What's Behind the New Bear?
Reported by Jacks Whitehurst
A 10-foot-tall, 800-pound, bronze grizzly bear sculpture now stands in the middle of the new Alumni Plaza nestled in between the football field the south end of Stoffer Family stadium. At 11 p.m. on Oct. 5, George Fox University (GFU) unveiled the sculpture to the community, giving out t-shirts and stickers to commemorate the evening.
The bear is the result of a long-term conversation in GFU’s administration in concert with an art initiative that aims to display more artwork on campus, but it had a rocky beginning.
The project was first initiated in 2014 by the Associated Student Community (ASC), when they approached Rob Westervelt, chief strategy officer, and asked for assistance. The plan was to use the “student reserve fund,” an accumulation of unspent student fees from 10 years prior.
“If any of the student project fund money isn’t used, it rolls into the next year,” said current ASC President Bailey Sauls. Each year, students at GFU are required to contribute $220 to funding annual events, activities, and projects run by ASC.
Not long after the idea got out, ASC started receiving pressure from a few in the student body because they were concerned that their money was going to be spent on a sculpture, something they didn’t want on campus.
Westervelt created a video on YouTube hoping to dispel the rumor that current student money was going to be used for the bear, and that only the reserve fund from previous years was going to be used.
Sauls, who didn’t hear about the project much sooner than the general student body, said that for many students, “The question becomes, ‘well that money could have been used for something else, there are a lot of other issues on campus, parking, for example.’”
The idea was meant to “bring people together and unify them under a powerful symbol, which is our Bruin,” Westervelt said. “We wanted to break out of the stereotype that Bruins are athletes.”
ASC didn’t clear up the misinformation to students, according to Westervelt, and backed out of the project after it failed to gain any traction when a few protesters among the student body rallied behind an all-campus vote to end the campaign. At that, the funding was cut.
However, the idea was far from spent. Westervelt commented on the process from 2014: “President Baker,” he said, “believed in the idea and said, ‘we’re going to do this eventually, but we are going to let this lie for a while.’” Four years later, the bear arrived on campus.
When asked about exactly where the idea came from and who pushed for the 2018 project, GFU President Robin Baker said, “It’s one of those projects that will not have definitive answers to a lot of those questions, meaning that once it gets into my office it can take a variety of different tracks.”
He also mentioned that the idea of putting a bear sculpture on campus has been around ever since he arrived, so he wouldn’t be able to pinpoint who came up with the original idea.
“It was dropped as an idea by the students,” Baker said, “so then people asked me if I wanted to renew it and I had an interest in it.”
Sarah Reid, director of Affinity Marketing at GFU, said that she first heard of the bear sculpture while planning an Alumni Plaza in November 2017.
“The bear became part of the conversation because President Baker has been wanting to increase the presence of professional sculpture on campus,” Reid said. “It was right about that time that I found out that the bear was going to be arriving on campus so we decided to put them together.”
The Aesthetics Committee, which, according to the 2017 GFU Faculty Handbook, “develops and maintains a consistent and coordinated university image through campus aesthetics,” approved the Marketing Department’s pitch to bring the bear sculpture and the Alumni Plaza together into one location.
“Since I work in Alumni Communication,” Reid said. “I became the project manager for coordinating with (GFU) Plant Services around the plaza, working with the sculptor, the foundry, and all those groups.”
“Our goal overall has been to bring some artwork to the community,” Baker said, although he didn’t agree with the location at first.
“We debated about where to put it with the Aesthetics Committee,” he said. “I wanted to put it next to the bridge.”
He also said in the end, he was glad that it wasn’t placed where he originally wanted it, and that it looks better next to the football field.
Reid noted Phil Thornburg, GFU alum and owner of Winterbloom Inc., as the donor who put together the landscape and architecture plans for the Alumni Plaza.
