The Pettibone Venus
A PURPOSEFUL AMBIGUITY
On August 7th, 2022, my team and I unveiled the Pettibone Venus.
I dedicated this monumental sculpture and the landscaping surrounding it to my friend, the late Richard Haag, the internationally renowned landscape architect who, in 1980 with his wife Cheryl Trivison, designed the Italianate landscape of the property that was formerly our family home and now has been transformed into an event venue and sculpture park called the LaSalle Reserve. I know Richard would have appreciated this sculpture’s purposeful ambiguities.
My Second Dedication relates to the perpetual, inherent struggle implied by this work’s juxtaposition of a steel industrial icon with a classical, representational figure…
“…It is dedicated to all of us, especially women of all ages…and our constant struggle to manage progress…to all of us who, despite the rusting of our ambitions, at the same time also continue to celebrate the joy in humanity’s preservation of life.“
Here is the story of how two teams, seven men and women at Classic Foundry-Art & Industrial, and seven men at Vashon’s Jake Johnson Construction, managed the construction and installation of the monument:
THE STORY OF THE CRANE
In 2001, after installing an impermeable liner in the large, perpetually leaking pond at the Maury Island studio property, I bought a well-worn, 50’s era Pettibone crane on Ebay. The ad for it said “Big Guy needs a home…Runs good.” The crane was a very inexpensive purchase and, despite its many mechanical problems, a fair investment, in retrospect. With it, I moved a 23 ton piece of granite into the center of the to-be-refilled 100′ x 300′ pond, and over the next few years used the beast to move other large stones in landscaping and sculpture projects.
Unfortunately, as I moved away from carving stone and began working in other sculpture media, the crane stopped working and it sat fallow and unloved for many years, weeds and bird nests its only adornments – a sad, rusting, peeling-paint fate for a mighty steel machine that once boasted a lift capacity of 60 thousand pounds with its 70 foot telescoping boom.
So what to do with it…dismantle, cut to pieces and add its remains to a scrap heap, or allow it to ignominiously disappear into the thorny landscape? Neither option seemed appropriate. Instead, I decided to find a way to make it part of another sculpture and add it to the others on the property.
A CONTRAPTION CONTRAPUNTAL
There obviously is an unavoidable phallic metaphor implied by so much of the crane’s expanding boom. So how might one address the trite symbolism of that erector without softening it, so to speak, and preserve but balance its symbolic aggressiveness in one simple, contrapuntal sculptural gesture? It occurred to me that the crane’s “maleness” needed to be matched by something with the power of “femaleness”.
The famous Venus of Willendorf the 30,000 year-old fertility icon with her rotund curves came to mind.
If our interpretation of Willendorf’s significance is correct, she is the oldest icon of fertility, a goddess long honored for her fecund power. If I invited a female icon into the sculpture, what should be her relationship to it? How might I meld her soft, enduring, renewable strength with the symbolism of modern industrial might represented by the crane? Should she ride the boom? Pound it into a plowshare? Or should she carry it as a burden? And as a design challenge, how might I incorporate her smoother and more powerful curves as a juxtaposition to the rigid lines of the massive, rusting machine?
And if I did risk combining the two, what medium should I use for the Venus? Basalt? Metal? Wood? After considering the necessary proportions, I decided against sculpting stone which would limit my design options and likely break my back carving it. I could work in hard wood, but Pacific Northwest weather does not treat any outdoor lumber-forms kindly and the maintenance would be an ongoing burden.
Then, as I researched images of fertility and pregnancy I found this spectacular photograph…
…a gorgeous ballerina, dancing in the jubilance of her state.
And that was it!
I wanted my Venus to have that same attitude as this ballerina who, with perfect, lithe flow, celebrates her pregnancy, unencumbered. To achieve an enduring representation of that spirit, and match the durability of the steel, I realized I had to do the representational work in bronze.
BRONZEWORK – CREATING THE VENUS
So I began the next step in the creative process. I sculpted an 18″ maquette of the ballerina’s torso in clay and attached a simple yardstick to represent the crane’s boom. My partners at Classic Foundry, sculptors Gegham Abrahamian and Ion Onutan, experts in classical representational sculpture perfected the model.
