For two long years at the National Zoo, Steven Weitzman has sawed and whittled, gouged and chiseled, scraped and drilled, carved and milled. He has logged approximately 2,000 hours of craftsmanship and artistry, turning a giant white oak into an intricately carved totemic sculpture dedicated to the Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ). And finally, on Thursday night, all the wood chips will fall into place as 800 to 1,000 FONZ members will gather at the zoo for the 32nd Annual FONZ Meeting and the official dedication of "Volunteers."
Sculpting the 28-foot, four-ton tree, which Weitzman found lying on its side near the zoo's creek, was both laborious and glorious. "It's a lot of wood to remove by hand," understates Weitzman, a Boulder, Colo., native who moved to Washington six years ago. "The sheer physical aspect of it, working on it in the summers. Sometimes it would be close to 100 degrees, with 90 percent humidity. Trying to sculpt in the midst of all that. ..." His voice trails off. In the winter, the cold weather would sometimes snap his steel tools.
He worked the wood with "everything from a four-foot chainsaw to a two-millimeter hand chisel" to create the carvings of faces -- both human and animal. There's fine detail, eyelids, hair, fingers, folds in the clothes, what Weitzman calls a "European old type" of wood carving. "Drills, grinders, over 100 types of chisels and gouges," he continues, describing the tools of trade. "Whatever was necessary."
Unlike working in a quiet studio, creating public art in a public space was a little like working in a ... well, a zoo. The chatter of kids, squinting up at Weitzman, pointing, asking questions about figures that weren't quite finished, "What's that supposed to be?" The clicking of shutters, the constant request "Could you turn around and smile?" from parents. The squeal of nearby monkeys, birds cawing, and all that jazz. And the questions, the questions, the questions.
Weitzman loved it.
"I'm kind of a hermit. I work by myself," he says. "But for this type of work, I think it's important that the public get involved. You can even call it performance art in some ways. A part of the sculpture was the creation of the sculpture. Part of the art was how I interacted with people." He says he often used people who were watching him as models, so don't be surprised to see Uncle Bob's nose somewhere in that melange of faces on "Volunteers."
"Besides," he said laughing, "it helped to entertain me. This is tedious work so it was great to periodically stop and talk."
"So many people have seen this. I'll inevitably remember parents telling their kids, 'Now remember this, because one day you can tell your children that you saw this being created.' "
Weitzman, 37, says this week's dedication ceremony, in front of nearly a thousand people who are represented in the work, will mark the culmination of "a dream of creating this piece for the zoo." And the pursuit of that dream, which he did out in the open, with families watching, licking ice cream cones, posing, pondering and enjoying, was an experience that gave rewards to both artist and audience. "People have come up and said, 'That's amazing that you spend so much time working on this.' Then they walk away thinking 'I've always wanted to do something creative, why don't I do it? Why don't I pursue my dreams?' "
So on that level, Weitzman feels he's accomplished something that every artist strives for -- he's inspired people. "If you want to be a writer, be a writer. If you want to paint, go ahead. Whatever it is, do it," he says. "When people look at my work, I want them to have a certain hopeful feeling."
Bust and Boom
Uncle Sam's empty wallet has been bad news for just about everyone, but last weekend, local art museums and galleries were more than happy to see a temporary government shutdown. With the Smithsonian Institution closed over the Columbus Day weekend, thousands of tourists and other assorted culture-seekers were left wondering and wandering around the Mall with no place to go. Many of them dropped in the first place they could find with art on the walls.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art was probably the biggest winner, no doubt helped by its proximity to the Mall. Over the weekend, 3,106 people visited the gallery, compared with 808 the weekend before. Shop sales at the Corcoran were $5,600, up from the previous weekend total of $1,600. The Corcoran received more than $400 in donations, four times its average weekend take.
The Phillips Collection also had a boom: 2,407 went through its doors compared with a previous weekend attendance of 1,038. The Phillips, like the Corcoran, was closed on Monday.
Officials at the National Museum for Women in the Arts, which was open during the weekend and on Columbus Day, called local hotels on Saturday to ask management to remind guests that the museum was open. It paid off: Attendance was up 36 percent.
Ramone Osuna, president of the Dupont Circle Galleries Association and owner of the gallery that bears his name, had what he called "a good Saturday," but didn't note a particularly large increase in visitors. The Dupont galleries are closed on Sundays.
The Washington Project for the Arts reported no sizable increase in attendance during the Smithsonian shutdown, but has had great gate numbers for its current exhibit, "Shooting Back: Photography By and About the Homeless." That exhibit will be extended to Nov. 25.