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SPARTA, Wisconsin — Walking through the boneyard I see an amputated foot. Beside it, a severed arm. Next to the arm is an axe.
“Is that Paul?” I ask my guide, Darren Schauf.
“Yes, that’s Mr. Bunyan himself,” Darren says. “One of my favorite things we’ve made here.”
Welcome to FAST Corp. FAST stands for Fiberglass Animals, Shapes & Trademarks. I have come to their headquarters amid the placid farmlands of Sparta, Wisconsin, a one-stoplight town with a population just under 10,000, to learn how fiberglass public sculptures get made. Darren is showing me the company’s back acreage, where the molds of about a thousand fiberglass sculptures have been retired.
Dismembered Paul Bunyan was tossed asunder in this field more than a decade ago. It is the mold for “Paul” (2006), a public sculpture FAST fabricated for the artist Tony Tasset. Installed in the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park south of Chicago, “Paul” slouches forlornly, dragging his axe in the dirt, his wrinkled face worn from the burden of manifest destiny. It is one of several pieces FAST has made for Tasset. They fabricated his 20-foot-tall “Mood Sculpture” (2017) for last year’s inaugural edition of Sculpture Milwaukee. They also fabricated “Eye” (2010), Tasset’s three-story tall eyeball that now resides in downtown Dallas.
I pounce atop a massive, curved, fiberglass slab seeking a better angle for a photograph of Mr. Bunyan’s boot. Darren tells me I am actually standing on part of Tasset’s “Eye.”
“We had to cut that eyeball into 17 pieces,” he says. “The iris was all one piece. When we drove it down, it was on the back of a flatbed semi. The wind caught it and almost flipped the truck.”
I chuckle, visualizing this surreal near-catastrophe — a massive, blue iris strapped to a semi-trailer flipping down the interstate. But my imagination cannot compete with the dreamland in which I actually stand. FAST makes many things besides public art. Strewn along a tree-line where the boneyard connects to neighboring farmland are about a dozen massive ice cream cones, as if a gargantuan toddler had thrown a tantrum at the giant’s picnic. Next to the cones I see a sight familiar from the road trips of my youth.
“Big Boy!” I exclaim.
“Two Big Boys, actually,” says Darren. “There’s a smaller one behind the big one.”
“A big Big Boy and a little Big Boy!” I cannot contain my excitement.
Continuing along, Darren shows me life-size dinosaurs and all manner of jungle beasts. Vikings are scattered about, along with the shoe in which the Little Old Lady lived, and a shocking number of cows.
“Since you already have the molds,” I inquire, “how much would a fiberglass cow set me back?”
“Depends on the size,” Darren says.
“The big one,” I say.
This seems like a bargain to me. Yet Darren offers an even better deal. Amongst these molds hide a few finished fiberglass statues — either leftovers from large production runs or items that were paid for but never picked up. For a cool $300, I could have a fiberglass dolphin, or a Mufasa made for a production of the Lion King in nearby Appleton, Wisconsin.
Frankly, my eye is on one of the giant, white, fiberglass guitars I see lined up in front of an outcrop of pine trees. Darren explains they were fabricated for Gibson to be used for publicity — bought and paid for, but never picked up. Admiring their strange beauty, I find myself wondering how this story relates to the recent news of Gibson’s bankruptcy.
Passing by two humungous traffic cones laying on their side, Darren explains that they, too, were made for Sculpture Milwaukee. They are replications of works by Dennis Oppenheim, who passed away in 2011. FAST has a long history with the artist. The mold for his sculpture “Performance Piece” (2000), which resembles a brick fireplace with its chimney tied in a bow, is also in this boneyard. Darren then tells me how a few years back FAST was hired to replicate an Oppenheim series called “Black,” which consisted of large-scale fiberglass pots and tea kettles. Oppenheim fabricated the early versions himself, but they did not weather well. Darren’s team used the original sculptures as forms from which to make new molds. He escorts me to a forgotten corner of the boneyard, where those original Oppenheim sculptures, handmade by the artist, still sit exposed at the edge of a cornfield, slowly crackling in the elements.
“Are you not afraid someone will come through with a truck some day and steal these?” I ask. “Or for that matter a Big Boy, or a cow, or a giant fish?”
Shrugging, Darren asks, “What would they want them for?”
“Kitsch value,” I suggest.
He grins. “I don’t worry about it much.”
Nobody is harmless, and nowhere is safe, but I have to admit if there was one place you could leave original Dennis Oppenheim sculptures outside unattended for the better part of a decade, steps away from giant fiberglass Gibson guitars, Mufasa sculptures, and lots and lots of giant cows, Sparta, Wisconsin would be it.