We CAD scanned it, and as we have done with my previous works, then carved a full-scale version in industrial-grade foam.
Next, our Classic Foundry Team, (Gegham Abrahamyan, Grigoriy Reva, Max Brake, Carlos Reyes, and Blake Sternecker) coated the foam core in clay, and then further refined her form and surface textures.
To the clay-coated work our team constructed multiple silicon and plaster molds. We coated the negative form of “mother molds” with wax, separated and coated the wax in ceramic, and then burned out the wax which left a hollow ceramic shell. Into the shell we “invested” molten bronze. Over several weeks, Max Brake and his associates welded together the 130 separate bronze pieces into its pre-patina form. When that was complete, we “chased” our welds
EMBEDDING THE CRANE …THE MOVE, THE TRENCH, THE SANDBLAST, THE CONCRETE
At the same time we were building the full-size bronze Venus at Classic Foundry-Art & Industrial in Seattle, on Maury Island we were preparing to move the massive crane to its final resting place in a fallow field that had once served as a practice area for my daughter.
I was fortunate to again work with a local construction wizard, Jake Johnson of Vashon Island. Jake and his “Can-Do” crew (Matt Matthews, Zack Sudduth, Mike Siebolt, Sam Warner and Jeremy Stone) drained the crane’s hydraulic fluid, motor oil and diesel fuel, disassembled its operational gears and steel cables, re-inflated its 5′ diameter tires, and then moved the massive, unwieldy hulking machine by pushing and pulling it a mile using a huge excavator, two trucks and a tractor.
We then carefully guided the body of the crane into a 6’x’7’x20′ excavation and encased it . [
in concrete and gravel, leaving only the boom above ground. We welded the exposed, above-ground boom into position.
Over the next several weeks, I sandblasted away the several layers of old paint and rust from the boom,
“re-rusted” the steel with a solution of muriatic acid, hydrogen peroxide and epsom salts, and lacquer-sealed the resulting rust-patina. When that was complete, we transported the full-size bronze, pregnant Venus from Classic Foundry to Maury Island for her marriage to the Pettibone Crane.
One week before the unveiling, we moved the Venus into her final position, welded shut the boom’s exposed cavities, and embedded it permanently over her left shoulder.
A few days before the unveiling, we poured another 20 yards of concrete around the sculpture’s base and landscaped around it. The day before the event, we did a preliminary patination.
Our two great teams collaborated and worked hard and long hours to make this happen.
Since the unveiling I have heard several interpretations of what the sculpture means. For example, I expect that the patina will show signs of wear as visitors rub the pregnant belly of the Venus. One young woman, hoping to become pregnant, has already started that, while quietly voicing a quiet prayer. It is up to the viewers to determine what metaphor makes the most sense for them, however.
We hope you will visit the Pettibone Venus soon and decide what metaphor works best for you.
Best always to you, my friends,
Dear Gar, Ohhhh, she is so beautiful. How I wish I were nearer so I could visit your incredible works. Just seeing a picture of the Pettibone Venus brings a tear. It , to me, depicts the strength that women have shown over centuries of struggle and turmoil. I don’t count myself as a “feminest” but I think of my two great grandmothers, one from Norway and the other from Denmark and their struggle to bring up families, work the fields and educate themselves and their cildren. Thank you for sharing your journey with this lovelyy lady.
dear gar i read the whole story about your sculpture and i love it dearly.you are an artist to the bone.love your work love your mind your vision and the way you translated it to reality.
even that we never met i feel like your brother in spirit.we both aspire for perfection and will do everything to acomplish that.
hope to meet you some day.
I feel the same way about you, Rafi!
Fascinating backstory. Congratulations, Gar, to you and all who participated in giving birth to this magnificent piece of art. I look forward to the fruits of your next inspiration.
Thanks for sharing Gar. And thanks for creating this puzzling, sensual, jaw-dropping sculpture.
Walt: Thank you. I look forward to hosting you here sometime soon.
Gar – What a master of creation, you are! Stunning, truly stunning labor of love! Thank you for your presence in this world!
Charlotte: from you, I take that as the a wonderful compliment. I hope I can show it to you sometime. Best to you!