Strange States: Colorado

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If you want to learn about someplace, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home.

This time we head to the Centennial State—Colorado—for a taste of artistic flair on a very large scale, as well as a little hideaway in the mountains that has the key to our hearts (and to the Pentagon).  

Denver’s Mile High Animal Art Installations

Denver Convention Center

Denver, Colorado has one of the most vibrant public art scenes in the country, with murals, abstract statues, and commemorative monuments available almost everywhere you go.  But for whatever reason, one of the most common motifs is bigger-than-life-sized animals.

It’s hard to miss one of the most famous pieces of big animal art in the Mile High City, because it’s right there to greet you at the Denver International Airport.  Mustang—a 32-foot tall, cobalt blue, fiberglass horse—was installed in 2008 after being commissioned 15 years earlier from artist Luis Jiménez. Since then, the stallion, with its fiery red eyes, has been met with a mix of praise and criticism, with some passengers saying the horse causes added anxiety for those already afraid of flying. Sadly, Jiménez isn’t around to defend his work; he died in 2006, after a piece of the 9000-pound horse fell on him in his workshop. 

For anxious flyers, The Yearling at the Denver Public Library is a much more subdued example of equine art.  But what it lacks in devilry, it makes up for in oddity.  Originally created in 1997 by David Lipski for a Manhattan elementary school, the statue features a 21-foot tall, bright red desk chair like one seen in a child’s classroom.  Perched atop the chair’s seat, though, is a six-foot tall Pinto pony looking forlornly into the distance. Lipski wanted viewers to recall a time in their life when everyday objects seemed monumental, but the school felt the horse was a bit too much. Lipski refused to remove the pony, so the statue instead found its way to Denver a year later.

Speaking of giant farm animals, Dan Ostermiller’s Scottish Angus Cow and Calf statues at the Denver Art Museum have become local favorites since their unveiling in 2001.  The gigantic bronze bovines—the calf is 10 feet high and 14 feet long, while mama is 13 feet high and 24 feet long, with a combined weight of nearly 16,000 pounds—are an excellent reminder of Denver’s history as a cattle town.

If you’re looking for a new best friend, head over to the Denver Animal Shelter and adopt one of the four-legged variety. Don’t know where it’s located? Just look for the 25-foot tall dog made of shiny new dog tags. Sun Spot is the 2011 creation of artists Laura Haddad and Tom Drugan, who first built a steel skeleton, overlayed it with stainless steel mesh, and then covered it by hand in 90,000 pet tags like the kind usually found on Fido’s collar.  It’s been said that “Spot” makes quite an impression when the sun reflects off the tags as they’re blowing in the breeze, making him a good boy—such a good boy!—on the Denver public art scene.  

The last big animal to invade Denver is a big, blue bear that would make Paul Bunyan reconsider his relationship with Babe. Since 2005, I See What You Mean (above), a 40-foot tall statue of a blue bear standing on its hind legs, has been looking into the windows of the Colorado Convention Center, scaring and delighting visitors alike. The massive bear was first constructed by artist Lawrence Argent as a small, scale model, created using a computer and a 3-D printer. The bear was originally meant to be more reflective of the natural landscape of Colorado, with shades of brown and tan, but the model accidentally came out of the printer blue instead.  Argent was struck by the color of the prototype and decided “the bear had to be blue.” The statue is constructed in six segments, and made of 4000 interlocking triangles that hang on a hidden steel armature, giving him a very geometric appearance. Unlike that other big, blue beast at the airport, the bear has been embraced by Denverites, who now consider him a city icon. 

Baldpate Inn Key Collection

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There are only 12 guest rooms at the Baldpate Inn near Estes Park, Colorado, and yet they have somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 keys hanging from the rafters and covering the walls. The keys, believed to be the largest collection in the world, are donations from the many guests who have stayed at the inn since World War I. As the years have gone on, regular guests have started a friendly competition, with each one trying to outdo everyone else by donating ever more exotic keys to ever more exotic locations. Included in the collection are keys purported to open doors at the Pentagon, Westminster Abbey, the Vatican, the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, and even the drawers on one of Adolf Hitler’s desks.

Recently, the management at the Baldpate started working with American History Savers, an archiving company, to document and organize the keys in the collection. Not only are they placing the most important specimens in their own section of the display, but they’re also working out a computerized system that will allow them to find any key—no matter how obscure the donor. I wonder if they could come up with a similar system for my wife’s purse.    

Have the scoop on an unusual person, place or event in your state? Tell me about it on Twitter (@spacemonkeyx) and maybe I’ll include it in a future edition of Strange States!   

See all the states in the Strange States series so far here.

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September 23, 2013 - 1:00pm
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