Video games inspire sculptor with works at Denver Botanic Gardens

Steel and paint are mediums for expression in pieces on display


Sculptor Mike Whiting brings his memories of vintage 1980s video games (Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, etc.) into another realm as a visitor finds his oversized images amidst the flowers, trees and shrubs that ordinarily inhabit the lush, green Denver Botanic Gardens/York Street grounds in the “Pixelated” sculpture exhibit.

Gardens CEO Brian Vogt, a Littleton native, spoke before a press tour: “The relationship between human life and the natural world dates back 5,000 years … the power of nature, Mike’s video games … The games manipulate that world.”

Whiting said: “I had to fill in the blanks! ... Really, the whole world is pixelated.”

The sculptor arrived to lead a tour appropriately attired in a floral-printed shirt.

At the entrance to DBG, one meets “Ghost and Castle,” (2016) two pieces created with paint and steel, as are all 11 of Whiting’s sculptures tucked into the Gardens. “They are a visual palindrome,” he remarked as he started walking through his works, “the opposite of each other,” related to the game Castles.

“When developing ideas, I draw in Microsoft Paint,” Whiting said. “Then I go to a 3-D modeling program. The pieces are all welded from the inside, as well, and the finish is automotive paint for those under 1,000 pounds … I beat them up with sanders,” he added, wanting some rust to be part of the design.

“Bird” (2012), a very large avian image in robin’s egg blue, was commissioned for a bird-watching spot, he said, and the smaller, orange “Birdie” is exhibited at Brigham Young University (his school). “Buck” (2007) is tucked into a grove of trees, the sort of setting you’d imagine finding a deer, munching on plants and grass. Loaned by the Brigham Young University Museum of Art, it is scratched and “feels like an old pickup truck,” Whiting observed. Asked if the scratches bothered him, he talked about “natural, but not nice …,” adding that “once sold, it’s not mine anymore.” A New York gallery owner bought one with graffiti, he recalled — “that’s part of the history…

“I grew up in the West, around lots of old cars …,” he said.

Along a path, reflected in the pond, one finds “Pinkie” and “Mr. Green” (2007), a pair of smaller sculptures, loaned by the City and County of Denver. They are old and scuffed — and two of Whiting’s favorites. “Mr. Green” is after Whiting’s father-in-law.

Whiting usually works on three or four sculptures at a time in his studio. “The smaller pieces are harder to fabricate,” he added, “a challenge to weld from the inside.” The larger “Wave” (2018) was especially made for this exhibit and he was especially pleased with the siting of “Cactus” in the Rock Garden — “one of the most beautifully situated in the exhibit.” It’s modeled after one he saw in a cactus house. Grasses connect with it visually and he was really thinking of a Tupperware color for “Wave,” as he created a page of drawings. “It was really hard to weld inside,’ he recalls.

Other pieces include the older, lavender “Pigeon,” a “Sailboat,” “Cathead” and “Garden Gnome” — of course!

Children will enjoy taking the photo guide that comes with a ticket and seeking each piece across the grounds — as will adults, actually …


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