Houston, we have two bronze cougars

Posted: Thursday, October 23, 2003

Four years ago, San Diego Padres majority owner John Moores and his wife, Rebecca, asked Juneau artist and sculptor Skip Wallen to design two bronze cougars to guard the entrance to the University of Houston Cougars' AthleticAlumni Building.

This August, Moores decided he had a problem with the finished cats.

"They were too big and too nice," he said.

So Moores, Wallen and university officials - with the help of trucks and cranes - moved the cougars to a more central location.

The cats, 13 and 14 feet long and 34 inches from the chest to the back, now guard a quadrangle and reflective pool by the Ezekiel W. Cullen Building in the middle of campus. The project took 312 years to complete, and the cougars were commemorated Aug. 12.

"Skip is painfully slow on his work and outrageously optimistic on how quickly he can get it done, but the quality of the work is simply stunning," Moores said. "When I see what he's done, I'm still amazed."

The Moores, Houston graduates, donated the athletic building. Four years ago, they decided to donate two cougar icons. They immediately thought of Wallen.

Wallen and Moores met in the 1980s when Wallen's "Windfall Fisherman," the bronze brown bear that now guards the Dimond Courthouse in downtown Juneau, was on temporary display in Avon, Colo.

Wallen made Moores a smaller copy of the bear, and the two later worked on a series of sculptures for Moores' River Blindness Foundation, an institute fighting the tropical disease, which affects 80 million people worldwide.

Wallen visited the Houston campus with Moores and decided to make two cougars - one for offense and one for defense. The male cat, crouching in a defensive stance, ended up 14 feet long. The female, prowling in attack position, is 13 feet long.

"I thought a lot about the environment here in Texas, and I thought a lot about the icon dealing with the university," Wallen said. "You've got to have a sense of how it's going to look on paper and how it's going to look outdoors. You want to have enough care with the buildings, so No. 1, it isn't diminished by the buildings, and No. 2, it doesn't take over that space."

Wallen worked with two cougars at the MacKenzie Environmental Center in Poynette, Wis., to create 30-inch maquettes, or models. He cast a few models from the maquettes and scaled up the design to make frameworks for the life-size works.

"There's always a sense of trepidation," Wallen said. "You're working toward an end that's going to be metal. There's always a worry that you've made a mistake. You don't know how it's going to appear in its final environment."

The full cougars were so large, he could only make one at a time in his Douglas Island studio. The bronze work was completed at Parks Bronze Foundry in Enterprise, Ore.

The steps:

• THE ORIGINAL POSITIVE: A supporting structure can be done in any material. The armature for "Windfall Fisherman" was created out of metal and wood.

"You cover the structure with clay in order to do the detail work," Wallen said. "Eyes, nose and ears and anything that's projecting that could be damaged in the original: I do these areas in wax because it's harder and stronger."

Wallen carved the cougars' claws out of Alaska cedar.

• RUBBER AND PLASTIC MOLD NEGATIVE: "You take a negative impression of the original in latex," Wallen said. "It's painted on and remembers detail. It doesn't have any rigidity so it has to be backed by something rigid."

Wallen used plaster, grass and straw for one cougar; fiberglass for the other. Molds are taken of each section. The foundry took 20 to 30 different molds of each cougar.

• WAX-CASTED POSITIVE: At the foundry, workers paint wax inside of the molds until the wax is a quarter-inch thick. When the wax hardens, what's left is a positive copy that looks like the sculpture.

• CERAMIC MOLD NEGATIVE: The wax is fitted with little tubes - sprues and vents - and dipped into molten ceramic material. The mold is heated in a kiln to melt the wax and dry it out. The tubes allow the hot gases and wax to escape.

• MOLTEN POSITIVE: Molten bronze is poured into the ceramic mold. The ceramic glows red, smoke rises, and the new positive takes a day or so to cool. Finally, workers with sledgehammers chip away on the ceramic to reveal the bronze shape.

"At that point you have to have faith that this whole thing is going to work," Wallen said.

• THE CLEANUP: The bronze is still covered with bits of ceramic and needs to be cleaned. The pieces are joined but still have imperfections.

"You go after the metal with tools and try to make the texture run across the joints so the joints disappear," Wallen said. "I would say this is the most unpleasant part of it. It's a lot of noise and grinding and a lot of hard work. When you're finished, a person should be able to look at the piece and not say where those lines were."



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