Thornburg is just one of the donors responsible for contributing to the sculpture, whether in time or money. Sauls was able to confirm that ASC did not contribute in any degree to funding the bear this time around.
President Baker said that the entire project was funded through a few donors, who were not named, and through a specific annual fund that is used for a variety of different projects each year.
When asked directly about where the funding came from for the sculpture, Baker said, “The institution has resources that comes from students paying tuition, from donors and others, so the answer to the question is partly that I have funds from what we call an Innovation Fund.”
In the past, some of the Innovation Fund has been used to implement other sculptures at different locations on campus. Baker marks the GFU 125 Anniversary sculpture outside the Stevens Center, by GFU Professor Mark Terry, as what started the effort for more art on campus.
Since then, others like “Treasure,” by Oregon artist Ellen Tykeson, the sculpture depicting a family of four placed near Pennington Residence Hall, the metal salmon beneath Crisman Crossing (commonly known as “the bridge”), and the chainsaw-carved wooden animals previously outside of Canyon Commons have been added to campus.
Ryan Wilhite of Tualatin, Ore., sculptor of the bear and son of distinguished alumni Dr. Steven Wilhite of Eugene, Ore., was working on the bear for the last two years, but also recalls a conversation that he had several years prior.
“I remember walking around a long time ago when I was doing bronzes full time,” Wilhite said, “and my dad said, ‘man it would be nice if we had a bronze bear here,’ and then it really didn’t get much past that.”
Wilhite was a full-time bronze sculpture artist before the recession. When the economy took a downturn, he then began teaching full-time and doing art on the side. Within the circle of the wildlife bronze sculpture industry, he creates figurative portraiture (faces and heads) and wildlife in both bronze and ceramic.
When the project first came to be in 2014, Wilhite was asked if he would be willing to build the bear. Later, President Baker called him and told him that they would eventually go through with it. Wilhite would produce three clay sketches; one standing with a symmetrical pose; the other standing on all fours; and the third was something a little more aggressive, according to Wilhite.
For the bear, he used his personal garage space to sculpt 200 pounds of oil-based clay he bought on Amazon to build the molds before sending them off to Firebird Bronze Foundry to be cast and welded together.
Wilhite said he didn’t mind waiting a few years to be re-commissioned for the bear. “It actually worked out for the best and gave me a little bit more time,” he said, “because the first time we were pushing dates, but this time I said that I wanted, within reason, to take my time because I work full time.”
Even though he would spend three to four hours per day over the course of two years to complete the bear, he said it was an enjoyable process. Each and every hair on the bear was handcrafted with what he called a “loop tool,” so that the texture in bronze would come out life-like.
The deadline before the Oct. 5 unveiling almost ran up against catastrophe because the bear was set to be completed the day Firebird Bronze’s lease expired, meaning that if the bear were in the shop for another day, it would cost them the next month’s rent. A few workers from the foundry loaded up the bear on a flatbed trailer and got it out the day before the deadline.
GFU’s most viewed Instagram video is one where the bear is being hauled down Highway 99 West, straps flapping in the wind, its head nearly missing a stoplight. At 5,000 views and counting, more than 2,000 views above all other videos on their homepage, the comment board continues to be a place where some of the original protesting students converse about the sculpture’s arrival to campus.
“I think the reasoning behind doing the bear with the Alumni Plaza is thinking more long term,” Sauls said. “So if you have an alumnus that is making a donation with specific intent, George Fox wants to say, ‘okay, we will use it in a way that you want to use it in order to cultivate these alumni relationships so that in the future we can continue to have money for more productive things.’”
Westervelt, Baker, Reid, and Sauls all said to some degree that the bear was meant to cultivate strong alumni relationships that would carry on into the future, as well as give the current students an on-campus rallying point.
“The goal for me was two-fold,” Wilhite said, “one, that it looks really good. Two that you can enjoy it from a distance as a piece of sculpture and go up close to it and touch it, rather than it being a piece in a gallery.”