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Tom Otterness drawing for an installation in the San Francisco subway system
Tom Otterness drawing for an installation in the San Francisco subway system


Sept. 19, 2011

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Poor Tom Otterness, a successful sculptor whose whimsical figures and inventive designs for public parks have pleased legions of kids and their parents around the globe. Thirty-four years ago, in a youthful fit of stricken conscience, he got a dog from the pound and killed it -- needless to say, we live in a society where stray and unwanted pets are put down by the millions -- but it is an act that continues to haunt him to this day.

In July, the hoary controversy derailed a planned donation of an Otterness sculpture to a New York City library. Now, San Francisco mayor Edwin Lee has halted the $750,000 contract awarded to Otterness for a planned installation in the city’s new Central Subway system after reports in the local newspapers headlined the artist's 1977 action, which was filmed and shown on cable television, thus becoming widely known.

Lee’s spokeswoman told the San Francisco Chronicle that the mayor found the film “deeply disturbing” and is stalling the project, a bronze and concrete relief mural of straphangers, pending an investigation by the city’s Arts Commission. The commission’s president, P.J. Johnston told the paper, “I understand the incident was 34 years ago, but it certainly is disturbing and so we’re going to take a look at it.”

In a statement that Otterness sent to the San Francisco Examiner, he wrote, "What I did is indefensible. It was a terrible mistake, born out of the deep despair I was feeling at that time of my life (I was 25 years old). I have spent the 34 years since then living with my mistake, and trying to bring joy into the world through my public art. I am deeply honored to have had my work chosen for the San Francisco subway and I hope that seeing the work might help people forgive me for my horrible mistake many years ago."

Otterness’s studio was awarded the contract last July, but it has not yet been paid anything, according to Johnston. Other participating artists in the project include Catherine Wagner, Erwin Redl, Yu Mei Hou and Jim Campbell and Werner Klotz.

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