A daycare group admires the new whale sculpture by Georgia Gerber in Langley. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

A daycare group admires the new whale sculpture by Georgia Gerber in Langley. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Whidbey’s Georgia Gerber creates iconic shapes in bronze

She turns abstract forms into some of the region’s most beloved public art, including the Pike Place Market pig.

Who: The bronze sculptures by Georgie Gerber have captivated passersby in Washington for nearly four decades.

Her over 50 public installations statewide include “Rachel the Pig,” the mascot of Pike Place Market, baboons at Woodland Park Zoo and the dancing girl trio on Colby Avenue in Everett. A new sculpture is the 12-foot “Hope the Whale” overlooking the waterfront in Langley on Whidbey Island.

Gerber, 65, and her husband, Randy Hudson, moved from Seattle to Clinton in 1983 and set up a studio, foundry and a stable. Randy, her right-hand man, is a musician in the island-famous band The Rural Characters. Foundry assistant Virginia Keck has done her fabrication and finish work for more than 35 years.

As a fundraiser for various island nonprofits, Gerber created the Christmas Sculpture Project, where a donation of $200 gets collectors a small pewter figure every year that is kept secret until the seasonal reveal.

When not sculpting, she enjoys spending time with her grandchildren and riding her horse.

What: It has taken me a long while to realize that I observe things differently than most people. I see shapes and forms more than details, and that’s what I focus on when sculpting. To me, it really shows in my work. In many of my pieces, you could take away the parts that identify them as figurative and be left with a sort of abstract form that still works sculpturally. I think that is a lot of the attraction people have for my work, even if they don’t realize it.

I also love whimsy, which I think of as playful or fanciful rather than comical. There can be the whimsy of three girls dancing on a sidewalk, or a cow and calf at home in the middle of an urban shopping center that was once a dairy farm. But my most obviously whimsical sculptures have to be the series of “Dancing Rabbits.” I started long ago with a pair waltzing at the “Harvest Moon Ball” and have continued on with different dance poses every two or three years since. It’s a challenge to try and adapt animal anatomy to human movement, but the blending creates a whole other sort of visual whimsy on top of just the idea of them dancing.

I knew early on that I wanted to work life-size, which can be very expensive to produce in bronze. So I learned how to cast my own work, which really helped build my career. We cast for about 35 years, but have now transitioned to partnering with Reinmuth Bronze in Eugene. Knowing the difficulty and demands of the whole foundry process informs my sculpting style somewhat, not in any kind of a limiting way, but in a way that makes the translation of clay into bronze more fluid.

I have always preferred my public work to be as accessible as possible. I like that people, especially children, can touch it and get involved with it. So whenever possible I place it directly in a site and seldom on pedestals.

When: I grew up in rural Pennsylvania riding horses and tending animals on our small farm with my twin sister. Back then, we actually had art in high school and there was clay available, and I found I enjoyed three dimensions. One of my first pieces was a little owl.

I came out West for the master of fine arts program at the University of Washington. It was a difficult time for me because the sculpture department was not oriented toward the kind of figurative work I was doing. But in the end, I think that was actually helpful, since it forced me to explore different ways of thinking about sculpture and combining styles. I’m sure that lesson later inspired pieces like “Triad” for the Everett Public Library, with realistic but minimalized harbor seals cutting through three pillars that are architectural in nature, but also somewhat natural looking.

I had a great undergrad professor, William Lasansky. He not only taught me about form and line, but about using tools and casting metal. He had a sensibility about quality and how it is evoked. It’s a certain look. It can be there, or not, in even just the roughness of your clay stroke. One of his most important gifts was helping me understand that a lot of times the real quality, the real art, is in knowing when to stop. He has always remained a strong influence. My husband still asks, “What would William say?” if I am struggling with a piece.

Why: Making art brings me joy, and to think that my art brings joy to others seems to me about the best bargain ever made. The early years of trying to make a living were hard, and I did question my life choices at times. But, somehow, whenever it seemed nearly hopeless that call would come in from a gallery about a sale, or one of the seemingly endless applications for public art commissions would actually end up with me being chosen. I am very grateful for all the support I have received.

There is a sculpture of mine in the nearby town of Langley of a teenage boy leaning against a railing and looking out over Saratoga Passage, with his dog waiting by his side. Randy and I sit in that little First Street Park sometimes and watch people interact with the piece. One time, a tourist used broken English and motioned to ask me to take a picture of him and his family gathered around the piece. If I ever wonder why I do what I do, I’ll just go sit there on a busy day.

