Makin' Hay: Installation draws mostly rave reviews

L.A. Cicero Hay ladder

Juan Nuñez, left, and Luis Carlos Sanchez help to install Makin’ Hay, a collection of scultpures near the intersection of Stanford Avenue and Junipero Serra Boulevard.

L.A. Cicero Hay setup

In the weeks since it was installed in the Dish area, the outdoor sculpture Makin' Hay by artist Tom Otterness has proved an unqualified success with the local ground squirrels—on a recent late afternoon they congregated in the shade of a huge scythe wielded by one of the sculpture's three massive female figures and burrowed in the hay bales scattered across the installation site. The figures—made of steel and hay and ranging in height from 15 to 17 feet—are planted near the pathway at the intersection of Stanford Avenue and Junipero Serra Boulevard.

The sculpture is a hit, too, with most of the visitors who pause on their way up the path to talk about the figures with Randolph Jamal, a community service officer who works at a post near the entrance to the path.

Their reaction has been "overwhelmingly positive," Jamal said. And given the fact that the sculpture is on a two-year loan from the Alturas Foundation, "Those who don't like it, they tell me, 'Well, it'll be here for two years; it'll grow on me,'" he said.

The addition of fine art into the landscape more habituated to moles and redwing blackbirds prompted Jamal to research the work of the Kansas-born Otterness, who now works out of a studio in Brooklyn. Jamal keeps with him at his post thumbnail-sized photos of the sculptor's recent acclaimed temporary installation of 24 bronze figures along Broadway in New York City, along with a laminated press release about Makin' Hay from the Cantor Arts Center.

Otterness created the sculpture for a contest sponsored by farmers living in Utica, Mont. It was basically a "hay-bale decorating contest," said Jim Yaw of the Walla Walla Foundry in Washington state, which fabricated the sculpture. According to Yaw, there's more steel than hay in Makin' Hay: The figures weigh between 3,500 and 5,000 pounds.

The sculpture's three figures riff playfully on The Gleaners, a painting by 19th-century French artist François Millet, which met hostility when it debuted in Paris in 1857 because of its bleak depiction of rural life. At the Dish, the rustic nature of Makin' Hay draws commentary, too. "The farm boys tell me it will be interesting to see what happens to the hay," Jamal said.

"It reminds me of old-time harvesting," said Walter Lennartsson, who cut rye and barley with a scythe as a boy in Sweden. Now a scientist at Lockheed Martin, Lennartsson was still coming to the field to work: Last Friday he carried the rolled-up text of a talk he planned to rehearse while he hiked: "Solar Wind Drivers of Ion Outflows."

In a straw poll conducted last Friday, only two of a dozen passersby didn't like the sculpture. One walker, a male, termed them a tepid "OK." His female companion strongly objected to the depiction of women doing hard labor. (Neither wanted to give their names.)

"I think they are really cute," said Christine Holsberry, who graduated in June with a degree in product design. But her least favorite figure is one bent over in a poignant curve to lift a bale. "It's kind of painful," she said.

More typical was the response of Debbie Umphreys of Menlo Park, who walks in the Dish area three to four times a week. "I think they're charming. They blend right in," she said. "My friends and I are working on names for all of them."