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This article was published 1/12/2020 (290 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Even showing a work public art for the first time is fraught with fear and worry in 2020.
That’s what Wayne Littlejohn, a sculptor who grew up in Norwood Flats and now lives in Las Vegas, found out when it was time to reveal his latest work, Atomic Tumbleweed, earlier this month in Sin City.
"I had to really think about this whole dedication thing, whether it was a good idea to do it, whether to be part of it or even show up," Littlejohn, 61, says. "In the end I figured it was time to push forward and make sure it was as safe as possible to do it."
A small ceremony took place Nov. 5 in downtown Las Vegas as Littlejohn, who teaches art at the College of Southern Nevada, pulled the cover off the stainless steel sculpture, which sits atop a pedestal and resembles an atom.
"That was very bizarre. It was the first time I’d been out in a group of maybe two or three people since the whole thing started," he says. "Everybody was masked up and for the most part everybody was doing really well in following all the rules but there are always a couple of people who want to give you a hug."
Atomic Tumbleweed gets its title and design from two aspects of Nevada history — its windy, desert landscape that creates tumbleweeds, and the Nevada National Security Site about 110 kilometres northwest of the city, where more than 1,000 nuclear weapons tests took place from 1951 to 1992.
"It definitely has that going on. There’s always some aspect of the world we live in comes out in a piece," he says. "This one is a little more overt, with a nuclear symbol kind of shape."
Atomic Tumbleweed is the third major piece of public art Littlejohn has created in Las Vegas since 2017. The first, a 7.5-metre tall aluminum structure called Dream Machine that some say resembles a mushroom or a flying saucer, sits in Siegfried and Roy Park, near McCarron International Airport.
Spin Baby, which Littlejohn unveiled in January, is a 3.5-metre tall microphone that is an homage to the Rat Pack and other Las Vegas entertainers of the past, present and future.
The stainless steel structure is lit by LEDs at nighttime — this is Las Vegas after all — and is located at the intersection of roads named after Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Dean Martin just west of the Strip.
Littlejohn’s latest piece is part of a downtown revitalization project, and sits outside a movie theatre in what is called Linear Park.
"It’s a nice little location," he says. "It’s about a couple of blocks from downtown and the Stratosphere tower in the background. That was all part of the design and the sculpture itself finishes the whole thing off, essentially."
Atomic Tumbleweed is much smaller than his previous two sculptures but creating the four stainless steel rings and the skeleton that keeps them in position was just as time consuming, he says. Littlejohn began by sculpting a version out of polystyrene foam in July 2019, which led to the creation of a mould. A foundry in Loveland, Colo., poured the rings.
"With the other pieces, they had a basic concept first and then the engineering figured out and then I worked around the engineering. So that restricted me, creatively," he says. "With this one I made the loops and played with the loops until I got the configuration I really liked. They look like they’re floating a bit more, and that’s when the engineers came in and figured out how to make it structurally strong."
It was ready to be installed in April, he says, but the pandemic shutdown in the spring led to its unveiling being postponed until November.
Littlejohn had pitches planned to build public art projects in B.C. and Ontario but the pandemic has put them firmly on the shelf. So he’s back at work teaching, and just a few days ago the college’s classes went completely online as COVID-19 cases in Las Vegas rose again.
It’s that fact of life in 2020 that has Littlejohn thinking about relatives back in Winnipeg, where’s he’s read about the recent surge of cases here, too.
"Yes, it sounds like things are pretty bad in Winnipeg right now," he says. "My dad is practically barricaded inside his assisted living facility over in St. B."
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.