Retirement and what that might look like is a topic around our house these days. Like a lot of self-employed people, we’re faced with how to wind things down after working so hard to get where we are. Not sure how that’s going to play out. I have grandkids, so I am spending more time with them and slowing down with the studio work. I really get a kick out of being with them because any sculpture they see, whether it’s mine or not, they go, “Nana, did you make that?” They know Nana makes sculptures.

The reasons I became an artist haven’t changed, and it is feeling like I will be growing old, still exploring that creativity that has always driven me. But like of a lot other things I still love to do, it’s clearly going to have to be at a more leisurely pace.

How: I sculpt in oil-based clay that never dries out, which is a lot more convenient than the natural clays I used to use. But to get from a completed clay work to a bronze sculpture, there’s a whole lot of skilled foundry work that goes on.

I have had wonderful assistants over the years, and Randy has been a huge part of making it all happen. He’s the foundry man, bookkeeper, photographer, mold maker and so much more. He’s been what every artist needs in their lives to free them from all the necessary practicalities of this business. Sometimes his level-headedness gets in the way, though. While he does tolerate my having horses in our pasture, he nixed my proposal of life-size bronze stallions crashing through the second story wall for a casino in Reno. Go figure.

Where: If you recognize Georgia Gerber’s work at all, it’s probably because of “Rachel,” installed in Pike Place Market in 1986. It’s a large bronze pig with a coin slot, serving as a bank to collect donations for the Market Foundation. Modeled after a neighbor’s pet pig named Rachel, a prize-winner at the Island County Fair, this sculpture has become a well-known Seattle landmark. The sculpture weighs 550 pounds, 200 less than the namesake sow.

Here’s a list of Gerber’s sculptures in Snohomish and Island counties:

“Locals,” Olympic Beach Park, Edmonds, 1989

A grouping of five sea lions being observed at a distance by a father with one child sitting on his shoulders and another clutching his legs.

“Chapter 5, A Promise Kept,” Mukilteo Public Library, 1999

A large open book, 4 feet across, leaning against a stack of similarly scaled books. A bear cub stands upon the pile, helping a rabbit that is emerging from the book. A squirrel struggles to emerge. On steps leading down from the stack two rabbits scurry toward an otter, bear and young girl who are holding hands and dancing animatedly in a semicircle.

“Triad,” inside Everett Public Library, 1991

Three harbor seals cutting in and around three pilings, the tallest of which is about 9 feet.

“Along Colby,” Colby Avenue, Everett 2005

Three dancing girls with their arms in the air.

“The Traveler,” Mountlake Terrace Library, 1988

A child rides a mother bear with cubs.

“Leapfroggers,” Kasch Park, Everett, 1994

Children playing leapfrog, a dog, with a baseball bat and glove piled on the ground nearby.

“Boy and Dog,” First Street Park, Langley, 1986

A teen leaning against a handrail, a dog at his feet.

“Hope the Whale,” First Street and Anthes Avenue, Langley, 2020

A 12-foot whale that is also a coin bank.

Hope the Whale

“Hope the Whale” is the latest public art by sculptor Georgia Gerber. Two blowholes are money slots on this 12-foot whale of good fortune for Langley. Hope’s unveiling was slated to coincide with the annual Welcome the Whales Festival, where islanders parade through the streets dressed as whales. Due to COVID-19, the great gray whale arrived in June with the fanfare being a small crane, concrete truck and a handful of observers. The seaside tourist village, known for its domestic bunnies, art, theatrics and events, is home to the Whale Bell and Langley Whale Center. Langley Arts Fund decided the town needed a whale sculpture and collected over $120,000 through donations. The Langley group asked Gerber to create the whale. The whale is above Seawall Park, overlooking Saratoga Passage where gray whales annually migrate. A sign warns not to climb on the 950-pound whale sculpture, built to withstand kids who will anyway.

Washington North Coast Magazine

This article is featured in the fall/winter issue of Washington North Coast Magazine, a supplement of The Daily Herald. Explore Snohomish and Island counties with each quarterly magazine. Each issue is $3.99. Subscribe to receive all four editions for $14 per year. Call 425-339-3200 or go to www.washingtonnorthcoast.com for more information.

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