A former Winnipeg sculptor is once again expanding his artistic footprint in his adopted home — Las Vegas.
Wayne Littlejohn, who grew up in St. Boniface and is a graduate of the University of Manitoba’s fine arts program, is unveiling Spin Baby, a 3.5-metre tall piece of public art that looks like a 1950s-era microphone Thursday, Jan. 16 in the shadows of the Las Vegas Strip’s bright lights.
When Clark County renamed a street near the strip, three roads named after three stars who helped put Las Vegas on the entertainment map — Frank Sinatra Drive, Dean Martin Drive, and the new road, Sammy Davis Jr. Drive — would meet at an intersection. An area was set aside for a small park and public art to celebrate Sin City’s history.
"It was called the Rat Pack Crossroads Project," says Littlejohn, who applied to build the sculpture at the site in 2016 and was given the green light later that year. "I wanted to go beyond that small group. It’s kind of dedicated to them, but also entertainers past, present and future.
"It’s definitely a great corner."
Spin Baby is Littlejohn’s second large piece of public art he’s created and situated in the Las Vegas area. In 2017, his work Dream Machine, a 7 1/2-metre tall sculpture that some say resembles a giant mushroom, was erected in Siegfried and Roy Park, which is just north of McCarran International Airport.
"It was well received and it was a little unusual," says Littlejohn, 61, who moved to Las Vegas for graduate school and has since become a professor of fine art at the College of Southern Nevada.
"I think it opened the doors in quite a big way."
Creating a giant microphone out of bronze and stainless steel with help from a foundry and computer technology sounds light years away from a Renaissance artist chipping away at marble. The beginning of the process has some similarities though, he says.
First, Littlejohn using a sculptor’s tools, knives, chisels and scrapers, carved a table-top sized version of Spin Baby out of Styrofoam. The model was then digitally scaled up to its present size and made out of polystyrene. Layer upon layer of drywall compound material — the same stuff you can buy at Home Depot, Littlejohn says — was slathered onto the giant piece to create a smooth, white-coloured model. Fifty-six rubber moulds were made of each section of it, were put together, and then wax was poured over that to create another mould.
That mould was then dipped into a ceramic material, and then burned — like a giant pottery piece — to create a final mould that was ready for the grand finale — a sculpture made of bronze about 3/16 of an inch thick that was completed by Art Castings of Colorado in Loveland.
"What it ended up being is the entire sculpture itself is cast bronze, and the internal screen... is water-cut stainless steel," he says. "It took almost two or three months just to make that grille."
Once all put together it was transported back to Vegas. That’s when Littlejohn’s worries began.
"This was a very stressful part of the operation," Littlejohn says of the 150-pound Spin Baby. "We had to make sure when we loaded it that it didn’t get bent or damaged because you can’t go back (and repair it)."
His worries were unfounded, and Spin Baby, undamaged, was erected just before Christmas. Final touches and landscaping have been done since to prepare for the sculpture’s Jan. 16 unveiling.
A third Littlejohn sculpture is in the works too. Tentatively titled Atomic Tumbleweed, a spherical shaped sculpture is being prepared at the Colorado foundry, and is scheduled to be installed later this year in Las Vegas’s Arts District, an area south of downtown that Clark County is trying to revitalize, Littlejohn says.
A young Littlejohn lived in an artistic neighbourhood in the 1960s and ‘70s and his description of it sounds almost like a hothouse of artistic talent. His neighbour was sculptor Marcien Lemay, who created the notorious Louis Riel statue in 1973 that now stands outside the Université de Saint-Boniface.
"I’d walk across the street and my friend’s dad would be making stuff and his mom would be making stuff. I’d walk over to Leo Mol and he would be making stuff and then I’d walk over to Taché and (artist) Tony Tascona would be making stuff, he remembered. "As a kid I watched (Lemay) doing that, and throughout my teens and adult I watched that sculpture remain controversial and be moved around the city and being loved and hated by everybody.
"I visit it every time I go back to town."
Littlejohn visits friends and relatives in Winnipeg a couple of times a year, and is well aware of the many Mol sculptures that are scattered all over the city. He admits he’s still far from having that kind of artistic impact on Las Vegas.
"It’s something I’m working on," he says. "I do like to have enough pieces to suggest a presence. That’s my goal."
Arts and Life Editor
Alan Small was named the editor of the Free Press Arts and Life section in January 2013 after almost 15 years at the paper in a variety of editing roles.