Meet Umi, the ‘powerful’ sculpture by a world-famous artist that now sits in a suburban Colorado field

Sep 22, 2023

Hear from the world-renowned sculptor behind Umi, the massive sculpture installed at the Aurora Highlands

AURORA, Colo. — Developers behind The Aurora Highlands project have dreams of a 50,000-resident master-planned community between Buckley Space Force Base and Denver International Airport.

And while the neighborhood is still a work in progress – it’s waiting on about 49,000 of those people to move in – perhaps its most famous resident is already there, in the form of a fully-finished masterpiece.

That resident is Umi, a towering two-story-tall public art installation that now sits in the middle of Hogan Park, a largely empty field that will one day be surrounded by homes and oft-occupied by recreating residents.

Umi’s arrival isn’t intriguing only for her currently-barren surroundings, though.

Her creator is Daniel Popper, a world-renowned sculptor and installation artist whose work has been featured at some of the most high-profile events and festivals around the globe.

The question you may well be asking is: How does the work of a world-famous artist end up in largely undeveloped Aurora? That’s a story that takes us from South Africa to Chicago before ending in Colorado.



First, who is Umi?

Umi is a 20-foot-tall sculpture created with steel and glass fiber reinforced concrete. But, as with most art, there’s a bigger meaning to the very big piece.

“Umi” is Arabic for “mother,” Popper told Denver7 during a video interview from his home in Cape Town, South Africa.

The sculpture, he says, pays homage to motherhood and to Mother Nature through its composition – roots forming a dome-shaped base as well as the body and hair of a woman.

“It’s this feminine deity that’s holding her womb, that’s creating a space for people to enter in, people to engage with each other inside,” he said. “[She] is made of nature, is nature. And it’s sort of giving this message of nurturing.”

It’s a message the folks behind the Aurora Highlands say has been well received.

“We’ve heard from people who look at this and feel empowered to be a woman. We’ve heard from mothers who say, even on hard days, they come here and [think], ‘Wow, I’m a powerful person,” said Liz Kotalik, the publicist for the development.

Kotalik says people have come from across the state to see the sculpture, and that it’s garnered quasi-viral traction on social media.

“There’s no right or wrong way to look at Umi,” Kotalik said. “But the fact that people are coming here and having the experience is just incredible. And the fact that it’s happened so quickly, I think, is a testament to how powerful this piece is.”



Who is Daniel Popper?

In 2006, Popper was finishing a degree in painting. Creating large-scale sculptures that would gain international fame was “not even in the realms of possibility,” he told Denver7.

Painting for art galleries and the like, though, “didn’t sit well” with him and he never gained a passion for the more traditional art form. In 2007, AfrikaBurn – akin to the Burning Man festival we know in the U.S. – came to South Africa and granted Popper his first opportunity to create a more interactive piece.

“My brain started working in another kind of way,” he said, “and I really just started to follow that.”

Three years later, he was creating large-scale pieces for the FIFA World Cup in his home country. One of his first high-profile international ventures was Portugal’s Boom Festival in 2012. The rest, as they say, was history.

“Once you have a few under your belt, you get to meet more and more people in the industry, and then people do reach out to you,” Popper said, adding that the rise of social media helped his ascent to international notoriety. “I think Instagram really helped a lot with people getting to see what I could do. And it was from there that things really started to move globally.”



So, how did Umi wind up in Aurora?

Umi was originally created for the Human + Nature exhibit at Chicago’s Morton Arboretum, which ran from May of 2021 to February of this year.

She caught the attention of developers at the Aurora Highlands, where several other large-scale artworks have already been installed despite the early stages of home construction in the neighborhood.

“The developers are big lovers of art,” Kotalik said. “They believe that art is an incredible medium, not just for the artists, but also for people who are viewing it, for people to kind of feel a sense of creativity and be inspired by something that’s bigger than themselves.”

Umi was deconstructed and shipped from Illinois to Colorado, where she was rebuilt – a move that allowed Popper to fine-tune the sculpture for its permanent home.

“I remember walking away [from the installation in Chicago] and just being like, ‘I wish I had more time to fix that,’” he said. “I sort of made a mental note that, if that sculpture does go live somewhere permanently, there were some significant changes that I wanted to make.”

“When we got [to Aurora, we] had an opportunity to refine it and fix little things here and there and fix the proportions.”

Once those changes were made – down to the details on Umi’s face and hands, according to Kotalik – multiple cranes were used to lift the pieces into place.

“Just making sure that every piece of this was perfect,” Kotalik said, “and it was the Umi that Daniel had always wanted her to be.”

Popper, who lived in the Longmont area for two years with his wife, told Denver7 he had hoped to return to Colorado for an installation. The friendly people, and the affinity for the Colorado outdoors, reminded him of his mountainous home country of South Africa.

“What I loved about [Colorado] was how much people really enjoyed spending time outside,” Popper said. “It’s a real part of everyone’s value system to be outside. […] So I really enjoyed living there. And when I did live there, I really thought, ‘One day I hope I get an opportunity to build a sculpture somewhere in Colorado.’ And a few years later it happens. So that’s awesome.”



A months-long process

Building a 20-foot-tall sculpture, as one might imagine, doesn’t happen in an instant. Nor does the idea. “Inspiration finds you working,” Popper said in a nod to Pablo Picasso.

It can take six months to a year to go from conception of the idea to the finished product, he said.

For Popper’s particular line of work, the process involves journaling and sketching out several iterations of the design. Then, technology gets involved. There’s sculpting in 3D software, 3D printing to better grasp proportions and then things like CNC routing, a manufacturing tool that builds three-dimensional objects from a block of wood or foam.

After that, there’s understanding how the interior steel beams need to be constructed to fit the pieces of the structure together. Then it’s live sculpting with the actual material – glass fiber reinforced concrete, in Umi’s case – with trowels and rakes, and finally painting and staining.

“Each step along the way requires focus. And there’s moments of change and inspiration. And then there’s always a huge element of doubt […] which I think is very healthy as I’m never really sure if I’m quite satisfied.”