Sculpture’s roots go back to turn of the century
In a place like Minden – where pedigree still means something – it’s a safe bet that the roots of the town park’s newest regular go back (or down) at least to the turn of the century.
That’s when the cottonwood tree was planted that has become Minden’s man for the new millennium, a 20-foot sculpture of a builder wielding a hammer created by chain saw artist Michael Gilligan.
“I’m a little relieved that it’s over,” said Gilligan who finished the sculpture this week, just a day before one of the Valley’s infrequent rain showers.
“This morning I went to see it, and all signs of me are gone – the scaffolding, the wood chips and the traffic cones in the street. I was perfectly contented with being part of the audience,” he said Thursday.
Gilligan estimated he spent 50 hours over eight days to create the as-yet unnamed Minden man who represents the town’s creation and heritage. The tree Gilligan sculpted was slated to be removed because of decay.
“It was like being on a stage,” he said, referring to the steady stream of passersby attracted by what passed for performance art in the town of 1,125 households.
In addition to plenty of free advice and encouragement, visitors treated Gilligan to occasional sack lunches and a couple of drink tokens. One mother brought her young daughters, who had their own pocket knives and learned a few techniques by watching the 25-year-old Gilligan at work.
“One of the little girls cut her finger while she was carving, but she was a little trouper and stuck with it. Her little sister gave me a stick she had carved, and I made it part of the sculpture,” Gilligan said.
Gilligan stopped every day for a pick-up Frisbee game with the neighborhood kids.
“I had an awesome time, better than I expected,” he said. “Everybody was very nice and very kind and nobody treated me like some kind of freak. The thing that put it over the top were the daily Frisbee sessions. Frisbee is my form of medication.”
Gilligan did not complete the sculpture without a few nights of artistic angst. He discovered the internal rot of tree was much worse than expected and made “hundreds” of changes in his original plan.
“There were times it was awful. I was frustrated, I had a couple of nights with no sleep wondering if the arm would fall off or people would just hate it. These are typical things that go along with it all and truly add to the experience. But there wasn’t any period when I didn’t want to be out there just doing it. It got under my skin.”
How did he know when to quit?
“I imagine that most people believe that an artist feels finished when the piece matches his vision or the artist gets a feeling of completion. Neither is true in my case. For me, when a piece of art is finished is a mix between how much I am advancing and if the work fits inside the parameters of what I was expecting to do … if I am starting to get near the unreachable goal,” he said.
Gilligan created the sculpture with a chain saw, using smaller tools only for the figure’s face and hands.
He hopes the creation lasts for at least five years – if the “Minden man” doesn’t fall prey to advancing decay or vandals. He drove by the park on Thursday and suppressed the urge to reprimand a teen-ager who was climbing on it.
“I had this urge to get out of my car and yell at this kid, but I didn’t.
Since we know kids are going to climb on it, I hope they’ll be careful,” he said. “It’s easy to slip off the base and I would just ask them to be careful of the fingertips and arm.”
Observers will notice that the raised arm of the man is out of proportion to the rest of the figure.
“Misproportion gets across the idea of feeling of strength or story,” Gilligan said. “If you just stick to the confines of the human body, it precludes you from telling the story. With this figure, it’s more than driving in the spike. It’s about the power and the force to break through the chaos that was around this area at the turn of the century.”
Gilligan did not charge for the sculpture.
“It might be a little corny, but I wanted to get across the idea of civil responsibility, of giving back to your community. I got some ribbing because of it, but in the end everyone thought it was a sweet gesture. If some people secretly think I am a fool, that’s fine with me,” he said.
Gilligan will be leaving Nevada soon for New Orleans where he hopes to pursue his art work with a friend who is a welder.
“He’s a welder and I am a wood guy,” Gilligan said. “We’re going to switch tools and go at it for a while and see what we come up with.”
In the meantime, Gilligan hopes his Carson Valley friends will contact him if another of the old cottonwoods that ring Minden Park needs to be replaced.
He’s already working out an idea – angels.
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