When Victor Ngo-Smith, the owner of Denver music and arts school New Cottage Arts, received a Denver Arts & Venues P.S. You Are Here grant in late 2019, he was thrilled to be able to use the money to fund a public-art project celebrating the Lunar New Year, which took place January 25.
Now, months later, the project is finally complete.
"We were just super-excited to be able to contribute to Lunar New Year 2020 Year of the Rat celebrations — it's already a whimsical zodiac character — and also to bring public art to South Federal Boulevard," says Ngo-Smith of his initial vision for the project.
In collaboration with Denver-based artist Mari Munet, Ngo-Smith had proposed a tree adorned with ornaments displaying celebratory symbols of the Lunar New Year. Additionally, Munet designed three colorful sculptures of rats playing instruments, to be positioned around the tree.
As an artist particularly fascinated with symbolism, conceptualizing a piece that made use of traditional Asian iconography was right up Munet's alley.
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"I'm also a spiritual artist," Munet explains. "So I believe in the union of the soul in anything that we do in art. It's not religious; it's more the meaning of things. The meaning of numbers, colors, the ancient symbols and how they apply to today. So when Victor told me we were going to do the Year of the Rat, I immediately went online and started looking at the symbolism. What is the meaning of the rat, what are the lucky aspects, why are they lucky? We were thinking about the gold coins, the red envelopes, because they're symbols of the Lunar New Year across all the nations that celebrate [it]."
Munet shares Ngo-Smith's enthusiasm for community participation, so it was critical for both of them to involve neighbors in the art-making process. Munet created stencils inspired by Lunar New Year symbols that participants could use to decorate ornaments for the tree. The specific tree on South Federal Boulevard, located across from New Cottage Arts (between West Gill Place and West Exposition Avenue), was chosen by Ngo-Smith for its visibility.
"It's kind of a large tree and it's on a hill, so everybody sees it when passing by, whether you're coming from the north or the south. We just thought it would be a delightful experience, a whimsical experience, to have pedestrians and passersby alike delight in that," Ngo-Smith says.
The plan was to install the piece on January 25, 2020, the day of the Lunar New Year, with help from New Cottage Arts students and other community members. But 2020 hardly went according to plan.
First, figuring out how to hang the ornaments without damaging the tree delayed the initial installation date. Then COVID-19 hit.
Fortunately, New Cottage Arts and Munet were able to sneak in two Community Art Days before the onset of social distancing, inviting local families to learn about Lunar New Year traditions and make ornaments for the tree.
"We had Asian kids, Latino kids, white kids, grandfathers, mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles coming together to help us do the first prototype," Munet says of the gathering. "I was there as a teacher, and I cannot even describe it to you, how joyful and how amazing it was to have the community help us."
Incorporating community members into the creation and installation of the work became significantly more difficult when the state issued a stay-at-home order to slow the spread of coronavirus.
Every step of the process had to be postponed and reworked to comply with health codes. Manufacturers and volunteers alike were unable to participate in the production of the art pieces. Munet, who had originally hoped to have the children help paint the rat sculptures using a paint-by-number system, was forced to forgo that plan and paint them herself (with the help of a colleague).
After state restrictions were relaxed in late April, two local Boys & Girls Club members were able to assist Munet and her team with constructing the rat sculptures. Other volunteers were finally able to help install and put the finishing touches on the work the first week of June.
But COVID-19 didn't just change the logistics of building the New Cottage Arts installation piece. It caused Ngo-Smith and Munet to rethink the whole project's meaning and purpose. What was originally to be called the
"Community Tree of Fortune and Prosperity" was reimagined as the "Community Tree of Renewed Health, Prosperity, and Spirit."
The Year of the Rat and its associated symbols represent wealth, abundance, good fortune and prosperity, and the New Cottage Arts installation was initially meant to be a lighthearted celebration of these attributes. However, the project's themes of abundance and prosperity shifted focus when COVID-19 took hold of the nation, and again when civil unrest erupted across the country following the brutal police killing of George Floyd.
"I encountered a little bit of trepidation, a little bit of hesitation to put out this public-art project that is supposed to embody so much whimsy, joy and celebration during COVID, especially knowing the atmosphere around comments regarding Asian communities," says Ngo-Smith. "And then immediately following that, we also felt a little bit of hesitation to display the project in the time of so much community unrest. We don't want to draw any attention away from Black Lives Matter or draw it away from a specific racial group."
Upon further reflection, however, Munet and Ngo-Smith decided that a public-art piece dedicated to joy, love, good fortune and community was just what Denver needed.
"We thought about reopening — like, this is going to be kind of a rebirth of the Year of the Rat. We were thinking, 'This could be a renewed spirit of uplift and community prosperity.' Then the protests started happening, and yet again, we shifted and added layers to the meaning. So now it's not just a renewed sense of community prosperity and health, but also all communities coming together, banding together to be uplifted," explains Ngo-Smith.
To Munet, the "Community Tree of Renewed Health, Prosperity, and Spirit," as well as her three rat sculptures, collectively titled "The Uplifting Trio," explore alternative definitions of prosperity: "It's the equality and equity of prosperity. We need more togetherness, more love, more peace, more compassion, more understanding, more equity. The rats symbolize abundance for every aspect. It's not money, it's not about people racing to have a better life, better job and better livelihood; it's also about the emotional abundance, and the psychology of abundance." Munet is currently fundraising to add a plaque at the site clarifying the installation's meaning and intention.
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"At the end, it's a project that's relevant to the actual issues we are facing, because we are all looking to have abundant health, abundant relationships, camaraderie and support," says Munet. "And I know that I've been discriminated against, as a woman, as a Latina with an accent. What I always feel is that we also have to bring an element of love and peace and union to any sadness and any pain. Because love heals. Love is the medicine."
"Ultimately," adds Ngo-Smith, "it's a piece for the delight of the community, and we hope it speaks to that."
The "Community Tree of Renewed Health, Prosperity, and Spirit" and "The Uplifting Trio" will be on display at 655 South Federal Boulevard through the rest of 2020. Munet and Ngo-Smith hope to secure funding to create a Lunar New Year 2021 public art installation, as well.