Drive By History, Part 3: National Humane Alliance Fountain

It says thusly:
Presented by
The National
Humane Alliance
Hermon Lee Ensign

B50 Note: Between 1906 and 1912, the National Humane Alliance presented somewhere around 125 Horse Watering Troughs to cities and towns across the country, including Denver. Hermon Lee Ensign, who died in 1899, dedicated his fortune to funding the National Humane Alliance in order to “spread about humanitarian ideas among the people.” Such education, Ensign hoped, would instill in people, “especially the young, ideas of humanity both to the lower animals and to each other.” The fountains were produced in Vinalhavan, Maine. One of the fountains was recently relocated to a park in Derby, Connecticut — the community has a web page that offers great information.

The Denver fountain is located in a small paved triangle in the Civic Center District, where Colfax, Tremont, and 13th intersect. Unfortunately, the fountain no longer works, and the basin is filled with soil, which makes it hard to recognize its original purpose. The following photo was taken by Harry Rhoads in 1920 (courtesy of the Western History Department of the Denver Public Library).

Humane Alliance watering fountain at the intersection of Colfax & Tremont photo by Harry M. Rhoads. 1920.

Building the Big Blue Bear

The “Big Blue Bear”, installed on 14th street in front of the Colorado Convention Center, has become a fixture in downtown Denver. Officially titled “I See What You Mean”, Lawrence Argent’s work offers a playful perspective on public art. This video shows the installation of the work.

Video produced by Just Media and provided courtesy of the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs.

National Velvet, and thoughts on public art in Denver

John McEnroe, National Velvet (photo by Ivar Zeile, Plus Gallery)
John McEnroe, National Velvet (photo by Ivar Zeile, Plus Gallery)

One of my first memories experiencing the “real world” as a teenager was a summer visit to Toronto, Canada. I was allowed to wander on my own in this major metropolis. What I recall from both memory as well as photos from this trip was the quantity of public artworks the city displayed on corners and in distinct locations. For me they served as memorable markers in the environment and enhanced the mostly banal architecture of the city.

Now, many years later, I have sat on public art selection panels for the city of Denver and have approved many works of art for the city collection as a voting member of the Mayor’s Commission for Cultural Affairs. I have also had the wonderful opportunity to work with artists who create public art through my association as owner and director of Plus Gallery. Although many artists go after this work because it distinguishes their career in spectacular ways, few can successfully break into this realm. The competition is extraordinary and the notion that you need to have completed a commission in order to get a commission certainly comes into play.

Denver artist John McEnroe is an artist I’ve worked intimately with and exhibited widely at my gallery for over five years. His ability to conceptualize new and spectacular forms through a rigorous studio practice is virtually unparalleled in the region. His first major commission, a series of “sprue sculptures” that grace the walls of the Colorado Convention Center, are impressive by any standard, exhibiting a playfulness through scale and form that is rivaled only by the giant blue-bear that looks in on them through the massive exterior windows of that building.

John’s fourth commission for the city of Denver, “National Velvet,” was recently installed at the eastern foot of the Highlands Walking Bridge. Though it is the fourth commission John has received in Denver, it is really the first that seems to parallel the general dynamics and singular approach to material that has distinguished John’s entire career as a visual artist. While “National Velvet” will certainly have its detractors, as all great works of art do, it exhibits many uncommon characteristics that are practically revolutionary in the field.

The towering mass of bulbous, glandular forms is captivating in its ability to stimulate the imagination, truly handing the reins of interpretation over to the viewer. The sculptures total transformation from day to night through the use of light is a distinction that few if any public artworks can claim, a direct testament to this artist’s ingenuity and ability to experiment. It’s just what the environment begged for and will undoubtedly become one of the most iconic works of art in the city.

Cities develop initiatives to collect and commission art because it electrifies the environment, providing visual cues that become the true landmarks within a city. Not everyone embraces the value that public artwork adds to a city, but it is certainly what distinguishes leading cities and progressive ways of life across the world.

Ivar Zeile
Plus Gallery
November 24, 2008