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The new cat on campus

$160,000 Wildcat statue unveiled in front of the Whitt

Published: Thursday, September 21, 2006

Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 15:02


Meredith Lee

The new Wildcat statue at home in front of the Whittemore Center

With the help of a crane and some cement, the new wildcat sculpture was put in place in front of the Wittemore Center on Wednesday, September 20. The 850-pound, cast bronze structure was lowered into place atop an approximately eight-ton rock.

Its installation marks the beginning of the final stages of a two-and-a-half year-long process to invite bidders, select an artist and location for the work, and oversee the creation of a sculpture depicting the UNH wildcat mascot.

"I think it's nice," said Colleen Murphy, a senior Art major concentrating on sculpture and ceramics. "At first I was skeptical, I wondered why we were spending so much money on a sculpture of a cat?"

The $160,000 budget for the project created controversy on campus last fall, as many students questioned where the University's priorities lay. This sum encompassed both payment made to the artist, and all other expenses associated with the creation and construction of the sculpture, and lighting and landscaping of the site. Funding came from a number of private donations and the Parents' Association. But still more money must be raised to cover the additional costs of maintaining the structure, according to Alumni Association President Carroll Winch.

The project came about through the joint interest of athletics and university alumni, and the Art Program Committee for the Wildcat Sculpture was formed to oversee the undertaking. The committee included representatives from the Parent's Association, various student groups, professors, and other members of the UNH community. After a lengthy review process, the committee narrowed it down to four artists out of the hundreds of applicants, and eventually settled on the cat's creator, Matthew Grey Palmer of Friday Harbor, Washington in May of 2005.

"We wanted something that would really portray the character of the university… and exude strength and agility," said Ben Cariens, assistant professor of sculpture and drawing and active member of the aesthetics committee. "[With Palmer we saw] a unique mix of not only sympathy for the natural subject, but also a high artistic standard," said the result "speaks for itself."

"We had a strong shared vision," said Cariens, who was pleasantly surprised that there was so little conflict given the vast array of opinions presented by the various groups involved. "I enjoyed serving on the committee- there was an exciting dynamic," he said, adding that it was educational to try to see the sculpture from different perspectives beyond his own as an artist - such as that of the athletics department.

"It's unbelievable- we couldn't have picked a better artist for the job" said Athletics Director Marty Scarano, smiling. "We had very specific expectations at the start. We wanted it to look powerful and express intelligence, aggression, and cunning- characteristics we consider central to athletics here," he said. They didn't want it to appear intimidating, or too abstract. "We didn't want a Picasso kind of cat- that wouldn't wear well with the athletes, and it's important that they embrace it too."

Palmer, who has produced many sculptures for national parks and zoos, said simply "this is what I do" when asked what drew him to the project. He works mostly with cast bronze, but also stone and mixed media.

"I enjoy the collaborative process," said Palmer, who incorporated his own ideas about movement, shape, and composition with the expectations of the committee in the creation of the cat. He hesitated when asked how he thought it had turned out. "It's great, but this is still very fresh to me," he said, and explained the process- involving a series of molds of clay, wax, and finally bronze- can often feel like "you're playing catch-up to your original model." Overall though, he was pleased with the result.

The cat rests atop a large rock, low enough to the ground to be within reach, and is ringed by some small shrubs and other plants. "It's not just about the cat," Palmer said. "We worked hard to create an environment for it, with the sculpture as the focal point… they wanted it to be semi-accessible, and I think that's a good thing."

He spoke at a lecture and reception in the Paul Creative Arts Center on Thursday evening, September 21.

"I'm delighted that there was an opportunity for students to meet the artist and see a presentation about the process," said Pam Dziama, president of the Parent's Association.

"It's overwhelming," said University Architect and Director of University Planning Douglas Bencks of the sculpture as it hung just above its final resting place, suspended by a large red crane. "It's more than I'd been expecting in terms of its presence and dynamic quality." Bencks works mostly with building construction projects on campus. Grinning, he called this a "unique project" to work with. "It's different from a lot of the stuff I'm usually involved in," he added. for pics

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