It all started with rolls of masking tape. As a kid, Matthew Gray Palmer would descend into his basement, tape in hand, big ideas in his head, and go to work. His huge version of Jabba the Hutt, one of many creations, spanned the whole length of the basement. Alas, Jabba had a short-lived moment of fame due to poor site planning. "It was right next to our baseboard heaters," says Palmer. "My father made me tear it down."
When he was eight years old, Palmer sold his first sculpture to an enthusiastic teacher for $25, and he has been creating sculptures ever since. Today, he has exchanged his rolls of tape for stone, clay and bronze. But he still thinks big. Since 1992 he has created a host of life-sized cast-bronze monuments, and this year, he adds a wildcat to his repertoire—a UNH wildcat.
A committee of UNH staff and faculty members, alumni and parents, as well as professional artists, chose Palmer from the group of 50 artists who submitted proposals. "We were looking for something compelling and charismatic, something that reflects the values of the university community," says university archivist Elizabeth Slomba, chair of the committee. "The quality of his work really impressed us."
Before he could even start on the sculpture itself, Palmer had to come to New Hampshire—in a Nor'easter—to work with a landscape firm to find and place the large boulders that will serve as the base of the monument in front of the Whittemore Center. Palmer spent the next couple of days bundled against the cold, creating a plaster mold of the rocks so he will be able to work from a replica of the surface where the wildcat will stand.
The molds are back in his studio now in Friday Harbor, Wash. And Palmer is immersed in the painstaking task of creating a cast-bronze monument. "The challenging thing about the process," he says, "is that essentially you have to make it three times." The larger-than-life-size clay version is followed by an identical wax version and finally a bronze version, cast at the foundry in 2,000-degree heat. "You may get it just the way you want it in the clay version," says Palmer, "and then you spend the whole rest of the process trying to play catch-up to this original. You have to get everything exactly right every step of the way."
Funding for the sculpture came from a number of private donations as well as the Parents' Association. The Alumni Association plans to unveil the sculpture during Homecoming Weekend 2006, Oct. 13-15.
Palmer hopes the UNH wildcat, like many of his other works, will not only touch people—but be touched by them. Literally. "The public work I do gets an artistic expression out where people can touch it, feel the patterns, put their arms around it." Palmer's art is, in a very real sense, a way of reaching out, a way of helping people to see—and feel—the power of a big idea.Return to UNH Magazine Campus Currents