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Local artists invited to make a splash with public art project

Posted: May 23, 2012 - 11:02pm
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A dorsal view of the partially completed foam "point up" of the full-size humpback whale sculpture being creating by Skip Wallen.  Courtesy of R.T. Wallen
Courtesy of R.T. Wallen
A dorsal view of the partially completed foam "point up" of the full-size humpback whale sculpture being creating by Skip Wallen.

A dozen new public art pieces will soon be springing up around Juneau – and local artists have been invited to help design them.

The project, organized by the Whale Committee, is designed to raise funds for and awareness of the 25-foot bronze whale sculpture currently being created by artist R.T. “Skip” Wallen for the Juneau waterfront. In keeping with the whale theme, the 12 public art pieces are shaped like whales tails; each one is six feet high. Visual artists are invited to submit their ideas for embellishing, painting or otherwise artistically altering one of the resin tails – the sky’s the limit. Applications are due June 1.

Artists will receive a stipend from local sponsors that will also cover the cost of materials.

After they are decorated, the tails will be publicly displayed throughout the summer, at which point they will go up for auction.

Kathy Ruddy, chair of the Whale Committee, said she hopes the project will increase awareness of the bronze whale sculpture, now at stage two in a four part process. Spike, the small version of the sculpture now placed at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center, was the first step, and the second step, a full size foam model, has recently been completed.

“We’re doing it in stages. The first stage was Spike, the second stage is the foam – (which we’ve) completed – and the third stage is the mold, and the fourth stage is the casting.”

Ruddy said the finished whale has the power to redefine the Juneau waterfront and become the distinctive icon for our city. The big whale will be the largest sculpture in the state of Alaska, outsizing Wallen’s Land Lease Memorial in Fairbanks.

“We believe that the full size whale will be as distinctive for Juneau as the Space Needle is for Seattle or the Little Mermaid (bronze sculpture) is for Copenhagen or things like that,” Ruddy said.

Other iconic bronze sculptures include the bronze bull on Wall Street in New York City and the bronze Piggy Bank in Pike Place Market in Seattle.

Wallen has created other prominent art pieces around town, including the “Windfall Fisherman” near the Dimond Courthouse, and the “Gang of Four” in front of DIPAC. He has also created works in other cities, such as the Cougars sculptures at the University of Houston and “Sightless Among Miracles,” at the Carter Center.

Ruddy said Wallen’s whale will be distinctive for its size, its artistry and for its meticulous attention to detail.

“Skip has examined the skeleton of a whale so he’s got the jaw just right, he studied the anatomy of the eye, he’s studied the barnacles for the exact size and shape, and we’ve got the big dipper and the north star on (the whale’s) right jaw.”

The whale will also be a fountain, with water coming from a blowhole and from the pleats on his belly. A reflecting pool will be built around it.

“We want to recreate the experience of being on a boat and having a humpback blast out of the water near you,” Ruddy said. “It’s a breathtaking experience.”

In addition to being a distinctive piece of art for Juneau, the sculpture will also call attention to Juneau’s whale watching industry, she said, which is still growing.

“The whale watching industry in Juneau has really blossomed,” she said. “The analysis we had last year was that it is a 20 million dollar industry. About 200,000 people go out every year, for whales, at $100 a pop, from Juneau. So our industry is worth about 20 million.”

The original idea for the waterfront whale began with former Juneau Mayor Bill Overstreet, who approached Wallen with the idea back in 1993. Though a proposal was written around that time, it was subsequently put aside, but was resurrected last year as a way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of statehood.

Ruddy said its especially fitting for Wallen to make the sculpture, as he created the Windfall Fisherman to celebrate the state’s 25th.

The idea for the resin whales tails came from two other Whale committee members, Ruddy said, Sharon Kelly and Laraine Derr. The women had seen similar projects in other cities and thought it would appeal to Juneau’s artists. Ruddy said they hope to generate a range of submissions from professional artists to students and that there is no limit to what people can suggest.

“We’ve got all sorts of artists with all sorts of ideas,” she said. “They’ve got ideas on top of ideas.”

Ruddy said the resin whales tails are virtually indestructible -- provided that artists use weather-proof material for their designs, they are safe to be placed outside.

The tails were created by Pedar Dalthorp and his sculpture students at UAS. They students also created the molds used to make the tails. Each of the resin tales is 6 feet tall, about 3 and half feet in diameter at the ground and weighs 55 pounds.

For more information, visit www.facebook.com/pages/The-Whale-Project/159864006141 and jahc.org/contribute/whale-tail-trail/.

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