Pony Up: The Story Behind The Yearling

"The Yearling"
"The Yearling" Denver Arts & Venues
Denver is proud of its public art collection, but one of the city's favorite pieces wound up here almost by accident. "The Yearling" was originally destined for a site in New York City, but instead was corralled at a spot outside the Central Denver Public Library through a combination of complaints and cash.

Donald Lipski, the artist behind the 21-foot-tall cherry-red chair topped by a life-sized pinto pony, thinks the sculpture wound up exactly where it should be. “It was made for kids, and the idea that it was going to go in front of a children’s library was just wonderful to me,” he says.

"The Yearling" is the most notable work in Lipski’s surrealist, conceptual and sometimes minimalist oeuvre. It has its own slot on Atlas Obscura, and was even the answer to a Jeopardy! clue. And now Lipski has some answers of his own regarding how the piece came to be in Denver. “This will be the definitive story of 'The Yearling,'” he says from his home in New York City.

Lipski was born in Chicago in 1947 and grew up in the northern suburb of Highland Park. He earned his B.A. in American history from the University of Wisconsin in 1970 before pursuing an MFA in ceramics. An exhibit at MoMA kickstarted a long, prestigious career; his work is in the permanent collections of the Denver Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Art Institute of Chicago and many more museums. Today, he's largely dedicated to making public art.

Lipski was just dipping into the idea of creating public art when he was asked in 1993 to design a sculpture for a public school that was being built in New York City’s Washington Heights (the neighborhood depicted in the musical In the Heights), which was known for its population of immigrants from the Dominican Republic.

“So I designed this sculpture, and my idea about it was that kids are really interested in scale,” Lipski recalls. “Understandably so: They’re little people in a world of big people, and their literature is full of scale references — Alice in Wonderland, Gulliver’s Travels, James and the Giant Peach.

“I had this idea about a horse on some sort of prominent level, looking out. It just seemed like a narrative; there’s something heroic and contemplative about it," he continues. "I then came up with the idea of the chair and making it look like a child’s chair, which was easy to do by putting the hand grip in the back.”

He thought the design was perfect for a new public school, with its playful yet noble nature. “Everybody loved it — or at least everybody I was talking to loved it,” Lipski says with a laugh.

“There was some pushback in the community...which I understood eventually but didn’t at the time,” he remembers. “When there’s pushback, it doesn’t usually have to do with the sculpture itself. It’s usually about other things.”

In this case, the other thing was a district headquarters for the board of education that was to share space in the new school structure. “The people in the neighborhood had a long, terrible, acrimonious relationship with the board of education, and that started to be revealed,” Lipski explains.

When the artist went to public meetings to discuss his plans for the sculpture, he was met by myriad complaints, from minor issues — parents were upset that the design seemed to encourage kids to climb on furniture — to more disturbing ones regarding the horse.
click to enlarge Donald Lipski's son ponders a model of "The Yearling." - DONALD LIPSKI
Donald Lipski's son ponders a model of "The Yearling."
Donald Lipski

“For the Dominican people, the horse is a symbol of oppression, because the conquistadors had horses,” he points out.

It was becoming clear that the horse would have to go, but while he was open to suggestions, Lipski wanted to stick to his basic design, especially since the sculpture was already in its final stages.

“Everybody loved the chair and wanted me to put something else on it instead of a horse,” he continues. “They wanted a child, a rainbow.... None of the ideas interested me."

Rather than further antagonize the parents, Lipski began looking for another location for "The Yearling." His agent asked whether he would be interested in making another sculpture that he could trade out for "The Yearling," making Lipski its sole owner. He took that option and made a sculpture for the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art. Meanwhile, the New York Public Art Fund arranged for Lipski to show "The Yearling" at the Doris Freedman Plaza in Central Park starting in November 1997.

“It was a perfect place for it,” Lipski recalls, right where the horse-drawn carriages stopped for passengers across from the Plaza Hotel. The sculpture stood there for six months, during which time it was featured in People magazine, made a cameo in a background shot of a Law & Order episode, and came to the attention of Denver.

At the time, Mayor Wellington Webb and First Lady Wilma Webb were pushing for more public art through the City of Sculpture initiative and the Mayor's Office of Art, Culture and Film, which is now Denver Arts & Venues; the plan was to create a sculpture garden outside the Denver Performing Arts Complex on Speer Boulevard.

Fabby Hillyard headed the arts office at the time, and John Grant was director of public art. "'The Yearling' was one of four proposals considered," Grant recalls. "We did a big search, and reached out and did a limited invitation to a series of very major artists around the world for the sculpture garden."

While "The Yearling" was a finalist, Mayor Webb chose "Dancers," Jonathan Borofsky's pair of sixty-foot-tall dancing sculptures.

That's when the late Nancy Tieken, a curator for the Denver Art Museum and a public arts benefactor responsible for acquiring many of the city’s notable works, including Mark di Suvero's "Lao Tzu" in Acoma Plaza, swooped in.

"Nancy Tieken — her eyes lit up and she said, 'How much is the Lipski?'" Grant recalls. "And when she found out, she said, 'Well,we're not going to let that get away.'" Tieken offered to buy the sculpture if the city would accept it as a gift. "The answer was obviously a resounding yes," Grant says.

