Heiss public art

Two flood maps were overlaid over a city of Denver map and mounted on the bottom of a water tower installation.

Public Art by Wes Heiss in Denver Neighborhoods Explores Past, Present and Future

Heiss explores: What's so special about this place?

Story by

Lori Friedman

You might not expect to come across a 9-foot, bright orange-red replica of a water tower as you go about your daily life. But, if your daily life includes a visit to a milelong park stretching through the historic and newly revitalized Clayton and Cole neighborhoods in Denver, that is exactly what you’d find.

Its unexpected nature is part of what makes the tower a conversation starter, according to Wes Heiss, who, along with his artistic collaborator Marek Walczak, created the recently installed piece. The tower is part of Markers, a four-piece public art installation commissioned by the city of Denver.

“All four of the ‘Markers’ are intended to be visually impactful and very different from one another,” says Heiss. “We tried to involve the community in making the work and find interesting things about the site that either weren’t commonly known or, possibly through gentrification and change, would disappear once the project was completed.”

wayfinding sign with 37 different directional arrows

Among the artwork is a 16-foot-high wayfinding sign with 37 different directional arrows.

Among the artwork is a 16-foot-high wayfinding sign with 37 different directional arrows. It was created via a collaboration with the Bruce Randolph School in the Cole neighborhood. An assignment in art classes challenged students to design arrows pointing to something that they care about.

Another piece references the site’s history. Through their extensive research, Heiss and Walczak learned that a passenger streamliner train traveling right through the site set a land speed record in 1934. They created a swooping, flattened metal image that looks like the profile of the train coming around the bend. The piece captures the way the train moved through the space and marks time in a new way, by casting shadows on the sidewalk as a functional sundial.

Conversation, the last piece in the installation, consists of two 8-foot-long metal horns. Positioned to face each other across a ravine, the two structures function as megaphones, allowing people positioned at each to speak to one another, even at a whisper, across the space.

The water tower, too, is a reference to the site’s past, current and even future uses. It is an homage to the site’s new function as a water retention park, a place to absorb excess water from rainfall events, an important part of preventing destruction. The team discovered that Denver had a particularly horrible 1,000-year flood in 1965 and found flood maps illustrating the extent of the damage. Heiss and Walczak then also identified maps tracing the impact that major flooding could have on the area now.

“Those two flood maps were overlaid over a city of Denver map and mounted on the bottom of the water tower,” says Heiss. “So, when you look up at it, you can see the city and where it might flood in the future. On sunny days, it’s the light that rains through the marbles and makes a beautiful, sparkly thing happen.”

What I love about these projects is that the more time you spend in a place looking for what makes a place special, the more you find that just about anywhere in the universe has an overlooked story to be found.

Wes Heiss

Heiss originally planned to create the effect with stained glass, but the challenges of maintaining it turned out to be insurmountable. The burdens on the material are more extreme than a vertical stained-glass window, he says.

“What we eventually developed as a solution was to use marbles,” he adds. “Ordinary glass marbles in blue and green have been dropped into the steel frame showing those two different flood events overlapping one another.”

Despite the challenges inherent in creating art that must withstand weather and wear, Heiss is inspired by the conversations such pieces engender with the community and the chance to problem-solve.

“I look at these public projects as a chance for a solution rather than a chance for me to put a piece of artwork somewhere— though the solution hopefully ends up being a piece of art,” says Heiss, who trained as an architect. “You look at an environment, at the context, at the people who are engaging with that space. It’s holding up a mirror in an interesting way, or bringing a ray of sunshine to a space that really needs it, influencing people in a good way.”

The Markers project is designed to form a “connective tissue” that makes a whole out of disparate parts of a neighborhood, says Heiss. The area of Clayton and Cole where the sculpture series exists, for example, also includes a section of greenspace alongside an industrial strip.

An earlier commission Heiss and Walczak completed for the city of Denver also serves to connect seemingly disconnected sections along a milelong area. The 14th Street Overlay project, installed in 2013, is an interactive work marking the history of a 12-block corridor in the city. The section is a diverse mix of retail, a theater district, a convention center, hotels, 24-hour bail bond shops and government buildings, according to Heiss. Along this stretch, Heiss and Walczak installed 23 somewhat-hidden artworks, all of which people can look through in some way. The pieces form a kind of treasure hunt, with each instrument offering a real-time view along with an “overlay” slide that adds an additional narrative or a “secret history.”

