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Bronze whale project gets funding push

Posted: June 21, 2012 - 12:06am
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Gabriel Smetzer paints a resin humpback whale's tail as his father, Jerry, picks flies out of the wet paint on Tuesday. Smetzer is painting one of ten tail sculptures for the public art project designed to support the continued creation of a 25-foot bronze whale sculpture by Skip Wallen for the Juneau waterfront. The project is being organized by the Whale Committee.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Gabriel Smetzer paints a resin humpback whale's tail as his father, Jerry, picks flies out of the wet paint on Tuesday. Smetzer is painting one of ten tail sculptures for the public art project designed to support the continued creation of a 25-foot bronze whale sculpture by Skip Wallen for the Juneau waterfront. The project is being organized by the Whale Committee.

Whale sightings on the way to Horse and Colt islands over the weekend were far and few between, but soon there will be one for all to see in Juneau that’s hard to miss.

A group of about 50 people purchased $100 tickets and embarked on a whale watching tour aboard the St. Phillip around Juneau on Friday evening.

It was the Whale Sculpture Committee’s latest fundraising effort, but one of many to come as the group is in the midst of raising money to finish building a life-size bronze whale sculpture for Juneau’s waterfront.

“We can all see it in our mind’s eye,” said Kathy Ruddy, who chairs the committee. “We can see it there. We can see people having their breath taken away. We can see it being a huge draw for the tourism potential of the City and Borough of Juneau.”

The whale sculpture has been in the making for a while. The idea for it has been around even longer. In fact, its original proposal sat in a drawer for than a decade.

The seed of the idea began with Bill Overstreet, now dubbed the official “visionary” of the whale committee. He served as Juneau’s mayor from 1976 to 1983, and then went on to represent the state’s office of international trade.

While in Tokyo on a business trip in that capacity, Overstreet was overwhelmed by a beautiful whale sculpture he saw in Tokyo’s zoo. He said it reminded him of the bronze bear sculpture artist R.T. “Skip” Wallen created to commemorate Alaska’s 25th anniversary of statehood called the “Windfall Fisherman” which sits near the Dimond Courthouse in downtown Juneau.

“So all I got to do is give Skip this idea for a whale, and he’ll make a grant,” Overstreet remembers thinking to himself. “And so I did talk to him. And sure enough, he did come up with a proposal that was really quite extensive.”

Looking back, Wallen said he remembered “(Overstreet) was back in Juneau and whenever we’d run into each other on the street, he’d mention that he thought Alaska should have a whale sculpture.”

Wallen submitted his proposal to the city, but it failed to ignite any local interest at the time, probably due to the expense involved, Overstreet said.

“I just put the plan away and thought nothing of it for a long time,” he said.

Overstreet, now 86, cleared out his desk full of old papers about four or five years ago and came across the old proposal.

“I re-read it, and I went to see the mayor and started talking with people in town,” Overstreet said.

This time around, it began to garner interest. The whale sculpture idea was resurrected, and this time, time was on its side. The 50th anniversary of statehood was just around the corner.

“For 13 years the proposal lay dormant,” Wallen said. “Then, as Juneau’s 50th anniversary of statehood was approaching, I had a phone call. Was I still interested in doing the whale sculpture? I was.”

“Everybody seemed enthused about the idea, so that was really the way it started,” Overstreet said.

Since that time, the 50th anniversary of statehood has come and gone. But the project, which has a $2.2 million price tag, has made tangible strides toward becoming a reality and is now closer than ever.

“The Windfall Fisherman didn’t get placed until 27 years after statehood, so if we get placed by 52 we’ll be happy,” Ruddy quipped. “When you’re thinking in terms of hundreds of years, it’s OK to be a little late.”

The whale sculpture itself is expected to be about 27 feet tall and to weigh more than 6,000 pounds once it’s bronzed. It will be placed in what’s called an “infinity pool” which is a reflecting pool that appears as if the water flows and vanishes off its edge. It will be situated in a brick plaza somewhere on the waterfront.

The Juneau whale is being billed as potentially as iconoclastic as Seattle’s Space Needle or Sydney’s Opera House.

“We think we’re going to have a piece of art that indeed will be an icon for Juneau and all of Alaska,” Overstreet said. “And it will be on all the travel brochures.”

The sculpture — and funding for it — has come a long way since its days in the desk drawer. There are five phases of the project, two of which are now complete.

The first phase was creating a maquette, or study model, of the life-size whale. Wallen created and completed a 1/3 scale whale named Spike for the University of Alaska Southeast last May.

The second phase was sending Wallen to a studio to create a life-scale armature, or core in rigid foam, of the sculpture.

“We voted to send him, and he went right down there and he started carving, and, Kaboom! We got a photo of it. He completed it — it seemed like overnight,” Ruddy said of the piece built at the Additive Workshop in Wilsonville, Ore..

The third phase of the project will be to cut the foam whale down into moveable pieces with a chain saw, pack it into a truck, and move it across the state to the Park Bronze Foundry in Enterprise, Ore. There, Wallen will be able to do the molds. The fourth phase is the bronzing, and the fifth phase is moving it and placing it in Juneau.

Ruddy says she would be happy if it can all be completed two years from now. But its progress is dependent on its funding.

The Whale Sculpture Committee, which first operated under the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council before becoming a independent citizen’s nonprofit group about two years ago, has raised about $350,000 of $2.2 million so far. The city also voted in 2008 to fund $1.2 million for the landscaping and placement of the sculpture. That’s leaves about $650,000 more to raise.

Committee Treasurer Laraine Derr said the group has multiple fundraising ideas to keep the project going. There are efforts like the whale watching tour Friday evening, which raised $5,000. The group is also selling bricks, which can be engraved with names to memorialize loved ones, that will be placed in the plaza. That has raised about $10,000 so far, Derr said.

The biggest push that is coming up is the auction of the 10 whale tail sculptures that were created to promote the project. Ten local artists are decorating the tails, which are sponsored by local businesses and will be sold at a live auction on Sept. 15.

“That’ll be the next big push as we go forward,” Derr said.

Derr said she hopes the tails sell for $5,000 a piece for a total donation of $50,000.

She said it’s a hard sell to raise this kind of money, but it has been a positive experience overall where people are willing to donate.

Overstreet said the whale sculpture project has become a pet project for him in the past couple years, and that he wants to see it through to the end.

“It’s been something constructive to do for the community that’s been awfully good to me,” he smiled.

He said it happened to be a combination of circumstances that have led the project to get rolling this far, especially after nearly not happening at all.

“It just all came together,” he said.

He added, “We once had a mayor in Juneau named Wayne Johnson, and he was famous in the minds of some of us for having observed: ‘Juneau never rejects a good idea, but it sometimes delays its implementation until it’s ungodly in its cause.’ And that’s about what we got here.”

Overstreet said he’s confident the sculpture of the whale breaching in the water will be something locals and tourists alike can enjoy on the waterfront.

“It will be that place where you have to take your visitors if you’re a Juneauite ... and a million tourists a year come through here, and that’ll be the thing that they remember most about our town,” he said.

He paused and then added, “Maybe not the most. After the glacier.”

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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