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A Forest of Music: Denver Artist Makes Trees Sing

Nikki Pike (right) and Tom Dodds, her longtime creative collaborator.

Sound totems have been installed in the trunks of trees in southwest Denver's Athmar Park; McDonough Park on the north side of the city; and Boyd Park in Park Hill.

Early in the planning process, Pike and Dodds faced a major logistical challenge: a city ordinance that prohibits attaching anything to a live tree.

The sound totem at Boyd Park.

Art in Denver has gone to the trees, thanks to the creative "sound totem" installations that popped up in three Denver parks this month. Artist Nikki Pike brings a little magic -- and local music -- to the city's P.S. You Are Here creative placemaking initiative.
Nikki Pike has been quietly, anonymously delighting Denver for years. In 2011, the Denver artist created one of the  the city's smallest -- and most beloved -- public art projects by installing a tiny wooden door in a tree on 17th Avenue and Washington Street.

Some merely caught the arboreal entry from the periphery, zooming by in cars or on bikes. To those pedestrians or curiosity seekers who stopped to take a closer look, the tree contained multitudes: Nestled inside the hollow, a meticulously crafted, functional music box played a tune every time the door was opened.
The effect was magical, just as Pike had hoped. Pike called it a "sound totem" -- and a gift to the Uptown neighborhood.

"Years ago I started noticing all the hollows in the trees, and calling them oracles or portals, where you go in and you go into another world," says Pike, a Colorado native, sculptor and professor at University of Colorado Colorado Springs. "I grew up riding bikes, climbing trees. I'm lucky to have that kind of imagination."

Though she was not identified as the artist, her project became an underground sensation. "Things like this make Denver unique," said one commenter on a related blog. "Random acts of art inspire and create wonder," wrote another.

This month, Pike added three additions to her forest of tree sculptures. Sound totems have been installed in the trunks of trees at Huston Lake Park in southwest Denver's Athmar Park neighborhood; McDonough Park in Harkness Heights on the north side of the city; and J. Langston Boyd Park in Skyland. The works are part of a series of creative surprises currently rolling out across the city in connection with P.S. You Are Here, a new public art program from Denver Arts & Venues that funds "placemaking" community projects that enliven public spaces and bring artists and neighbors together in pursuit of a common creative language.

A place to singNikki Pike (right) with Tom Dodds.

Each sound totem contains music from a Denver-based artist, an ode to the idea's genesis nearly a decade ago. While a graduate student at the University o Southf Florida in Tampa, she encountered a local professional opera singer who was frustrated by the lack of outlets for her talent in her hometown.

"I had a dream about her, and in the dream I made a little music venue for her, inside of a tree," says Pike. "She had nowhere to sing. I thought, 'Well, I can make somewhere for you to sing!’"

Pike plans to rotate the audio every month, providing a mini "music venue" and outlet for underexposed musicians as well as writers and sound artists. Many will come from the neighborhoods where the installations are located.

"The idea is to give a voice to someone who doesn't have a voice," says Pike. "I'm interested in the idea of democracy in my work; in this case, the musicians really are the artists. I'm creating a social platform for them to share their work."

Engineering, art & bureaucracyThe sound totem at Boyd Park.

Small in scale and solar-powered, sound totems are feats of design as well as imagination, and the labor of a large team of volunteers led by the visionary Pike and Tom Dodds, her longtime creative collaborator, who designed the totems' electrical circuits.

"I am led by ideas, and then I have to figure out the engineering," says Pike. "I'm more of a facilitator -- of the carpentry, the design. There's a real beauty in the facilitation of it.

Early in the planning process, Pike and Dodds faced a major logistical challenge: a city ordinance that prohibits attaching anything to a live tree. Rather than kill the project, the city invited Pike and her team to salvage material from the Denver's massive "graveyard" of dead trees, trunks, and stumps. The salvaged trees were then transported and installed into the park sites by city staff.

"This tree graveyard, It's just acres and acres of cut-down trees," says Dodds. We spent hours just running around, like kids, looking at all the trees, figuring out which one is cute, which one isn't. There was a childlike joy in it. It was a really fun experience."

The sound totems will remain in the parks for at least a year. Pike is seeking a permanent home -- as well as opportunities to build more.

"I hope this lives on forever," she says. "I want to go into places where, whoever wants one, they can have one. I wouldn't be able to stop making these if I tried."

Read more articles by Laura Bond.

A former editor and staff writer with Westword, Laura Bond has written for Rolling StoneUSAA and Spin, among others. She is the principal of Laura Bond, Ink., a content and communications strategy firm that serves nonprofits across metro Denver.
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