Artist Tom Otterness creates a world of fantasy in his Brooklyn studio.
When I was walking to Tom Otterness’s studio in Brooklyn, New York, there were no signs, no shops, and no people on the streets of his neighborhood of mostly warehouse buildings. The doors are all unmarked and there are only a few windows.
But when Mr. Otterness opened the plain door to his workshop, I felt like Alice, stepping into Wonderland. My jaw dropped as he gave me a tour. I could barely contain my excitement!
There were models of sculptures he’d finished—both large and small—and models of sculptures still in the works. There were little clay people and whimsical giants. There was even a tiny model of the huge metal Millipede he made for the Ulrich Museum in Wichita, Kansas, his hometown.
The most memorable sculptures I saw Mr. Otterness working on were a collection of broken hearts he is making for San Francisco General Hospital. Each piece is heart-shaped, but they also have arms and legs and faces like people—people who’ve been banged up and need help.
One heart was on crutches, one was in a wheelchair with a bandaged toe, and two hearts sat side-by-side, one comforting the other. There was also a heart with its own stethoscope plugged into its ears, listening. When I saw it, it made me realize that though our hearts can break, they can also heal.
When I asked Mr. Otterness about what inspires his work, he told me an anecdote about why he made a big bear sculpture. When his daughter was young, he said, she had a teddy bear. Whenever Mr. Otterness did something she didn't like, she threw the teddy bear down and punished it. So he made a bear sculpture “because I think that was the way she thought of me," he explained, “as a big bear.
I was interviewing Mr. Otterness because of his connection to the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. I was covering the awards ceremony later in the week. Mr. Otterness was not only presenting the Lifetime Achievement Award, he was a recipient of the award last year. Even more cool, I learned that as a high school student, Mr. Otterness was a Scholastic Art and Writing winner! He says the award helped give him his start as a professional artist.
By the end of my visit and interview, I felt like I had been on a private field trip in Tom Otterness’s personal playground. His sculptures are so kid-friendly you can touch them and sometimes even climb on them and get inside. He never puts a red velvet rope or "Do Not Touch" sign in front of his work. And now, whenever I’m walking down the street and see a plain door, I wonder what kind of magic might be behind it.