In conversation with the Sculptor - Tom Otterness

Written By Shwetha Ravishankar | June 18, 2013
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Tom Otterness Sculpture at Battery Park City

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the famous American Sculptor - Tom Otterness, known for his bronze sculptures that have been the center of public curiosity in cities across the world, from New York to Netherlands, and Washington to Toronto. We sat down at his studio located in the Gowanus, Brooklyn and talked about everything from his childhood, his inspiration, his illustrious work, and life in New York City in the 1970s.

The Sculpture and The Sculptor

SR: What was your childhood growing up in Wichita, Kansas like? Were you artistically inclined from a young age?

TO: I grew up in Wichita Kansas. Yes, the family was sort of artistic. I drew on the cover of blank pages in my father's books, he had a big library. They let me draw on all the books. I still have some of those from when I was little. I would make little clay things, drawings. I was an artist since grade school. My father wrote poetry, he couldn’t make a living out of it, so he worked for Boeing aircraft. They were always big supporters. Reproductions of Van Gogh and Goya were on the walls at home. I grew up in that environment. 

Tom Otterness Childhood

Tom Otterness Drawings in his Father's books

SR: Did you know always know this is what you wanted to do for a living?

TO:Yes, I did. I used to tell my teachers that I don’t need to learn how to spell, I am going to be an artist. I still can't spell, I'm terrible at spelling!! (laughs)

SR: Early on what kinds of art were you into or was it sculptures even back then?

TO: I made little sculptures, every kid does. I have a little lion that I made. Sculptures are expensive. I was essentially into drawing and painting.

SR: Did you study sculptures in arts school?

Tom Otterness - Lion

First sculpture Tom Otterness made as a child

TO: No, I learnt sculpture by myself. I studied as a painter when I first came to New York. I didn’t go to college, I went to art school for a couple of years. But I learnt everything I know about sculptures from a book called Sculpture: Principles and Practice by Louis Slobodkin, a sculptor from the thirties.

SR: When did you move to New York?

TO: Out of high school. I was 18, and I got a scholarship and came to the Arts Student League, here in New York City.

New York 1970s

New York City, Late 1970's

SR: How was New York City at the time?

TO: It was the 1970’s, those early years, it was a very different city. Much of the Lower East Side and Downtown was just a bunch of abandoned buildings, more like the Bronx. In one way it was good for artists, because we could find cheap studios and live inexpensively.

SR: What were the neighborhoods artists lived in at the time?

TO: Late 1970’s, we were in the Lower East Side, around Little Italy. I first lived, I still live there, the same place. It has changed so much now. It is a well established tradition, artists find good cheap neighborhoods, once they are settled in and get established, the real estate value goes up and they move into another neighborhood.

SR: How long have you been in this studio and where were you located before this?

TO: I was in Dumbo for 20 years, until Dumbo became so developed and we had to move. We have been in this studio for only 5 years here in the Gowanus, Brooklyn.

Tom Otterness Studio

Tom Otterness Studio

SR: Who were your mentors early on in your career?

TO: I had a very good art teacher in Wichita, I studied college level art at the age of 12-13, drew from models, learnt to paint, had theoretical discussion about art theory. I had this amazing advantage as a kid, and teachers along the way who were very helpful.

Bronze Sculptures Tom Otterness

"Men at Work" - Little Bronze Sculptures

SR: Having researched into your illustrious work from all over the world, from Germany to San Antonio, the common thread in all of it seems the little bronze men, I like to call them “men at work”, with strong messages, different sizes and representing different characters. What was your inspiration and how did you come about conceptualizing it?

TO: Ah nice, “little men at work” (Smiles). Once I got out of school, we formed a collaborative group called “Colab”, 50 artists work together. We wanted get out of the museums and galleries and out on the streets, to be able to reach out to the larger public.

TO: What was the question?? Oh the inspiration for the figures... (laughs)

[continues..] In that period I was doing signs, international signs and symbols, bathroom signs, all in 2D figures on the street. At some point I thought, I should make small sculptures. At the time it was very Dominican neighborhood, Botanicas which are like voodoo sculptures, were sold very inexpensively. Plaster sculptures for 5,10, 20 dollars. And I thought, if they can make it, I can make it and sell it at that price too. So, i learnt how to make a mold, cast the plasters myself, and sold my first sculptures out of a sidewalk and a bunch of stores for $4.99 a piece. That was the beginning, then 2D became 3D.


