At DAM, conflict and resolution
Thankfully, the “Wheel” controversy has come full circle. The “Wheel” itself — 10 red porcelain trees astrologically placed outside the Denver Art Museum in homage to important American Indian religious sites and ceremonies — makes a statement about breaking the cycle of America’s mistreatment of Native peoples.
How relieving it was, then, that the recent dust-up and subsequent resolution of plans to physically move “Wheel” embodied the spirit of how to honor commitments to a group of people historically cast aside in consideration of expansion.
Officials with the Denver Art Museum deserve accolades for rapidly addressing the concerns of nationally renowned artist Edgar Heap of Birds when he learned from Denver Post reporter John Wenzel’s story this month that plans to renovate the museum called for moving his sculpture.
“It was hard. It was hard on me,” Heap of Birds said Friday. “We’ve all deepened our understanding, and the mission of art is to deepen our understanding.”
He praised the museum’s commitment to American Indian art and their respect while working with him on this issue.
But we find it puzzling that the conflict ever occurred in the first place.
The Denver Art Museum has long known that “Wheel” is on the cusp of transcending art into the realm of spiritual significance.
Heap of Birds’ thoughts on the issue were included in the museum’s 2008 book “Reinventing the Wheel: Advancing the Dialogue on Contemporary American Indian Art.”
He explained Friday that he also rendered the sculpture dysfunctional as a ceremonial site by leaving out two of the poles found at historic religious sites like Big Horn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming and by leaving off the roof put on ceremonial lodges.
“I was hopeful that the community would finish it, that in a sense that would finish the top,” Heap of Birds said. “I feel pretty happy that that’s what has occurred. The sacredness is in how the community has used it.”
The sculpture has served as the ending point of the annual Sand Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Run-Walk.
Denver Art Museum officials knew moving “Wheel” would be sensitive and they had talked with Heap of Birds in 2015 about the potential renovation of the Gio Ponti building’s north entrance.
Additionally, the museum consulted with Gordon Yellowman, a Cheyenne chief, who helped dedicate the sculpture in 2005 when it opened with a blessing ceremony.
It appears the museum did everything right, until it failed to follow up with the artist before releasing the redesign plans to the public more than a year later.
But it’s impossible to accuse Heap of Birds for overreacting.
The Cheyenne words on the wall above the sculpture are from Heap of Birds’ grandmother and roughly translate to mean “turning back around to where we come from.”
In “Reinventing the Wheel,” Heap of Birds writes: “I wanted to make that clear in terms of the big text on the wall — that this place was our homeland in the 1870s and before. So when Wheel comes back as it has done here in Denver, Colorado, that means we are home again as well.”
How to respond to the possibility of losing that home once again?
A strongly worded letter would be one reasonable option.
Edgar Heap of Birds’ “Wheel” sculpture stands just outside the entrance of the Denver Art Museum. Associated Press file