Eugene’s sculptors often labor anonymously while their work goes outside of the area
The Chicago sculpture “Cloud Gate” is more well known by its affectionate nickname, “the bean.” A Tetris-blocked skyline warps in its curves and bodies wrap into its concave, the everyday imitated from a warbled bifocal. Flocks of families, tourists and passersby stop to admire the 2,178 square feet of reflective steel surrounding the mirrored droplet designed by Anisha Kapoor.
“Cloud Gate” is that rare sculpture that’s well-known across the general population. It’s large, in a well-traveled area and easy to interact with.
Like “Cloud Gate, Peter Helzer’s “The Storyteller” that commemorates Ken Kesey sits in an open square central to downtown. And, similarly, the three-dimensional piece of art is meant to memorialize the impact of people and events so that, looking forward, we may understand where we came from. While this work may bring remembrance, though, it does not assure fame or even a steady income stream for artists behind the creations.
This relative anonymity and uncertainty, however, is part of the deal for two Eugene sculptors.
For decades, Mark Andrew and Lee Imonen have dedicated themselves to sculpture. The purpose is not to celebrate themselves or their creations, but to honor their subjects and evoke emotion even beyond their own lifetimes.These two men exemplify sculpture’s aesthetic of bringing tangible definition to those figures and circumstances that have shaped the everyday in which we exist. At the same time, Andrew and Imonen show how challenging it can be to afford the time, preparation and finances required to erect public sculpture.
Sculpture exists as a universality while sending an individual message. Similar to “Cloud Gate,” Andrew’s work encompasses art’s intention: to make the world felt, to show the world through the artist’s eyes and to amplify perceptions, for better or for worse.
Andrew began sculpting in 1973, arriving back from Eugene after several years in Europe. After taking a job with General Electric, Andrew’s father moved the family to Switzerland when he was just 17. Traveling through northern Italy, the young man was drawn to sculptures adorning town squares.
“To be there several hundred years later and still be moved by the energy of the piece, I hadn’t ever experienced anything like that,” Andrew said.
To Andrew, he could see and touch those people and moments that these cities celebrated, sculpted monuments meant to inspire generation upon generation, stone carvings that witnessed whole lives ebbing and flowing before them.
“You get goose bumps on your arms and your knees feel kind of funny and I thought, ‘That’s it. I want to learn how to do that.’ I could make something meaningful that would live longer than me? My God … ”
Andrew traveled for a year trying to find a workshop where he could apprentice or a program in which to enroll, but that kind of classical apprenticeship no longer existed and schools were overcrowded. Frustrated, Andrew asked an admissions officer in Switzerland how he was supposed to be a sculptor with no one to teach him.
“He said, we’ll write down all the chisels you need for professional woodcarving. You buy those and then it’s up to you. You have to have the will to make those chisels dance. Either you’re going to make it or you’re not, but it won’t be because you don’t have the right tool.”
Once Andrew was down to the last of his money and with only a return ticket home, serendipity came by way of misfortune in Greece.
“Before I came back home, my room is broken into and everything’s stolen … except the chisels,” Andrew said. “They left them on the floor. They took everything else but they left the chisels. I thought, ‘Alright, you made it through. So now I really have to learn to use them.’”
Living a life far from indulgence, the artist devotes himself to carving the beauty that so struck his heart as a teen.
“I just started doing whatever I could to keep in the studio, to keep working,” Andrew said. “My motto was, ‘Earn while you learn.’ You have to take every job in order to progress. If you’re not progressing in your studio, that means you’re working for somebody else.”
Through four decades of progress, Andrew’s learned to sculpt with wood, bronze and different types of stone, contributing his pieces to more and more public places.
“Gradually, over time, instead of working for private people … I started to produce pieces that were larger and for wealthier homes — entry doors, those kind of things. And then finally, producing large enough pieces that they could be downtown, which is the full circle to my original training,” Andrew said.
Andrew now has a number of public and private works that exemplify Northwest life throughout Oregon and Washington. “Berry Baskets,” in Puyallup, Washington, shows a Native woman transferring her fruited harvest. An accompanying “Salmon Spirit Speaks” displays a brave carrying a mesh net and caught salmon, bringing a measure of recognition to the Yakama Indian Reservation about 150 miles south of the city. “Spirit of the Marsh” uses 45 tons of basalt rock and 30 bronze castings to adorn the 44-foot Lake Oswego Waterfront Naturescape. There are, however, no permanent sculptures to celebrate Andrew’s 40-year career in his hometown of Eugene.
“The thing is that I have to get all these different cities to show my work, because there’s very little opportunity in town,” Andrew said. “I’ve tried two dozen one percent for art commissions over the years that never got chosen.”