From plaster to bronze - Tom Otterness

The Creative Process

SR: Talking a little bit more about your work, what is the creative process that goes into bringing a sculpture to life?

TO: Almost everything starts with a public project for me these days. A competition for a site, drawings to propose, if I win the job then, from the drawings I start making small models which should fit into the architectural plan, small clay models, using very traditional methods - water based clay, to plaster to bronze. It has been the same way for 5000 years. Just like in India I guess.

SR: Yes, especially in Kolkata, they sculpt Durga and Kali idols, on this narrow street, with workshops lined up on both sides.

TO:  In 1976 I went on trip with a friend of mine, for a year. We were travelling across the Middle East, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and then I landed up in Thailand. I remember being in Kolkata, they had this huge store front with a metal grid, inside was a (i forget what god that was)

SR - Kali

TO:  Yes, it was a life size figure of this purple God, and paintings all around the wall. That sculpture and the ones in Thailand, have been very influential in my career.

Wooden Stair case - Union Square Station

Wooden Staircase Built in Tom's Studio

SR: Your work “Life Underground” which launched in 2004, has been one of my personal favorites. Were you a part of the creative process in placing the figures in the little corners and beams of Union Square Station?

TO: Oh sure, yes, indeed. placing them is one of my specialties. I actually built a wooden staircase, full scale in the studio, i could place them exactly so that they look you in the eye, and they look across to other sculptures, lots of planning, my idea is sculptures are like us, they just walked onto the sidewalk and doing their thing.

SR - Like the cop cleaning up the money, with the little broom.

TO: (Laughs) Yeah.

Life UNderground Tom Otterness

Union Square Station, Photo Courtesy -

SR: Do u get a chance to interact with people at the installations you have put up?

TO: The good thing is that most people in New York don't know what I look like. So its like child’s fantasy to be invisible. I often go to the 14th Street station. If I'm feeling depressed, I take a detour over to 14th Street, and there is always somebody doing something with the work there, and I look at that, and feel everything is OK, and think to myself, what’s my problem, and I get back on the subway and go.

Face battery park city - Tom Otterness

Face at Battery Park City

SR: Can you tell us a little bit about this huge sculpture here?

TO: Oh, I call this “The Consumer” - He is a huge guy, little overweight, sitting on a bag of money, and on this ramp going up, is a roadway, with all the products in the world brought to him and he’s swallowing them. While a small woman is seen pulling money out of the bag, and so you can say, he is swallowing everything and processing it into money.

The COnsumer - Tom Otterness

The Consumer

SR: Where is the Frog and Bee sculpture installed?

TO: The small one is at PS 234 near world trade center, its in front of the school, and kids stand on it, and play around all the time. Its about 2 feet, I gave it to them right after 9/11. A larger version of that was commissioned for a hospital.

Frog and bee - TOm Otterness

The Frog and Bee

SR: The coin at the corner is interesting. Can you tell us what it is?

rolling penny - battery park city, tom otterness

TO: This was an early piece I did. Its called the “rolling penny”. It depicts the rich sitting atop the penny and drinking champagne, workers at the bottom pushing the penny over, and they are about to fall. It is installed as part of work in Battery Park City.

SR: What does the guy with the book represent? 

Educating the Rich - Tom Otterness

                                                           Large Sculpture - Studio,14th Street Subway Station

TO: That is called “Educating the Rich”. I work with a set of figures that represent different classes in society. Blue collar workers, White collar workers, rich people, radicals, and paups being my basic formula.  Here a Blue collar worker with a babushka hat, is sitting on a rich man and reading to him. This is almost like a schoolyard scene, where you knock someone down and sit on them! A version of this is at the 14th Street subway station.

SR: You come from an era when artists started off the creative process on their drawing boards, this has of course drastically changed with a host of computer programs and 3D animation. Have you adapted to the new process, or are you happy in your zone?

