GFU erects a large symbol of school
George Fox University unveiled in October a 10-foot-tall, 800-pound bronze bear sculpture in the middle of the new Alumni Plaza nestled into the south end of the Stoffer Family stadium. The sculpture stands now as part of a long-term conversation in concert with an art initiative that aims to display more artwork on campus, but it had a rocky beginning.
The project was first initiated in 2014 by the Associated Student Community (ASC), when they approached Rob Westervelt, the school's chief strategy officer and asked for assistance. The plan was to use a student reserve fund, which had accumulated from unspent student fees for the 10 years prior.
"If any of the student project fund money isn't used, it rolls into the next year," ASC President Bailey Sauls said, adding that each year, GFU students are required to contribute $220 to funding annual events, activities and projects run by ASC.
Not long after the idea surfaced, ASC started receiving pressure from some students because they were concerned that their money was going to be spent on a sculpture, something they didn't want on campus.
Westervelt created a video on YouTube (https://bit.ly/2q31ME0 hoping to dispel the rumor that current student money was going to be used for the bear, and that only the reserve fund from previous years was going to be used.
Sauls didn't hear about the project much sooner than the general student body and said that for many students the question becomes, "Well, that money could have been used for something else. There are a lot of other issues on campus, parking, for example.'"
The idea was meant to "bring people together and unify them under a powerful symbol, which is our Bruin," Westervelt said. "We wanted to break out of the stereotype that Bruins are athletes."
ASC didn't clear up the misinformation among students, according to Westervelt, and backed out of the project after it failed to gain any traction when a few protesters among the student body rallied behind an all-campus vote to end the campaign. At that point the funding was cut for the project.
However, the idea was far from dead.
"President (Robin) Baker believed in the idea and said, 'We're going to do this eventually, but we are going to let this lie for a while,'" Westervelt said.
Four years later, the bear arrived on campus.
When asked about exactly where the idea came from and who pushed for the 2018 project, Baker said, "It's one of those projects that will not have definitive answers to a lot of those questions, meaning that once it gets into my office it can take a variety of different tracks."
He added that the idea of putting a bear sculpture on campus has been around ever since he arrived, so he wouldn't be able to pinpoint who came up with the original idea.
"It was dropped as an idea by the students," Baker said, "so then people asked me if I wanted to renew it and I had an interest in it."
Sarah Reid, director of affinity marketing at GFU, said she first heard of the bear sculpture in November 2017, while in the midst of planning an Alumni Plaza.
"The bear became part of the conversation because President Baker has been wanting to increase the presence of professional sculpture on campus," Reid said. "It was right about that time that I found out that the bear was going to be arriving on campus so we decided to put them together."
The Aesthetics Committee, which according to the 2017 faculty handbook, "develops and maintains a consistent and coordinated university image through campus aesthetics," approved the marketing department's pitch to bring the bear sculpture and the Alumni Plaza together into one location.
"Since I work in alumni communications," Reid said, "I became the project manager for coordinating with (GFU) plant services around the plaza, working with the sculptor, the foundry, and all those groups."
"We debated about where to put it with the Aesthetics Committee," Baker said. "I wanted to put it next to the bridge."
He added that in the end, he was glad that it wasn't placed where he originally wanted it, and that it looks better next to the football field.
Reid pointed to Phil Thornburg, a GFU alum and owner of Winterbloom Inc., as the donor who put together the landscape and architecture plans for the Alumni Plaza. Thornburg is just one of the donors responsible for contributing to the sculpture, whether in time or money.
Sauls said the ASC didn't contribute funding for the bear this time around. Instead, Baker said, the project was primarily funded through a few unnamed donors and through a specific annual fund that is used for a variety of different projects each year.
"The institution has resources that comes from students paying tuition, from donors and others, so the answer to the question is partly that I have funds from what we call an Innovation Fund," he said.
