Tom Otterness’ has gained a worldwide reputation for his whimsical bronze figures. His trademark sculptures can be found in major American cities, including New York, Pittsburg and Dallas, as well as in the Netherlands, Israel, Spain, Japan and Mexico. And in every location, the figures tell us something specific about the place they’re in. When Otterness was invited to create a sculpture for Western, he visited the campus to seek creative inspiration. Here he relates what he saw during his visit.
“When I was first invited to the campus, I had a blank slate as to what I would be doing. I walked through the whole campus area and came across the plaza where Feats of Strength was eventually placed. I found the plaza really engaging, both the design itself and the way the students were using it. My work was in response to what I saw there. I sat around for the afternoon and drew sketches. I watched how students sat on the stones and slept; how the light fell across the plaza and in what direction; what the main gathering points were; and where the traffic was heaviest and what this traffic flow was like. I built my drawings of both students and placement of figures and boulders in that one afternoon.”
“I initially liked the plaza’s abstract representation of a landscape. I liked the idea of layering on top of the plaza a kind of a fiction of how it was made, a little architectural creation myth. These are the small bronze figures dragging the stones around and moving them into place. I think closer to the time when I made it I would have described it more literally. Now I see as a three-layered abstraction where one layer is the architectural work that was there before I began. Another layer is the semi-reality of these bronze characters and an invented kind of making of that plaza that already existed. Then, the third layer would be the viewer walking around.”
“At the time I worked on Feats of Strength, I also was designing Rock Man in Minneapolis. One project would influence the other, back and forth. For the Minneapolis piece, I made both the figures and boulders out of bronze and animated the boulders. For Western’s work, I advanced the idea in that I used the real rocks. At Western, there’s a real conviction about their weight and their reality, that these little figures have really picked up a 2,500 pound rock. I guess that idea then carried forward to the work I did with Maya Lin at the Cleveland Public Library, where I had the figures pick up the garden gate itself. It has been a continuing process of trying to give this Mighty Mouse strength to small bronzes and this was the first step in picking up something literal in the “real” world. Feats of Strength would have been a completely different work at any other site on Western’s campus. The original site was a fascinating design with the blend of the artificial and the natural and this representation in miniature of a larger context around Bellingham, around Western Washington.”