But his office had to find a place for it. "They had just renovated the children's reading room, and they had these big giant windows, and Fabby thought how perfect it would be to sit there and read a book to your kids in the new library wing, where outside there is this beautiful, fanciful, almost childlike piece by one of the premier artists in the country," Grant remembers. "The director of the library at that time really didn't want it to happen, and Fabby just made it happen. She used her own will, her political will out of the mayor's office."

Lipski's sculpture "definitely has a life of its own," Grant says, and it almost instantly became one of the most beloved pieces of public art in Denver. "I did 147 pieces in the time I was there, and it was certainly the standout before the big blue bear got here," he adds, referring to Lawrence Argent's forty-foot-tall sculpture titled "I See What You Mean."

"And it really had a bigger impact than 'Dancers' as a beloved icon of Denver," he continues. "A lot of people still say that if you're really from Denver, the chair with the horse on it is your icon, and if you're new to Denver, the big blue bear is your icon."
click to enlarge Scout makes the journey from John Hickenlooper's mayoral office to his governor's office. - COURTESY OF DONALD LIPSKI
Scout makes the journey from John Hickenlooper's mayoral office to his governor's office.
Courtesy of Donald Lipski

The move didn’t just earn Lipski a paycheck. While transporting the sculpture here, he met Grant, who has been his project manager for the past 25 years, and he's since made two other public artworks for the city.

But "The Yearling" wasn’t prepared for the Denver weather. Made of fiberglass, the horse didn't adapt well to the harsh UV rays, and was ultimately replaced by one cast in bronze that would require less maintenance. Meanwhile, the original horse wound up in the mayor's office after John Hickenlooper took over for Webb. “The pony was nicknamed ‘Scout’ by John Hickenlooper,” Lipski recalls.

And when Hickenlooper moved up the hill to the governor's office, the original pony traveled with him. “They got a bunch of people — it’s fiberglass, so it’s not that heavy — and they just carried it from one office to another,” Lipski says, laughing. “They carried it right past the original sculpture.” Scout wound up standing by a giant photograph of the Last Dollar Ranch by John Fielder.

When Hickenlooper left that office after eight years, Scout returned to the City of Denver. (Governor Jared Polis kept the Fielder photo.) Lipski had no idea where his original pony had gone, but we tracked it down: It stands inside the south entrance at the Denver Coliseum, where it's complemented by a mural of cows by Denver artist Steven Altman.
Lipski maintains his connections to Denver and sometimes works here; he’s currently storing a sculpture that he’s making for Arlington, Virginia, in Denver. He says he loves much of the public art in this city.

“Of course, you have the other horse sculpture — Luis Jiménez’s big blue horse outside the airport,” he points out, referring to "Blue Mustang," also known as Blucifer, which murdered its maker. Lipski has a personal connection to another sculpture at the airport: Patrick Marold’s Shadow Array, an expansive work that adds an engaging but minimalist fleet of upright spruce logs to the otherwise flat and dusty landscape by the light rail.

“I know [Marold] because he worked on a sculpture for me,” Lipski recalls. “I was doing a sculpture for a sports arena in Lincoln, Nebraska, and it had been built on a site that had been the Russell Stover candy factory.” Together they made a giant box of chocolates.

Lipski has also worked with John McEnroe, the local artist behind "National Velvet," a controversial public sculpture near the 16th Street Pedestrian Bridge reminiscent of a mound of melting red jelly beans or, as one critic dubbed it, “Saggy Boob Electric Penis.”
click to enlarge Scout at the Denver Coliseum next to the cow mural “Hereford Cows” by Denver artist Steven Altman. - DENVER ARTS & VENUES
Scout at the Denver Coliseum next to the cow mural “Hereford Cows” by Denver artist Steven Altman.
Denver Arts & Venues
McEnroe “has worked on several sculptures of mine,” Lipski says. They include "Psyche (the Butterfly)," a luminescent, giant monarch butterfly that he made in 2010 for the Auraria campus’s new science building. “The wings are made from individual cells made from test tubes that [McEnroe] poured resin into so they look like they’re filled with liquid,” Lipski notes.

And there's a third Lipski sculpture in Denver: "Tools," commissioned for the Wellington Webb Municipal Building in 2001. “It’s a big limestone wall, sixty feet tall, and I have maybe fifty little sculptures on the wall that are all made out of the tools that the city workers use to run the city,” Lipski says. “So there are desk chairs and water coolers, tools like shovels and fire axes, police sirens — all different things.”

"The Yearling," however, remains his most popular work in Denver, and the most famous. “Just because of the largesse of one really smart, dedicated woman," Lipski concludes, "it ended up in the perfect place."
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Emily Ferguson is Westword's Culture Editor, covering Denver's flourishing arts and music scene. Before landing this position, she worked as an editor at local and national political publications and held some odd jobs suited to her odd personality, including selling grilled cheese sandwiches at music festivals and performing with fire. Emily also writes on the arts for the Wall Street Journal and is an oil painter in her free time.
Contact: Emily Ferguson