There are two main types of instruments that make up the project—lenticulars and reticles, says Heiss. You look through the reticle-based instruments, which use custom-designed double-convex lenses similar to a gun sight. These include spy glasses, motion picture cameras and a version of a coin-operated payviewer, like one might see in a national park. The lenticulars each have a ridged, plastic lens glued directly to an image that enables a simple animation or an “image flip.” These pieces include replicas of early iPhones and an iconic Sony portable TV.

Public art in a Denver neighborhood

Conversation consists of two 8-foot-long metal horns, positioned to face each other across a ravine and that function as megaphones.

Creating the bronze castings for all the pieces was a complex process, explains Heiss. First, the objects were 3-D modeled and files were sent to be printed in wax at an industrial prototyping facility.

“We had to go through a commercial prototyping process rather than just carving objects like a traditional sculptor as the inside turned out to be just as important as the outside,” says Heiss. “Normally, with a bronze casting process, you sculpt the object out of clay, make a mold of that, cast a wax duplicate of the original, coat the wax version in ceramic material and then pour molten bronze inside the ceramic shell-burning out the wax. What you end up with is the bronze cast where the outside of the object may be correct but the inside is either solid or an uncontrolled shape. We needed the inside of the object to precisely fit the optical components, and it turned out companies that prototype things like bronze plumbing fittings could help us where artist foundries couldn’t.”

When people look through the various instruments, they see a combination of the current streetscapes and an overlay of some historical aspect of the site. For example, looking through one of the objects, one sees the streetscape of a town square as it is now overlaid with an image of a woman walking a tightrope between two of the buildings, an event that occurred there in 1805.

“What I love about these projects is that the more time you spend in a place looking for what makes a place special, the more you find that just about anywhere in the universe has an overlooked story to be found,” says Heiss.

Though public art seems like a natural match for Heiss’ background as an architect, it is not where his art career began.

“If, 15 years ago, you were to say ‘public art,’ I might have cringed,” says Heiss. “Those two words sound evocative of nothing I would want to be a part of and remind me of large ego-driven sculptures dropped off in public spaces that no one seems to care about or understand. But now I seem to have slipped into this practice as I have most of my career: from the side.”

Still, Heiss relishes the accessibility that public art offers, interactions that occur even before a piece might be installed. For example, one night, before being loaded onto a truck headed for Denver, one of the huge Markers sculptures sat on a street outside Heiss’ downtown studio in Allentown, Pennsylvania, attracting the attention of a local police officer who inquired what Heiss was doing. Heiss got nervous. Did he need a permit? Was he blocking the sidewalk? A conversation ensued and the officer revealed that he was simply interested in the art.

“Turns out he’s a really good artist and takes amazing photographs,” says Heiss. “I ended up talking with him for an hour. It’s really exciting to be in the city and actually engaging with it rather than just being holed up in a studio where nobody knows what’s going on. Curious people stop in to the studio all the time. Sometimes that slows the creative process down, and sometimes, those conversations are the process.”

It is the interactivity, the making of art that is a part of people’s daily lives that seems to attract Heiss most of all to this work.

“It’s hard to predict what anyone will get out of a work of art,” says Heiss. “As an artist, you put things out in the world, and what they become is dependent on those that interact with them. The work always takes on a life of its own, but I hope by engaging the community in the process and focusing on local stories, places and people, these projects end up meaning something to those who see them most.”

Wes Heiss is a designer and visual artist whose work explores humanity’s relationship with technology. He earned his M.Arch from Rice University and his bachelor’s in architecture and ceramics from Bennington College.

Story by

Lori Friedman

Related Stories

flags behind a fence

Study: Threat of Deportation Leads to Psychological Distress Among Both Latino Citizens and Noncitizens

Amy Johnson and research collaborators find it’s not just undocumented immigrants who feel at risk.

Santiago Herrera and a student at the symposium

Lehigh Oceans Research Center Holds Inaugural Symposium

The College of Arts and Sciences launches a new research center that focuses on the field of ocean science.

Jennifer Midberry

Lehigh Professor to Study the Harms of Gun Violence Reporting

Former photojournalist Jennifer Midberry teams with trauma surgeon and epidemiologist to analyze how gun violence reporting can harm survivors and communities.