In the past, some of the Innovation Fund has been used to implement other sculptures at locations on campus. Baker pointed to the GFU 125 Anniversary sculpture by professor Mark Terry that sits before the Stevens Center as what started the effort for more art on campus.
Since then, other pieces have been installed, including: "Treasure," by Oregon artist Ellen Tykeson, a sculpture depicting a family of four placed near Pennington Residence Hall; a metal salmon beneath Crisman Crossing (commonly known as "the bridge'); and the chainsaw-carved wooden animals previously outside of Canyon Commons.
Sculptor Ryan Wilhite of Tualatin worked on the bear for the past two years, but also recalled a conversation that he had several years prior.
"I remember walking around a long time ago when I was doing bronzes full time," Wilhite said, "and my dad said, 'man it would be nice if we had a bronze bear here,' and then it really didn't get much past that."
Wilhite was a full-time bronze sculpture artist before the recession. When the economy took a downturn, he then began teaching full-time and doing art on the side. Within the circle of the wildlife bronze sculpture industry, he creates figurative portraiture (faces and heads) and wildlife in both bronze and ceramic.
When the project first surfaced in 2014, Wilhite was asked if he would be willing to build the bear. Later, Baker called him to say they would eventually go through with it. Wilhite would eventually produce three clay models: one standing with a symmetrical pose, the other standing on all fours and the third something a little more aggressive, to Wilhite said.
Wilhite, who teaches biology and art at New Urban High School in Milwaukie, has been playing with clay for as long as he can remember. As a child of 5 or less, he was in Africa for a few years and has been around wild animals ever since.
For the bear, he used his personal garage space to sculpt 200 pounds of oil-based clay he bought on Amazon to build the molds before sending them off to Firebird Bronze Foundry to be cast and welded together.
Wilhite said he didn't mind waiting a few years to be re-commissioned for the bear.
"It actually worked out for the best and gave me a little bit more time," he said, "because the first time we were pushing dates, but this time I said that I wanted, within reason, to take my time because I work full time."
Even though he would spend three to four hours per day over the course of two years to complete the bear, he said it was an enjoyable process. Each and every hair on the bear was handcrafted with what he called a "loop tool," so that the texture in bronze would come out life-like.
"I'd never done a piece monumental (life size) one before," he said, "but it was actually much easier than doing a smaller, more detailed piece."
Wilhite described the process of building the bear in detail. First, he created a maquette, a 30-inch exact mini replica to ensure that all proportions are correct, which then "pointed-up" to actual size. From there, he sculpted the original with oil-based clay over a low-density foam core. He then created a flexible, silicon-rubber mold, copying the clay model. He then poured micro-crystalline wax into the molds before sending it off to the foundry, where metal was poured into the molds in panels and welded together.
"If you look at this piece," he said, "if you imagine that this bear was feeding or something — and I've been around bears in Alaska — when they smell something or hear something, they will stand up and look to see what's going on," Wilhite said. "It's that moment. If you look at the back, it's got that little bit of angle to show that."
GFU's most viewed Instagram video (https://bit.ly/2JaU5EC is one where the bear is being transported down Highway 99W, straps flapping in the wind, its head barely missing a stoplight. At 5,000 views and counting the comment board continues to be a place where some of the original protesting students converse about the sculpture's arrival to campus.
"I think the reasoning behind doing the bear with the Alumni Plaza is thinking more long term," Sauls said. "So if you have an alumnus that is making a donation with specific intent, George Fox wants to say, 'OK, we will use it in a way that you want to use it in order to cultivate these alumni relationships so that in the future we can continue to have money for more productive things.'"
Westervelt, Baker, Reid, and Sauls all said to some degree that the bear was meant to cultivate strong alumni relationships that would carry into the future, as well as give current students an on-campus rallying point.
"The goal for me was two-fold," Wilhite said. "One, that it looks really good. Two that you can enjoy it from a distance as a piece of sculpture and go up close to it and touch it, rather than it being a piece in a gallery."