There are a few enchanted spots in Denver where there are tiny, singing doors on the side of trees. Stumble across one, open it, and if you’re lucky, sweet sounds will begin to flow from within.
These doors are called “sound totems” and are the brainchild of artist Nikki Pike. Over the past six years, with the help of engineer Tom Dodds, Pike has set up five totems across town. Each plays music or spoken word from residents of the totem’s neighborhood.
Pike says it’s an attempt to inform people about the creative life around them, and now she’d like to open the door to pitches from more local artists.
Pike’s home in the Skyland neighborhood sticks out as the artist’s pad on the block. Her front yard is complete with a massive, steampunk jack-o-lantern and towering blades of grass like something out of “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids.” Out back, past the chicken coop and the clover ring she’s cultivating, is her workshop. Inside, she opens a door that’s yet to be placed in the wild and smiles as the music plays.
“That moment of surprise,” she said, “that’s the whole point of my work.”
There’s something about the mystery of a closed door, she said, coupled with the electronic brains inside, that revives a childlike wonder inside of us. “We lose that,” she said.
Pike had a child two years ago. Watching her kid navigate the world with that innate curiosity has renewed her focus on the reactions she hopes her audience feels.
The first sound totem went up along 17th Avenue at the corner of Washington Street. Rigged with a solar panel and perfectly fitted into a hollow, you might think it really belonged there. But Pike was working without any permission when she installed the piece in broad daylight.
This is tricky. On one hand, Pike said the tree is on city property and, maybe, as a taxpayer, she has some rights to beautify the spot. Furthermore, she did her research and talked to a couple of arborists who told her that covering the tree’s hollow is actually shielding a potentially vulnerable spot from further damage.
But, despite her good intentions, Pike was breaking a city ordinance. Specifically, her work is “unauthorized use of trees on public property.” Section 57-26 of Denver’s code of ordinances states that “it shall be unlawful for any person,” other than city-sanctioned workers, to “climb, and/or attach any lumber, fabric, wire, nails, bolts, cables, ropes or any other material foreign to the natural growth of a tree to any tree located within the public right-of-way, or other public place.”
During installation, she said, “I thought I’d be excused or arrested.”
But nothing ever happened, and nobody stopped her as she maintained and replaced the piece over the next few years. Actually, quite the opposite happened: regulars at the Avenue Grill across the street started to complain when the piece was removed for maintenance.
Pike said she’s spoken with the city forestry office. They know about her work. While they’re not exactly on board with it, they’ve allowed the 17th and Washington totem to stay, for now.
Pike thinks they like the work, just not the placement. It’s something like, “You really shouldn’t do this but it’s awesome,” she said.
The biggest sign that the city was interested in the concept was a $6,500 grant in 2014 through Denver Arts and Venues’ P.S. You Are Here project. The support allowed her to install totems — in dead trees — in McDonough, Huston Lake and Boyd Parks. Pike says it might have been their way of pointing her toward more sanctioned work.
“It’s about striving for democracy,” Pike said.
While she and collaborator Dodds are engrossed by the conceptual and technical challenges in maintaining the totems across town, Pike said the work really has nothing to do with her. It’s about the moment someone notices the door and engages with it.
And, she says, the work also belongs to the communities surrounding each piece. The fact that each totem contains sounds made by people who live nearby, she said, makes the work about awareness, too.
“People don’t need to hear pop music, they need to hear what’s happening in their neighborhood,” she said.
Featured so far is music by local jazz legend Charlie Burrell, Christopher Guillot, and Native Daughters, to name just a few.
And now Pike and Dodds’ work has taken a new form downtown. They’ve just completed a series of new steam-punky wheels in the Dairy Block’s yet-to-be-opened and art-filled alleyway. Turn the crank to hear a 15-second composition by one of seven Denver Symphony musicians.
And again, Pike emphasized the importance of the content for this installation: she’s got it written into her contract that the music inside of each crank must pass her approval.
We won’t tell you exactly where each totem lives. We’ll leave the hunt, and that sweet moment of discovery, up to you.