by Larry Kline
New York City and Havre may not seem to have much in common on the surface, but there is at least one connection: well-known sculptor Tom Otterness. Otterness, who has had numerous public works commissioned in American and European cities, sees another similarity as well- attitude.
Canyons of steel and concrete, buzzing byways and lack of sleep aside, New Yorkers share a common demeanor with the people who live quieter lives among the plains of green and gold that characterize north-central Montana, he said.
"I think New Yorkers and Montanans are a lot alike," Otterness said this week during an interview at his home west of Havre. "They're independent and eccentric, with a 'don't mess with me' attitude. I like that."
Otterness, along with his wife and daughter, have adopted Havre as their second home. The artist travels between our little town and the big city regularly during summers.
Otterness is known for sculptures that depict cartoonish characters in emotionally and symbolically charged situations. His work has been on display in some of the world's finest art museums and adorns public areas from Germany to The Netherlands and in U.S. cities such as his hometown of Wichita, Kan.; Lubbock, Texas; Spokane, Wash.; as well as Cleveland, Los Angeles and New York City.
The sculptor recently had a public display along a five-mile stretch of Broadway in New York. Most of those works are now on temporary display in Indianapolis through the end of July.
He also recently installed "Large Covered Wagon" at Pioneer Park in Walla Walla, Wash. The work, which is 8 feet high and 15 feet long, depicts an American family traversing the continent by wagon. Dad is a bull with shoes and overalls, while Mom smokes a corncob pipe in the driver's seat and a sibling rivalry unfolds in the rear.
Otterness lists his main influence as the animation of the early 20th century, particularly films created by Disney in the 1920s and 1930s. The shapes used to create characters like Mickey Mouse are simple and easy to meld into whimsical new characters that can be appreciated by viewers of all ages and backgrounds. One of Otterness' goals is to use these visions of childhood to spark discussions about issues more related to the modern adult world.
"It's a language everybody understands," he said. "It's very simple and very flexible. You can stretch the legs and arms. You can do anything with that kind of animation. It's just something I grew up with. I also like that early animation had a dark side. It was a tougher kind of animation in the '20s than it was later on. They're a little more adult-oriented, those earlier animations."
In Otterness' studio, a character can be drawn from a Jonathan Swift story or a piece of classical mythology, or it can have no ties to anything outside his own mind. Over the years, he has come to use characters representative of different economic and social backgrounds. Otterness creates vignettes involving blue- and white-collar workers, cops, radicals wearing nothing but little pointed hats, and his favorite - the wealthy.
"They're the easiest to make fun of," Otterness said.
"I take those five types and make vignettes of meaning out of them," he said. "We don't talk about class and money in general. I think that's a good thing for public sculpture to do - talk about class, sex, race and money. At its best, (sculpture) allows people to talk to each other about those things through the work."
Not only does Otterness want viewers of his works to discuss voluptuous couples dancing on bags of money or poor children and their faithful canine companions lamenting life's cruelties, he wants audiences to interact with sculptures as objects in their own world. His works sit on the same benches or walk on the same grounds as their human counterparts.
"The sculpture comes off the pedestal," he said. "One of my biggest pleasures is to watch people in the public react to my work - to hear them have a conversation about it or touch it," Otterness said.
One such conversation piece created by Otterness was "Makin' Hay," a temporary exhibition he constructed in 2002 as part of the What the Hay show near Utica in central Montana. The outdoor art exhibit features large works made out of hay bales.
Otterness said he would be interested in doing more public art in Montana.
"I'd be happy to," he said. "I'd love to do some permanent public work in Montana. Nothing's come up so far."
He generally competes with other artists for public art commissions, and the work is often done in conjunction with the construction of a new building.
Otterness employs 20 people to help him produce his work. All of his pieces start off as drawings. He then makes a small-scale model using water-based clay. From there, he uses rubber molds and plaster casts to create a full-size version of the piece.
Otterness sometimes uses foundaries to make the final product, though he can do it all in his studio in New York. Workers use a process that has been around for thousands of years to create the final piece in bronze sections, which are then welded together.
Otterness began visiting north-central Montana a little more than 15 years ago. His wife, Coleen Fitzgibbon, has family in the area. The couple decided about 10 years ago to buy a house west of Havre, and have been spending part of their year here ever since. Their 13-year-old daughter, Kelly, now goes to school in New York, so the family comes to relax in the area during summer.
"One place is the cure for the other," Otterness said. "If it's too much in New York, I come out here for a break. If I get bored here, I go to New York. It seems like a pretty good balance - a million people and then nobody."
While he is able to maintain a degree of anonymity in the big city, sometimes the art world catches up to him there.
"It's nice to come out and just think about something else and have a normal life out here. People out here are thinking about normal, regular life instead of art."
He's had no trouble plugging into the local art scene, and he said he was impressed with the size, variety and quality of the creative community. Some of that creativity probably stems from the same things that led him into art decades ago, he added.
"Sometimes I think it's just boredom," Otterness said. "The landscape is kind of minimal and bleak, and you've got to do something to occupy your mind. I know it was true in Kansas."
Hill County reminds Otterness of home, he said.
"I like this flat stuff out here," he said. "It looks like Kansas should have looked."
Otterness was born in Wichita in 1952. A creek behind his house was an easy source of clay, which he began molding at about age 6. From there, he began drawing and painting.
He moved to New York City in 1970, studying painting early on before moving into sculpture. He began making small plaster casts, selling them on street corners for $5.
He moved to Italy for a year and studied bronze casting. While there, he was inspired by a piece at the Vatican depicting the Greek hero Hercules. Otterness cast his own version of the sculpture, removed the eyes and called it "Head."
The work began his career in earnest. He now has a worldwide exclusive agreement with Marlborough, a firm with galleries in New York, London, Madrid and Santiago, Chile.
Otterness said he never really imagined his career would go this far.
"I somehow knew I would be an artist from the beginning, but I could never imagine this life," he said. "It's really a rewarding thing to make art."
Five years after the original "Head," Otterness created another piece with the same title. That "Head" was recently displayed for nine months in the sculpture garden at the newly renovated and expanded Museum of Modern Art in New York. Otterness said he was honored to have his work placed alongside those created by Picasso, Rodin, Alexander Calder and Henry Moore.
"It's still a little hard for me to believe," he said. "I grew up going there to study the masters. It felt strange to be alongside them."
Otterness makes a living off his art, but said money is not the only reward. He enjoys making sculpture for the sake of it, he said.
Art is something anyone can create, if they take the time and put in the effort, Otterness said, adding that aspiring artists should "be very persistent and very patient."