Sculptor dogged by a past act deserves forgiveness

[media-credit name=”Photo by Clayton Patterson ” align=”aligncenter” width=”600″][/media-credit]
Artist Tom Otterness (with glasses, to the left of sculpture), Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, school officials and students at the ribbon-cutting for Otterness’s “Coqui” in the P.S. 20 playground in October 2007.
BY CLAYTON PATTERSON  |  Elsa and I are dog lovers. We got our first dog around 1978. A friend was getting divorced and had to give up the dog. We took the dog in. When we came to New York City, the dog, a part of the family, came with us.

After our canine friend passed and enough time went by, we went to an ASPCA just to have a look. We saw this nervous German shepherd cowering in its cramped cage. Once she was let out, the first thing she did was to urinate on the floor, and then she leaned her whole body against my leg. This was Lucy, our second dog. She was always a little nervous, afraid of being abandoned, but she adjusted, stabilized, and turned out to be an amazing addition to the family. She lived to be 13, a ripe old age for a large dog.

In New York City we’ve always had a dog, sometimes two, and once three, and often a cat. Three dogs is too many. All of our dogs have been rescue animals. Why not save the life of a dog?

I think anyone who is deliberately cruel to an animal is mentally ill and a menace to society. But most of our rescue dogs started off with some kind of behavioral setback, and adapted to our family. People, as well, can change, grow up, mature, adjust. And I believe this is the case with our longtime friend and neighbor sculptor Tom Otterness.

Tom lives with his wife of many years, filmmaker Coleen Fitzgibbon, and his well-adjusted, late-teen daughter.

In 1977 Tom, at age 25, looking to find himself as an artist, struggling in N.Y.C., desperate to get noticed, committed a very stupid, cruel and despicable act. He bought a dog, tied it up, shot it and recorded a video of its final moments as it whimpered to death in agony, which he played in a gallery on a video loop. But times change and people change, and Tom has found his humanity.

If an artist is any good, the art he or she makes is a reflection of who the person is; it exposes the artist’s character and inner being. A madman makes mad art. A contemplative artist makes contemplative art. I like outsider art, but would not watch Tom’s early video. Tom has changed from a madman to a sensitive, kind, loving, introspective, socially conscious human being and his art reflects this. All a person has to do is look at the art Tom has made over the last couple of decades. It would be impossible for a social deviant to make this art.

Tom’s art is playful, imaginative, inoffensive, loved by children and adults alike, and often, in an innocent way, has a social message. Much of his art is for the public. If you live in N.Y.C., you have seen his art. For example, there’s “Life Underground,” his playful bronze figures in the subway station at 14th St. and Eighth Ave.; as well as his sculptures at Montefiore Children’s Hospital in the Bronx; his frog at P.S. 234 in Tribeca; his “The Lesson” at the Little Red School House; and the piece that I cherish the most, his “Coqui,” another bronze frog, a symbol of Puerto Rico, in the P.S. 20 playground, at Essex and Houston Sts.

I live across the street from P.S. 20. The reason I’m particularly fond of Tom’s large bronze “Coqui” is because this elementary school’s students are typical of an inner-city school. For the most part, they come from poor families, the parents have a limited education, and art is not a part of family life. What is not typical is the school is well maintained, well organized, well run. From an outsider’s perspective, all the teachers I have met appear to be caring and thoughtful. The crossing guards, I am sure, are some of the city’s best.

Because I grew up in a working-class community, I know how far the distance is between high art and a community with no art. I discovered art in high school. Art changed my life. Art gave me life. Art connected me to a spiritual side of life I never knew existed. Bloomberg is talking about cutting art out of school programs.

Tom’s frog is high art, but children can play on it, wrap their arms around it, can feel its essence against their skin. These inner city kids are connecting to high culture without even knowing it.

Not only are Tom and his family good neighbors, but he has gone from a failing, dysfunctional person and transformed into a highly functional, contributing member of society. He is one of those rare artists who has achieved fame and prominence, and reached a level in his field most can only dream of. His work is in the collection of some of the most prestigious museums, in esteemed private collections. One of his sculptural images was made into a balloon for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. His expansive Brooklyn studio is a small, independent industry that employs a number of staff people, including skilled craftspeople. He is our Henry Moore. I admire his achievements.

He is quite unassuming, unpretentious, but he is one of the most accomplished artists to come out of the Lower East Side, and he still lives here.

People can and do change. Tom is not the same person he was 35 years ago. He has changed and we should accept that fact. As someone on the inside of certain situations, I know for a fact that he, and Coleen, on the down low, have helped, in numerous ways, disadvantaged neighbors with real life problems.

There gets to be a point when one has to question what the motivation is behind all of these attacks against Tom. These ruthless attacks are destroying his business. Destroy his business and we lose another homegrown industry, as well as local jobs. It has become nearly impossible for a fine-art craftsperson to find employment.

The only difference I see between a corporate raider who destroys an American business and the Otterness attackers is that the raider does it for profit and these attackers do not. Either way, they’re all destroyers. The line between the stupidity of what Tom did, in his youth, 35 years ago, and this killing of his business, destroying his opportunity to make art, gets lost. There is something damaged about the soul which cannot forgive. Are forgiveness and redemption not a part of life’s equation?

In April 2008, Tom told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “Thirty years ago, when I was 25 years old, I made a film in which I shot a dog. It was an indefensible act that I am deeply sorry for. Many of us have experienced profound emotional turmoil and despair. Few have made the mistake I made. I hope people can find it in their hearts to forgive me.”