The main activity Spartans evidently enjoy is bicycling. The city earned the moniker Bicycling Capital of America when it became the first in the country to institute a “rails to trails” program, converting old railroad tracks into bike paths. At the entrance of town is a massive fiberglass sculpture of an old-timey gentleman riding a penny-farthing, or “high-wheeler” bicycle.
I ask Darren if FAST fabricated the guy on the penny-farthing. He proudly confirms they did.
As for how FAST got into fabricating public art, Jill Schroeder, who has been with the company from the beginning, explains, “Nails’ Tales was the first.”
Jill hands me a framed photograph of a three-story high fiberglass obelisk that looks to be made out of footballs. The sculpture is installed outside of Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, where the University of Wisconsin Badgers play. The photograph is signed by the artist — Donald Lipski. Lipski attended UW and named the sculpture in honor of the Badgers football updates he still receives from his former roommate, Eric “Nails” Nathan.
That commission started two new relationships for FAST: one with UW — for whom they recently fabricated 85 fiberglass Bucky the Badger statues for Bucky on Parade, a festival in the tradition of Art Cow Parades — and one with the world of fine art.
Lipski collaborates often with FAST. They fabricated his 60-foot-tall, elongated baseball statue “The Ziz” (2009), which stands outside of Goodyear Ball Park in Goodyear, Arizona, where the Cleveland Indians have spring training. And as luck would have it, on this day the finishing touches are being put on the most ambitious sculpture FAST has ever fabricated for Lipski: a two-and-a-half-story-tall Dalmatian puppy titled “Spot” (2018). Destined for New York City, “Spot” will live outside of the Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone, and will balance an actual Prius New York Taxi Cab on its nose.Using “Spot” as an example, Darren walks me through the entire process by which a fiberglass sculpture manifests. “Spot” started with a 3-D computer drawing. From that drawing, a scale model was mill-cut. As he shows me the model, I ask Darren about the hand-painted board decorated with whimsical Dalmatian spots leaning behind it.
“Donald painted that,” Darren says, “to show us how the spots should be painted on.”
“So that’s an original Lipski painting,” I say.
Darren smiles. “I guess it is.”
From that small-scale model, FAST Corp’s lead artist Rob Kneifl replicated a precise, full-sized, version of “Spot” out of styrofoam. That massive styrofoam puppy was then sprayed with a mix of resin and shredded fiberglass. The resulting fiberglass shell was then sliced away in parts from the styrofoam, creating a mold that could later be reassembled. That mold was then sprayed on the inside with more fiberglass, creating a product suitable for finishing.
Dean Weber, one of FAST’s directors, brings me a face mask, and we head out to the sanding bay, where the two-and-a-half-story-tall Dalmatian puppy now sits cut in half. Team members are busy sanding it down smooth. “Once the surface is perfect,” Dean explains, “it’ll go to the painting bay.”
“Is anything being painted today?” I ask.
“Let’s see.” We walk towards the painting bay, across a lawn strewn with Santa Claus, one stray Bucky, a giant frog, and a smiling bear sitting on a bench. I pause in front of two odd-looking safari animals — a rhino and an elephant, with holes where their tails, ears, and the elephant’s trunk should be. Evidently, this is an emerging niche of the fiberglass sculpture business. On rare occasions it becomes necessary to conduct an ethical hunt on African elephants or rhinos. The animals are completely consumed or otherwise put to use by the local population, except for the tails, ears, and trunk. Those parts are sent to a taxidermist, who combines them with fiberglass replica animals, suitable for display.
When we arrive at the painting bay, the garage door to the first bay is open. Inside is an enormous tropical fish slide. Its bright, flamboyant colors are a feast for my eyes. Busy painting the fish is Eugene Ortize. I watch as he adds nuanced details to its surface, employing a blend of methods, from careful brushwork to the expert handling of a variety of airbrush tools. His technique is at the highest level. I ask Ortize where he attended art school. He tells me he is self-taught.
From the bay next door I hear metal music blaring. Inside, I meet Max Muraski. He is painting another of Tony Tasset’s “Mood Sculptures.” Instead of five, this one has seven heads. The sculpture is destined for Randall’s Island, for installation outside the entrance of Frieze New York 2018.
From behind his double barrel ventilation mask, Muraski says he is almost finished — just a few heads to go. As I watch him work, I am entranced by the purity of color Muraski has coaxed from his paints, and the intensely high gloss sheen he has imparted onto the sculpture’s surface.
I came here to learn how public sculptures get made. What I found was so much more. The grace of these painters’ gestures; the confidence of these artisans’ techniques; the absolute authority which these object makers conduct their craft: this is why artists like Tasset, Lipski, and Oppenheim trust Kneifl, Ortize, Muraski, and everyone else here at FAST. They are the perfect collaborators — true artists, even if they would never presume to use that word themselves.