42nd street - playground, tom otterness

42nd Street Between 11 and 12 Avenues, Photo Courtesy

TO: We use the computer a lot. I can’t turn them on, I don’t know how to turn it on, but my crew does it for me. We have architects and animators with us. It surprisingly fits seamlessly into this very traditional form. We do 3D scans, enlargements on the computer, we use it to make architectural models, it is very useful. I love being inside a 3D program, its a different world. I just sit there and tell the guy spin it around one more time, let us get into the eye, walk inside the head and see how it looks from there.

SR: I specifically like your work in the parks. They must be so exciting for kids.

TO: Yes, they are. Those had a lot of computer work, we used them to figure out safety issues, spacing between the bars, it was very convenient.

Battery park City

Tom Otterness Art Display, Battery Park City

SR: Your work is displayed all around the world, Which of them top your list?

TO: Battery Park is the most important for me, and then its the 14th Street subway station. I guess because I get to see them all the time. And the one in Netherlands, its huge. And the new project coming up in the Middle East, which I can't talk about right now.

Netherlands - Tom Otterness

Tom Otterness Art Display, Netherlands

SR: I particularly enjoyed learning about the performance by PS 020, your collaboration with the American Ballet Theatre which was based on your work “free money”. What was that experience like?

Tom Otterness and PS 020

Children of Ps 020 with Tom Otterness

TO: We worked together on it. The American Ballet Theater organized it. They came here to the studio and we discussed it. It was fascinating to see the process they went through. They visited the Union Square Station and did drawings and what it means, and they understood it perfectly. The rich, the poor, the problems in the city, and came up with ideas, costumes, and props. I was very flattered.

SR: You have regular visits from school children. What has been your experience interacting with these kids?

Kids - Tom Otterness

Messages from Children to Tom Otterness

TO: I love 5-8 year olds, they just go wild, they don't need me at all, you know. I make sure they come in with a pad and pencil, they get down on the floor and draw. They love getting messed up. When I was growing up, we used to get to get down and muddy, but in New York City these kids don't get to do that. And they come here, there is plaster dust everywhere, and go on with their crazy talk, it's such good energy for the studio, and like a little product demonstration for me. The problem is once they go home!

Kids at the Studio - Tom Otterness

Kids Visit Tom's Studio

SR: Your latest sculpture for the Armory show. You have changed things up from Bronze to Silver, Was it the theme itself?

TO: Yes, it is polished stainless steel. Its nice to change and try out new materials. I recently finished a large stone project, in Rochester, New York. I carved out huge 12 foot figures out of stone, almost Egyptian, or limestone like in Indian sculptures. I liked working on that, and pretending like I am Michelangelo.

ROchestor, stone statues, Tom OtternessArmory Show - Tom Otterness

Stone Sculptures, Rochester                                                        Armory Show

SR: These little bronze figures have become a trademark. It’s your legacy.

TO: Yes, they have. Sometime back I was at an installation site , and one of the workers in Africa I was working with, looks at it, and says, oh I know that, thats in New York, I know that sculpture!

LEAP - Tom Otterness

Leap Program

SR: What has been your experience like being a part of the Leap program, interacting with the new breed of artists?

TO: So, they put out these picnic tables, each school or team have ideas about they want to do with the tables. They are put out in Central Park or in the school itself, and then they start learning the way I did. You think you are making something, and then you put it out in the public, and you see its understood in a very different way. As an artist, you learn from public reaction.

Advice - TOm Otterness


SR: What advice do u have for young artists in the city, working on getting their first break?

TO: Persistence is the most important thing. Don't get discouraged, there are going to be many obstacles, and keep focussed on the reward you get in your own studio every single day.

SR: Wrapping up, can you tell us a little bit about your future plans, new projects?

TO: I’ve wanted to for a long time, do these figures as actual buildings, and the playgrounds I have done, have sort of been the intermediate step. (In a way they are done for little kids, but you can go inside them and live inside them). I’d like to someday get a project that is real building, I’m thinking the whole building built out of glass and steel, architect Frank Gehry has broken through curved glass. The technology would allow this. I’ve got a lot of ideas! (laughs)

Battery Park City - Tom Otterness

More of Tom's work at Battery Park City


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