By Amanda Johnson
Near the intersection of Boyd Street and Elm Avenue, two glowing red dots pierce the night.
These red dots make up the eyes of the “Mesteño,” an 8-foot-tall mustang sculpture glaring through the glass windows of the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.
“It wasn’t what people expected when you think of a sculpture of a horse,” said Hadley Jerman, Eugene B. Adkins curator at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. “I think people thought the red eyes were kind of frightening.”
Jerman was a freshman at the University of Oklahoma when the statue was unveiled on the corner of Boyd Street and Elm Avenue in 1998 before it was moved to its current home in the museum. She remembers the controversial response it garnered from students on campus.
“I remember for almost an entire year it was receiving commentary in the paper,” Jerman said.” I also remember thinking it was really kind of exciting, though, because there was this discussion about art on campus for a long time.”
OU’s newest public artwork, “Covered Wagon,” has evoked discussions similar to the ones that took place 20 years ago, but it also has raised new questions, too.
Created by artist Tom Otterness, the statue depicts a covered wagon being pulled by an ox, with a pioneer woman driving and her two children fighting in the back. The nontraditional style and its placement on campus, along with the artist’s history, has stirred debate among the OU community.
Buddy Wiedemann, Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication director of information technology, said he finds the statue not only hideous but also offensive.
“You take something from a very controversial artist that looks like a cartoon of the land run, which was very offensive to a lot of Native Americans in this part of the country,” Wiedemann said. “Why would you ever put something that has that kind of stuff attached to it in a public space?”
Public discourse has extended beyond the artwork itself and has found its way to the “Covered Wagon” artist’s past.
In 1977, Otterness adopted a dog from an animal shelter, tied it to a fence and shot it. He recorded a video of the shooting, titled “Shot Dog Film,” and played it on a continuous loop during a gallery show.
Otterness’ controversial past led to repercussions in 2011, when the San Francisco Arts Commission, after a community uproar, voted to terminate a $750,000 contract with Otterness that would have had the artist decorate a subway station with sculptures, according to the San Francisco Examiner.
“It’s very clear to me that it’s a completely indefensible act to take a life in the service of any idea or work,” Otterness said in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle in 2011. “I think the work that I’ve done in 30 years since that really is a counterbalance to that one action. I deeply regret it.”
But Wiedemann said it’s not about forgiveness — he doesn’t even want to think about Otterness’ artwork.
“I don’t care how old he was or how many times he apologizes,” Wiedemann said. “(His actions against the dog) are all I think about when I see it, and I don’t ever want to see any of his work.”
Actions have been taken in response to Otterness’ past, which includes a petition started by an OU student calling for the statue’s removal, and the placement of a T-shirt on the statue with the words “I shoot dogs.”
OU officials have not commented on the petition, which had more than 3,400 signatures as of 3 p.m. Nov. 6., and the T-shirt was removed by morning after it was spotted on the evening of Oct. 30.
“I’m so glad that petition went up,” Wiedemann said. “I’ll do anything I can to get (‘Covered Wagon’) out of here — I think it’s horrible.”
Located outside the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication and across from the Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, the statue’s presence is unavoidable to many students passing by on their way to class.
“I don’t really like the statue at all if we are being honest,” said Skyla Parker, public relations junior and Gaylord College Ambassador. “I understand art is objective — some people like it, some don’t — but I think it should go with the decor or the whole structure of Gaylord. It fits nowhere where it is right now.”
Mark White, director of the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, said Otterness’ style is drawn from 1920s animation, and the piece is a way to make light of ideas and concepts commonly found in culture.
“‘Covered Wagon’ is kind of a satire of the whole pioneer mythos — but also, and more particularly, the pioneer monuments of the early 20th century,” White said. “Those monuments were a celebration of the pioneer monuments and westward expansion, but all of those ideas have come under a lot of scrutiny, especially in the last 20 to 30 years.”
Donor and 1957 OU graduate William Obering, who had previously given Robert Indiana’s “LOVE” to campus, wanted to enhance OU’s art collection and the public spaces on campus, according to the Oct. 24 OU Board of Regents agenda.
“(Obering) wasn’t interested in giving something to campus that necessarily everybody would love,” White said. “He understands, as do many, that public sculptures are not just about beautifying space, but it’s also about encouraging public discourse.”
Since the arrival of “Covered Wagon,” discourse has run rampant.
Daren Kendall, OU’s School of Visual Arts assistant professor of sculpture, said this discussion is positive, and art should challenge ideas, bring awareness and give different points of view.
“When there’s a very common or conventional view, artists are there to kind of say, ‘Let’s take a look at what we are really thinking and really believe — let’s have a conversation about it,’” Kendall said. “I’m not so sure there’s much conversation happening around bronze football players and even some of the sculptures that might be considered romantic.”
The installation of “Covered Wagon” on campus has created questions about the process of how OU chooses its public art and who is making decisions.
White said donors approach the museum with pieces of artwork they want to see on campus, and each piece must meet a list of criteria, such as the significance of the artist and their track record of sales, to determine if it would be fit for campus.
“Ultimately, we kind of weigh it against all the criteria, and if it is something that the museum feels very strongly about, then that’s when we would advance it to the upper administration,” White said.
The previous administration, headed by former OU President David Boren, who focused heavily on the beautification of campus, approved the donation and selected the location of “Covered Wagon,” White said.
The current selection process for OU’s public artwork has left faculty and students wondering if there is a better way.
Kendall said when a donor wants to place artwork on campus, the conversations and people surrounding it are very important.
“There has to be a critical discourse, there has to be a dialogue, there has to be not just one person deciding,” Kendall said. “We like to be comfortable, and we like to feel good, but if that’s all that art does, then I think we are kind of missing the point.”
Wiedemann said there should be a committee, made up of various people from different branches of the university, that decides what goes where on campus.
“I’m not saying the whole university should get to vote on it, but there should be some oversight,” Wiedemann said. “There was obviously no oversight on (‘Covered Wagon’), or it never would have gone up — there was none.”
Parker said students should also be involved in the decision-making process.
“I definitely think there should be student representatives deciding about the art,” Parker said. “However, I appreciate that OU has places for art to be shown around campus — that’s something really unique.”
OU President James Gallogly now has the opportunity to leave his own legacy of public artwork on campus, but amid budget cuts, it remains unclear how he will approach overseeing OU’s public artwork, which was abundant under his predecessor.
Despite uncertainties, Jerman encourages the OU community to keep an open mind.
“I encourage people anytime you see art that your initial response is, ‘I don’t like that,’ or, ‘I don’t understand that,’ to just try to find out more about it,” Jerman said.
Jerman now smiles standing next to “Mesteño,” looking up at the glowing red eyes that once frightened so many.
“I think this is now one of the most beloved pieces in the museum,” Jerman said.