandalism.

Clowes spent time observing the character of the park while designing her piece, and while she knew her art might be vulnerable in such a public setting, she was also amazed at the universal appeal of the park. "Everything goes on in this park; the whole city converges in this one spot," she said.

Theresa Clowes created textile panels incorporating prints and imagery that represent Denver's history.EXPAND
Theresa Clowes created textile panels incorporating prints and imagery that represent Denver's history.
Courtesy of Civic Center Conservancy

Civic Center Conservancy's mission focuses on commemorating and restoring the park’s architecture and finding innovative uses for the existing physical spaces. That can be a challenge when the park is not only the site of official public events, but also the scene of such unauthorized activities as drug use and vandalism. According to Robson, park rangers may increase patrols in the area to monitor these problems. And he said that Civic Center Conservancy will support the city if it becomes necessary to close the colonnades to the public again.

Despite the complicated challenges of putting up public art in such a public place, Robson believes the effort is worthwhile. “This has always been the people’s park," he said at the unveiling, "meaning all the people, whether you're facing homelessness or whether your name's on the wall of benefactors who've left millions to the park."

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