Oregon’s 1977 Percent for Art legislation requires setting aside no less than one percent of funds for the acquisition of public-facing artwork in all state building construction plans with budgets over $100,000. Today, this includes more than 2,400 works of art across the state.
Sculpture, though, can be more time-consuming and expensive to install and more esoteric to define. The result is often that less sculptures are erected in the public eye than other art forms.
In just the last three years alone, for example, Eugene’s helped to finance over 20 murals across town. In the last twenty years, however, there have been only four city-funded sculpture installations: Peter Helzer’s 2009 bronze image of Rosa Parks commemorating the renamed Rosa Parks downtown LTD station, Jim Carpenter’s 2002 sculpture of a conspicuously stoop-shouldered bronze Eugene Skinner resting on a basalt bench in front of the downtown library, Jud Turner’s 2012, 16-foot Great Blue Heron and sculptor Lee Imonen’s 2010 “Bountiful” at Delta Ponds.
“Bountiful” aligned with a 2010 City of Eugene Public Arts Commission long-term project to restore the Delta Ponds wetlands and fish passage. The Obama Administration’s Troubled Asset Relief Program provided $1.2 million help to pay for the city’s $5.6 million pedestrian bridge across Delta Highway. After the $5.6 million project came in under budget, instead of handing back the money to the federal government, Eugene decided to add to the venture. Imonen’s winning proposal directed much of the $100,000 in granted capital into the area economy — $40,000 for local engineers to design the piece and $60,000 in construction costs spent at local steel yards and with additional regional material suppliers, fabricators and laborers.
Observant Delta Highway commuters can catch “Bountiful’s” seven, 30-foot, cockeyed tall red metal poles holding a wire mesh sac, meant to represent a weir and net brimming with salmon. According to Imonen’s site, “The sculpture’s extended metaphor expresses both the time honored and renewed commitment to the natural and restored environments … It is this recognition of cultural tradition combined with a renewed awareness of our limited resources that I hope will result in a continued stewardship of our natural areas.”
Through Imonen’s work, an impersonal errand upon an anonymous asphalt stretch becomes a reminder of the wild place from which all life emerges.
“I have certain interests and goals that I have in mind for my work,” Imonen said. “And one of them is to change the way in which people interact with space and to make them think differently about themselves within that context.”
Imonen began teaching sculpture at Lane Community College in 2000, after earning his MFA from the University of Oregon. Imonen earns most of his living a full-time professor, allowing him the time to design, propose and execute large public commissions throughout Oregon.
“In the case of public work, my goal is to make artwork that is very site specific in concepts and in material study, and in the way it interacts with both the architecture and the audience,” Imonen said. “If I don’t solve all those problems, it’s not successful for me and usually not for the audience, either.”
Imonen’s intention is the backbone on which his success rests. With this symbolism, the sculptor can bring consideration for societal issues and ecological relationships into the public realm.
Imonen will attempt to communicate another allegorical message with his newest installation at UO’s Allan Price Science Commons. The library is designed with a first-floor common room that descends the book space in a subfloor below. Moving beyond the bookshelves, group spaces bubble into isolated nooks that eventually give way to autonomous glass-walled classrooms and finally to private study rooms. This descending layout represents a plunge into deeper knowledge.
“When you go and write a paper, it feels like this one little piece, but when you look back at it later, you realize your understanding of the subject matter, your knowledge base is so much greater than it was at the beginning,” Imonen said.
The sculpture then will be a waterfall of 8½-by-11 aluminum sheets of paper that will drop 10 feet before hitting the ground level and spreading out into and out of the atrium space. The paper will even have authentic laser cut notes on them, taken directly from students who have volunteered their work.
“It’s not a piece that actually moves, but has a lot of implied movement,” Imonen said. “There are these little pieces that if you’re really looking you realize that, ‘Oh, I know that diagram, or I know that, these little pieces of your study that may end up in there.”
Without our notice, these sculptures become a subliminal part of our everyday existence.
Yakama natives mix with urban denizens. Rosa Parks keeps a defiant vigil at the bus station. Turner’s “Great Blue Heron” keeps its wary eye on UO campus commuters. Empty wire netting aside a highway brims with potential.
Sculpture serves as a reminder of our anthropological and ecological past and a harbinger of what the future could be if can weave the balance and vision encouraged by this art. And as these sculptors that created these pieces move onto the next project, they leave behind the hope that their contribution has a lasting impact and that they are able to maintain using their hands to create communal memory.
“If you’re like, ‘This is what I’m going to do,’ you figure it out, right?” Andrew said. “You do it because you’ve crossed over and there’s no going back. Fortunately, sometimes, life comes along and nurtures you.”